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Facebook's Messenger lands first airline as chat app pushes into commerce

Facebook’s Messenger lands first airline as chat app pushes into commerce

SAN FRANCISCO — KLM Royal Dutch Airlines passengers will soon be able to check in, get flight updates, make travel changes and talk to customer service reps straight from Facebook’s Messenger chat app.

KLM is the first airline and the first major European partner for Messenger, which is used by 800 million people around the globe.

Facebook sees customer service as a natural extension of chat apps which were built for, well, chatting. The giant social network launched Messenger for Business one year ago to pursue “conversational commerce,” the notion that we will all soon be talking to — and eventually transacting with — businesses over messaging apps.

Since then, businesses in a growing number of industries have tried out the service to chat with customers, among them hotel chain Hyatt and retailers Walmart and Everlane. In a hint of the kind of commercial transactions to come, users of Uber and Lyft can hail a ride by tapping a new transportation option inside Messenger and share the details with friends.

A single communication thread improves on other customer service experiences such as email, phone and web chat, says David Marcus, vice president for messaging products at Facebook.

“You have so many different channels to communicate with services and businesses and all of those things are imperfect, but they all bring something. What we have been able to do is bring the best of each of these methods inside one conversation that happens in Messenger,” he told USA TODAY.

The lure of adding airlines? An estimated 80% of passengers on any given plane in the U.S. have the Messenger app, Marcus says.

WeChat inspiration

Facebook was inspired by Asian messaging services such as WeChat, Line and KakaoTalk that help users hail cars, schedule doctor’s appointments, book restaurant reservations, shop for shoes, play games or the lottery and send money to friends, all from within the app.

Analysts predict messaging could one day eclipse social networking as the globe’s favorite online pastime. Some 2.5 billion people have registered to use at least one messaging app, according to technology and strategy consulting firm Activate. By 2018, Activate expects that number to reach 3.6 billion.

“Messaging will be the most widespread digital behavior,” says Michael Wolf, founder of Activate.

Messenger is among the most popular of the chat apps as is Facebook’s other messaging app, WhatsApp, which has more than 1 billion users.

“Facebook wants to own more customer mobile moments. And, they want to own more data about consumers — where I shop, what I buy, how I commute, who my friends are, etc.,” Forrester Research analyst Julie Ask says. “The more time I spend in Facebook’s environment, the more Facebook knows about me — they want to own the primary relationship with me on mobile.”

Messenger began as a simple app to send messages on Facebook in August 2011. Facebook made Messenger an independent app in 2014 by requiring that users download the app to use it on mobile phones.

Since then, Messenger has gained in popularity. Facebook has introduced a payment system for Messenger users to send money to one another through debit cards. It’s testing a digital assistant called “M” that uses a combination of computer algorithms and human concierges to respond to requests such as sending flowers or booking a hotel room. It has added voice calls. And, during March Madness, Facebook hid a mini basketball game within the Messenger app (send a basketball emoji via Messenger to a friend, tap the emoji and the game launches). Expect more innovation to come.

“Instant messaging apps are still making their way into consumers lives in the U.S.,” Ask said. “Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp have great traction, but they aren’t yet the center of our lives like Tencent’s WeChat is in China.”

Tjalling Smit, senior vice president of digital for Air France KLM, says with Messenger his airline seized the opportunity to reach passengers on one of the apps they use most frequently.

Research shows that most people use a handful of apps each day, he says, and “the KLM app is not one of those, however Facebook, Messenger, etc. are.”

“This made us decide that we have to turn third party platforms like social media (including chat platforms) into a new entry point for our customers,” Smit said in an email.

Eventually Facebook plans to have businesses sell their wares directly on Messenger.

“Commerce is going to be huge for us,” Marcus told USA TODAY in January when Messenger hit 800 million users.

Still, Facebook is proceeding cautiously.

“Introducing interactions with businesses and services in a place that is very personal is always sensitive,” Marcus said. “We wanted to make sure that we built it with the appropriate controls, built the appropriate experiences and had the opportunity to iterate with really good partners to build those.”

Messenger for Business is still in a testing phase and not yet open to all businesses. Marcus called it a “logical step moving forward,” but declined to say when all businesses would have access.

Also on hold: figuring out how to make money from Messenger for Business.

“For now we’re definitely not very focused on making money on Messenger yet,” Marcus said. “We are just trying to provide really great valuable experiences for people and add value for businesses. In the future if we have enough really awesome experiences between businesses and people, I am sure we will figure out a way to monetize at some point.”

Follow USA TODAY senior technology writer Jessica Guynn @jguynn

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