FB to integrate Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp: A cure to fragmentation?

Facebook is looking to consolidate its Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp function under one product. According to an article first published on The New York Times, the services will continue to operate as stand-alone apps but the tech infrastructure will be unified, which will of course strengthen Facebook’s understanding of users.

The article added that the merger of sorts is set to complete by early 2020. Facebook also told New York Times that it was aiming to build “the best messaging experiences” and was working to make the messaging apps “end-to-end encrypted” and considering ways to make it easier to reach friends and family across networks.

To some, the move shows Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg backtracking on his promise to give WhatsApp and Instagram freedom to make its own choices. Facebook acquired WhatsApp almost five years ago in a US$19 billion deal, including US$4 billion in cash, US$12 billion in Facebook shares and a further US$3 billion for WhatsApp staff over the next four years. At that point, it was Facebook's biggest acquisition to date.

Meanwhile, Instagram has been a part of Facebook’s family since 2012 when it was acquired for approximately US$1 billion in cash and stock.Zuckerberg in a statement seven years ago said the two difference experiences complement each other and in order for it to succeed, the platforms need to be "mindful about keeping and building on Instagram's strengths and features rather than just trying to integrate everything into Facebook." "That's why we're committed to building and growing Instagram independently," he had then said.

Since then all the founders of WhatsApp and Instagram have left the organisation.

A cure to fragmentation?

Justin Peyton, chief strategy and transformation officer, Digitas APAC said that Facebook’s decision to integrate the messaging services of its three largest platforms, demonstrates a recognition of the problems our increasingly fragmented messaging app environment is creating.

However, the move does comes with challenges around identity and data sharing that could potentially make people a nervous about what they had previously viewed as separate and secure channels, he said.

“I believe communication and sensitivity around security and making sure people feel in control of how their data can be used across platforms will be very important. These won’t be small challenges, but with the project scheduled to take about a year, it has time to get work on this and hopefully to get it right,” said Peyton.

He added that while it is great to have all these services at our disposal in the first place, in truth consumers don’t want to have fragmentation in their lives. “Would people be okay if as a Singtel customer they couldn’t connect to M1 customers? Or if using Microsoft Outlook meant that you couldn’t write to people with Gmail. No, they wouldn’t,” he added.

While Peyton is quick to add that he doesn’t think that Facebook is fixing all of the messaging app fragmentation (after all, a Facebook Messenger user still won’t be able to connect with a platform it doesn’t own), the move does demonstrates recognition of what could become a larger issue over time as people increasingly rely on messaging apps for every day communications.

Lion & Lion’s managing director in Malaysia Cheska Teresa also saw the move as a positive stating that the integration will simplify Facebook's effort as it no longer needs to develop competing versions of new features.  The cross-platform messaging will also enable businesses which are using one platform to message potential customers on another.

This will promote ease and efficiency of doing business for internet-based buyers and sellers, especially here in Southeast Asia where small businesses heavily rely on these messaging platforms. For brands and advertisers, the integration will provide a vast opportunity for improved ad targeting, as it will make it easier to communicate with consumers regardless of the platform used.

James Lyne, chief strategy officer of Consider iProspect added that the process will let Facebook's platforms to better compete as a unit as opposed to against each other. He added that the move will also provide some security to Facebook in making it more difficult for regulatory bodies or governments to decide to split up any of these platforms in the future.

"The advertising and customer experience opportunity Facebook provides to businesses and customers around the world, especially in Malaysia where WhatsApp usage is higher than average, is also substantial," Lyne said, but added that given its still new, it would take a while before marketers and advertisers can accurately estimate the impact of introducing advertising on the platforms.

According to Yuval Ben-Itzhak, CEO at Socialbakers, the integration presents “endless opportunities” to marketers to be able to engage and interact with their audiences active on each Facebook chat app via one unified platform.

"The change will simplify the lives of marketer and users alike, meaning that they won't have to maintain conversations across multiple apps. Specifically for marketers, the move may present new opportunities for advertising on WhatsApp and on Instagram messaging. Since Instagram has now become the most engaging platform for brands looking to reach their users, ads in Instagram Messenger may present an attractive and highly targeted new format for brands,” he added.

Jeffrey Nijstad, chief digital officer of Flock however, said the move is unlikely to have an immediate impact. That being said, in terms of a long term business plan and company’s vision, he thinks the move is a positive one for Facebook.

“I predict that advertisers will not gain full access to people’s WhatsApp as some dooms thinkers might think. This is because it’ll ruin the user’s experience and Facebook will get into more trouble due to government regulations and brand issues. This is part of a bigger strategy to create a WeChat like ecosystem. The question is, what role will advertising play in this bigger strategy?” he said.

Nijstad added that the platform also needs to be careful as its practices regarding privacy are in scrutiny.

Facebook is a monopoly. It needs to  carefully roll this out over time and consider all legal aspects.

"Especially in Europe where they are very protective of consumer’s data and privacy,” he said. As such the platform needs to really focus on fixing its image before officially announcing or rolling out the integration. He added that the timing and holistic strategic rollout of features and integration are key.