Ads on mobile messaging apps: Be there, but be careful

Ads on mobile messaging apps: Be there, but be careful

By Kirk Cheyfitz, Story Co-founder

Since digital ads on web sites and public social media posts have become a normal but routinely resented part of life, having ads intrude onto private mobile messaging apps may sound like a recipe for more resentment and multiple disasters.

But while brands ought to be wary, they need to get over it and get involved now, because connecting with customers and prospects on private messaging apps will be a huge part of marketing’s future. This is not a fad; it’s not going away.

People talking and texting to a computer and having the machine talk or type back intelligently is a technology in its infancy, but it’s an old idea. People have loved the ease and naturalness of AI-driven computers since sci-fi’s earliest days. (Who isn’t haunted by the malfunctioning computer HAL 9000 singing “Daisy” in the classic 1968 movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”?) That fantasy is becoming real now and pushing AI forward is beginning to dominate the time and budgets of the tech world. It’s not surprising, then, that mobile messaging platforms, eager for ad revenue, are accelerating their push to incorporate ads and utilities that sell things.

This is a double-edged sword for brand marketers. Brands must get ready to market products and services by using AI-driven software to text and talk with customers on mobile messaging apps. But it’s risky, especially in the early going, because a number of brands undoubtedly will stumble, pissing off customers with intrusive, overly creepy or stupidly non-useful come-ons.

Success — or merely avoiding early disasters — will require highly developed tech savvy and a creative team that has a faultless approach to structuring and writing effective conversations. The trick here, as always, is to focus on the audience’s desires and make sure the brand’s come-on is useful, informative and entertaining. A machine demanding that a human being buy something will not go over well.

The rush to deliver ads on messaging apps was noted this week by a new eMarketer study of four of the biggest platforms: Facebook’s twin global apps, Messenger (U.S.-based) and WhatsApp (Europe-based), both of which are presently blocked by China’s “Great Firewall.” To get past the firewall, there’s China’s dominant platform, WeChat, and, finally, Japan-based LINE. All together, these four apps claim some 4 billion users worldwide. That would equal more than half the world’s population; no one knows what the overlap is.

What we do know is that a majority of brand communications with customers have shifted from public social posts to private messages. That trend is accelerating. This is why it’s so crucial for brands to begin experimenting carefully with this channel.

When TechCrunch last year initially uncovered the story of Facebook’s intention to put ads on Messenger, the social network’s initial reaction was defensive. As TechCrunch’s Josh Constine reported:

“...Facebook told me ‘...our aim with Messenger is to create a high quality, engaging experience for...people around the world, and that includes ensuring people do not experience unwanted messages of any type.’ ”

Brands should understand that Facebook’s defensiveness is well founded in the potential for audience backlash.

eMarketer’s report is summarized nicely on its podcast on Soundcloud. In a nutshell, the marketing intelligence service’s take is that WeChat and LINE are the most sophisticated and have the best support for businesses, but they only operate in Asia. Messenger and WhatsApp are global, but Messsenger is just getting started at accommodating advertising, WhatsApp has no support for ads at all and neither can reach into China’s huge market currently.

Facebook, clearly, is on a tear to grow its roughly $30 billion in annual ad revenue by adding more marketing bells and whistles to Messenger. So far, Facebook has rolled out ads that automatically open chats between the advertiser and the audience. These ad-chat combinations can be enhanced with special offer coupons. Fast food operators — Domino’s, Taco Bell and, most recently, Subway — have leaped in with Messenger bots that take orders.

Brands have managed to field thousands of bots on Messenger so far. But “discoverability” — the ability of audience members to find the bots — is virtually nil. And if someone manages to find a bot, all too often the experience is so rudimentary that it’s not even amusing, as we documented in our first chatbot story a few weeks ago: “The Rise of the Chatbots Demands a Steeper Rise in Storytelling Skills.”

As one of the eMarketer analysts says, “There’s a lot to be learned. The way I would sum it up is that marketers really want to be in front of this messaging audience on Messenger, but the skill level is really low at this point on a lot of them.”

Part of the problem is that AI-driven chat, talk and text, is new and not many outfits really understand how to do it. Additionally, too many marketers think about the tech and forget that the creative demands of messaging channels are just as critical and unique as the tech requirements.

For all the reasons above, brands should dive in. But this is not a DIY project — get smart technical and creative help to do it right.

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