Since leaving PayPal to run Facebook's Messenger app this summer, David Marcus has been applying lessons from a pilgrimage to Asia, the mecca for mobile messaging, to explore how people use the apps.
The continent has eagerly embraced mobile messaging on smartphones, and it's home to some of the world's largest apps. In China, Tencent's WeChat is dominant, while the Japanese prefer the oversized cartoons and smiley faces in Line. In South Korea, KakaoTalk is practically ubiquitous.
Facebook Messenger is now looking to adopt features similar to those in WeChat but tailored to how people in North America and Europe use their smartphones, Marcus told Bloomberg's Emily Chang today at the Techonomy conference. Marcus aims to make Facebook Messenger indispensable to those in the Western world and certain emerging markets where it still has a chance. He's not trying to take on WeChat in its home market.
"We need to solve the fact that we're not available in China as a company," Marcus said. "The messaging landscape in China is already very competitive. We have our hands full now in Western Europe, North America, Brazil and India."
The cultural differences between China and the West create a barrier for Facebook beyond its disagreements with the communist government. Marcus observed that many Chinese professionals don't exchange business cards anymore. They swap WeChat handles or QR codes, he said. They shop and hail their taxis on WeChat, too.
"It's really fascinating, but at the same time, it's an experience that works there because the state of the market is not what we have here," Marcus said. Some reasons for that: Credit card penetration is low in China, and taxis used to just accept cash. Marcus wants to build Messenger in a way that matches what people need "in the markets we serve the most, which is North America, Europe."
Facebook said yesterday that Messenger has a half-billion users checking in at least once a month, not far behind WeChat. But WeChat is lucrative for its parent company, whereas Marcus is under no pressure to make money from Messenger this year.
Marcus described one vague idea for making money: "actually make communications between business and people really delightful." He didn't clarify how this would work, but said that dealing with customer service currently "ranks close to a visit to the dentist." Twitter has become a popular channel for companies looking to manage their brands' reputations online, and Path, the social networking company founded by a former Facebook executive, recently introduced an app designed for messaging stores and restaurants.
Mobile payments is a popular feature of some of the messaging apps in Asia, and the concept is starting to take off in Facebook's main markets thanks to Venmo, which is owned by Marcus's former employer. His PayPal experience could come in handy here, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has suggested that payments could be in Messenger's future.
"We'll see what happens there," Marcus said. "There are a number of things we can monetize. I've done other things than payments in my life."