Is Facebook Messenger about to eat your app?

By Tom Wood @Foolproofer

Our recent ethnographic study of WeChat usage in China gives several pointers about how payments, customer experience, and mobile apps are set to evolve in Western economies in the next few years.

One stand-out implication is that app functionality won’t be confined to branded apps downloaded from the App Store or Google Play.

Instead, parts of these traditional apps will be broken out and disseminated via APIs into other brands’ apps in order to offer the customer greater convenience through a more joined-up customer experience.

Facebook seem to be furthest ahead in preparing for this future. And it looks like Messenger will become a major channel for ecommerce and customer service as a result.

It’s possible that we will see Messenger ‘eat’ the long-tail of corporate apps which offer only marginal or occasional value for customers.

So what’s happening in China?

WeChat started life in 2011 as a social messaging app. The introduction of the WeChat wallet in 2014 transformed business, society and payments in China: moving it from a cash-first to an increasingly cash-less economy in just a few years. 

But WeChat’s wallet is only half the story. The real driver for its dominance has been the incorporation of app content, features and functionality which create the world’s stickiest user experience.

In the West we might use a number of different web services and apps to organise our day-to-day lives, things like: calling a taxi; booking travel tickets; checking-in to a hotel; ordering a book; making a doctor’s appointment; reviewing a restaurant; redeeming a gift from a loyalty scheme. 

In China, these services are still delivered by companies other than WeChat, but they are all delivered through the WeChat app because the relevant content or functionality is made available in the app through an API. 

Some WeChat users we spoke to opened the app first thing in the morning and then used no other app until they went to sleep. Everything they needed during a normal day could be accessed through WeChat.

Smart phone in use by a man on a scooter in China
Two male smartphone users

And WeChat makes this easy for its users by offering a very narrow set of UI templates, so how people find and engage with services is familiar and intuitive.

How will this land in the West?

WeChat is almost certainly not coming to the West. It has none of the market penetration advantages it enjoys in China, and so the barriers to entry are too high.

QR code on a bicycle in China

But what we can see is the major US tech giants preparing for a future where app functionality becomes more portable and fluid. Google has launched Android Instant Apps which allows native app functionality to be drawn into the Chrome browser experience without the need to download the whole app from Play store.

Apple made a similar move in September. And support for NFC and QR code scanning in the latest version of iOS suggests Apple wants to deepen the integration of the digital-meets-physical interactions that are so central to the user experience of WeChat in China.

Facebook is getting more serious about enabling payments through Messenger, and last year it showcased examples of how brands can integrate ecommerce and customer service functionality into a brand’s Messenger feed. API hooks already exist for brands to integrate more of their services into the Messenger experience.

What does this mean for a company with its own standalone-app?

The app universe is straining under its own weight. Apart from the few high-value, high-frequency giants in all of our phones, there is a very long tail of neglected, forgotten or deleted apps which don’t offer enough convenience and value to take up space in a user’s device.

The ability to break off bits of native app functionality and land them in more immediate, convenient settings could re-energise mobile for many brands: increasing brand engagement and potentially lowering cost-of-sale or cost-to-serve.

To take a mundane example, most insurance companies have native apps which allow customers to do exciting things like mid-term policy adjustments or initiate a claim. Even if they get downloaded around the time of becoming a customer, these apps soon fade out of sight because they don’t have day-to-day relevance.

WeChat monetary transfer screen

Come the day when you want to tell your insurer you’ve changed vehicle you’re still most likely to make a call or hack through the website to start the conversation.

In the future, the same insurer might decide to insert that piece of user experience into the brand’s Messenger feed. An easy, immediate way to start the process, a conversational tone to the service episode and a simple, familiar UI environment in which to handle it: all without the user feeling that they ever left Messenger to get it done.

It won’t be long before the ‘new normal’ will be for front-line sales and service interactions to happen within messaging apps. It didn’t take very long for WeChat users in China to stop asking “Why is my favourite take-away restaurant taking orders through WeChat?” and start asking “Why would any take-away restaurant not be taking orders on WeChat?”

Much of the API plumbing to enable this new app landscape to evolve is already in place. What needs to happen now is for brands to start exploring and experimenting with it.

From all of this we get a strong sense that making your brand and your app functionality part of the new landscape of payments-enabled social apps should become a strategic focus. Early movers in this space could reap significant advantages over competitors.

Click here to read our WeChat study in full.

Tom Wood

I’m one of the two founders of Foolproof. Within projects I usually take a role both in planning our approach and in the generative phases of design. I’m also active in gathering client and customer needs into the design space. My particular talent is helping senior stakeholders see and understand the customer’s world in richer detail, and helping them work out how to respond.

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