Image: Angela Lang/CNET

Facebook Messenger was launched as a private instant messaging feature in 2008, and it has evolved into a standalone app used by more than 40 million businesses to communicate with their customers. Those businesses are clued into another important Facebook Messenger statistic: It’s used by more than 1.3 billion individuals (according to Facebook). That’s a lot of people within arm’s reach for customer service, marketing messages, and other communication.

Each month, according to Facebook, more than 20 billion messages are exchanged between individuals and businesses. If you’re not using Facebook Messenger to reach your customers, there’s a good chance your competitors are.

Facebook has made no secret about its desire to push Messenger as a business platform, but what does that mean for businesses that want to use it? This guide will help explain the intricacies of Facebook Messenger’s business applications and how to get the most out of it.

SEE: Facebook Messenger: A cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

What is Facebook Messenger?

Remember AOL Instant Messenger? Facebook Messenger is, in essence, the latest and greatest version of AIM. All you need to know is the name of a person, group, or business in order to get in touch with them via a text message-like instant message.

Facebook describes Messenger as a “free alternative to text messaging,” and it is, provided you have a data plan or are connected to Wi-Fi. Its functionality goes far beyond basic messaging, though: Facebook Messenger users can send private or group messages, send end-to-end encrypted messages, see Snapchat-esque stories on the People tab, video chat, and more.

Facebook Messenger’s current incarnation puts personal messaging and communicating with friends front and center, but it also has a separate space for interacting with businesses. The Discover tab is where users find suggested businesses, search through categories of businesses, or manually search for organizations they want to contact.

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How can businesses use Facebook Messenger?

At its most basic level, the standalone Messenger app can put users in contact with any business or organization that has a Facebook page. Simply search a business name in the Discover tab (Figure A), tab on its name to get a description, and then tab Message to start typing.

Figure A

In most cases, users will be chatting with a bot, which is one of the ways Facebook Messenger tries to distinguish itself as a business platform. Bots use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to generate auto responses to common customer questions, and in many cases can eliminate the need for a customer to speak to a person.

SEE: All of TechRepublic’s cheat sheets and smart person’s guides

Messenger bots are able to set appointments, give customers business information, answer basic questions, and do all the routine Q&A that a person would normally do. If the bot can’t answer a question, it can be set up to send a message to a customer service representative, link a user to an email help form, or do anything else the bot developer wants it to do.

The business applications for Facebook Messenger go beyond just chat. As covered by TechRepublic sister site ZDNet, Facebook has added a lead generation template for Messenger (through Ads Manager) that will place potential customers into a sales funnel based on their responses to chat questions. Facebook also added a chat redirect feature to its URL shortening service that will place authenticated Facebook users directly into a chat with a person or bot.

There are a lot of potential possibilities for businesses interested in using Facebook Messenger as a communication tool, but don’t expect it to be as simple as plug-and-play modules–you’ll need to have developers skilled enough to use Facebook Messenger’s business tools.

You can learn more about developing for Facebook Messenger, read tutorials, and see examples of Messenger features for business at Facebook’s developer page for Messenger.

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Is using Facebook Messenger a security risk?

Facebook’s security reputation hasn’t been the best in the past few years, especially when it comes to personal data of its customers. Facebook Messenger’s mobile apps for iOS and Android don’t have the best security reputation either–both versions have been cited as some of the riskiest apps in the enterprise world.

At Facebook’s 2019 F8 conference, Mark Zuckerberg claimed that Facebook was all in on privacy, saying “the future is private” is Facebook’s new mantra.

The entire company, Zuckerberg said, was refocusing itself around user privacy, including a redesign of the infrastructure that supports Messenger. The redesign emphasizes end-to-end encryption, which makes messages unreadable except for the sender and recipient. The feature is currently available through the Messenger app by choosing to start a chat as a Secret Conversation, but isn’t present in the web version of Facebook Messenger accessed through Facebook’s website.

SEE: Quick glossary: Encryption (TechRepublic Premium)

Data privacy is at the heart of Facebook’s many issues, and whether you believe this time the company actually intends to clean up its act is for you to decide. Within the past year or so, Facebook’s disregard for user privacy repeatedly made headlines.

End-to-end encryption may be a step in the right direction, but Facebook’s previous attempts to add encryption to Messenger have been an opt-in feature, meaning that those who don’t choose to enable encryption continue to have their data accessible, collectible, and vulnerable.

It’s possible Facebook will do right with its latest promise to be more secure, but it’s also possible it will make encryption and data privacy seem like a detriment to users (e.g., Facebook could say enabling encryption makes a user experience less personal since data can’t be tracked).

If used correctly, Facebook Messenger shouldn’t be a security risk at your organization–perhaps stick to using it for customer service. If private data needs to be exchanged between your company and customers, go another route, or make sure the message is end-to-end encrypted.

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Is Facebook Messenger a replacement for other enterprise messaging platforms?

Facebook Messenger isn’t designed for internal communication, and using it for such could be a security risk. It’s best to use Facebook Messenger for outside communication. For internal communication, Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams, and Slack are great tools.

Facebook does have an enterprise messaging product in the form of its Workplace Chat app for Workplace by Facebook, but that product is exclusive to organizations that use Workplace. If you want an enterprise chat platform that doesn’t require your organization to sign on to an entire communication ecosystem, you’re better off looking for an alternative.

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What are alternatives to Facebook Messenger?

Messenger’s reach extends to more than one billion Facebook users, and for them, it’s a familiar messaging tool that makes B2C interaction comfortable. In terms of easy to use, readily available, and accessible to the most people, there’s no real substitute for a B2C communication tool.

Analytics firm Gartner predicted that customer service requests coming from mobile messaging apps would exceed those sent via more traditional social media channels. Facebook Messenger may be an unavoidable tool for customer service in the years to come, and avoiding it may put businesses at a disadvantage.

If you’re dead set on not embracing Facebook Messenger as a B2C communication tool, there are other platforms that make CRM chat software: Salesforce, Zendesk, Zoho Desk, and HubSpot all offer similar software that allows websites to have embedded chat windows.

A major drawback to these Facebook Messenger alternatives is they’re a bit aggressive. If you’ve ever visited a website and a chat window popped up asking if you want to ask any questions, you’ve seen one of these Messenger alternatives in action. They can end up feeling intrusive and artificial, and it’s entirely possible that users rush to close them because it’s obvious from the get-go they are bots.

Facebook Messenger, on the other hand, allows potential customers to reach out to businesses on their own terms and with a familiar platform.

Like it or not, Facebook has a stranglehold on how billions of people communicate, and when it comes to reaching customers, it’s all about being available where they are. Where customers are, and where they’re likely to communicate, is on Facebook Messenger.

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How can my business start using Facebook Messenger?

Getting started using Facebook Messenger for B2C interactions is easy: If your business or organization has a Facebook page, you’re already on Messenger. The tough part is learning to leverage all that’s available from Messenger to improve your business presence and see positive results.

Facebook has a fantastic page on getting started with Messenger, and it’s simple enough to understand that even the least tech-savvy SMB owner should be able to get a jump-start. The Getting Started page includes information on how to build automated messages, create bot workflows that will filter customers through processes like ordering or setting up appointments, and more.

There are also pages on Facebook’s site for how to develop advertising in Messenger, directories of developer partners that can help businesses build the right bots and workflows for Messenger, and other great resources to help organizations get started with Facebook Messenger for business chats.

SEE: 15 most influential tech leaders of the decade (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

A word of warning that I’ve experienced firsthand: Be quick to respond to Facebook Messenger messages. Missing even one message can drastically lower your response rate, which makes a business look like it’s bad at customer service. It can be hard to restore that score, so ensure someone is available (or a bot is programmed) to handle any message that comes your way.

Businesses have a lot to gain by using Facebook Messenger and a lot to lose by not using it. It’s a great way to create an intimate, comfortable interaction with customers–and as mentioned before–there are more than one billion of them out there to talk to. Facebook Messenger is a rare opportunity to engage with nearly one-seventh of the world’s population.

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