With end-to-end encryption, we wouldn’t be able to listen in even if we wanted to, says Facebook’s Stan Chudnovsky

In an interview with Mumbrella's Ravi Balakrishnan, Facebook VP and head of Messenger Stan Chudnovsky weighs in on conversational commerce, being inspired by consumers, and how the social network intends dealing with the persistent suspicion that it is spying on its users

A recent study from Facebook and BCG said that awareness of conversational commerce is highest across Southeast Asia at 72% – and that 94% of those surveyed plan to maintain or increase their spending. When did conversational commerce become a priority for Facebook Messenger? 

“When we started to see that people are finding ways to talk to businesses and vice versa on Messenger. 

“We had anticipated it would happen, but just didn’t know when. Businesses invariably follow people whenever there’s a shift to new media. It happened with messaging pretty much like it happened before with phones, radios or email. 

“Once we realised that people were cracking this, we thought of giving them the tools to do it better – because if they can do it well, they will do more of it. 

“And so we introduced ‘Click to Message’ ads that open out as a thread. That became one of the fastest growing ad product for us. To a large extent, it is happening in the Asia-Pacific region.” 

Considering how Messenger has developed and evolved: did it have more to do with sticking with a long term plan or being very adaptable?

“It was probably a bit of both. We set up a few core principles and focused on them unless there was new information that presented itself. But on the peripheries, we tried to be nimble.

“The main thesis for Messenger was that people want to communicate more privately and spend greater amounts of time in messaging apps. 

“And that they want to do more than just messaging in these apps. We stayed the course there and built features that allowed for that to happen. But there were other examples where we tried to learn quickly.  

“For instance, some of the things that people did when it came to messaging businesses – we didn’t know that would happen. 

“But once you give people the ability to communicate with businesses, you start to learn from those interactions – in Singapore, Vietnam and other places in Asia. We have learnt from use cases that people have created which don’t exist elsewhere. And then we try to turn those into products. 

“We focus on what people want to do and believe the rest will follow.”


Is something like WeChat which had its origins in messaging but is now styling itself as a super app something that you would like Messenger to become?

“We believe that there are many more things that you can build on top of messaging. I can’t say we want to be everything and like WeChat, but I do want to say that a bunch of use cases that it has tackled are the use cases that we would want our people to tackle on Messenger as well.”

Of the different sort of advertising options that exist for marketers within Messenger from bots to running ads within the messenger inbox – what has got the most traction?

“From the standpoint of ads, ‘Click to Message’ has been doing amazingly well. 

“When it comes down to tools, the simple ones are the best liked. For instance, click replies – when you can set up automated replies. 

“The ability to switch from automated conversation to actual conversation – that transition to a human being who can receive your payment, or close a deal.

“Different insurance and auto firms use it very well for lead generation. You see a car, watch the video and with a couple of clicks, set up an appointment for a test drive. It works for you, the dealership and the manufacturer. 

“It’s the same with insurance quotes. Our platform has been able to deliver on that quite well.

“One of the simple solutions I find very compelling are business oriented stickers that could say things like ‘no discounts; or ‘I don’t want to negotiate’. They communicate what needs to be said so much faster because you just tap on it. Those are the solutions that I find compelling and they can drive a lot of upside for advertisers.”

There are persistent stories and lots of anecdotal evidence about ads being served up on Facebook based on conversations people have been having – leading to the feeling among lots of people that Facebook is listening in. Considering Messenger chats are typically a lot more personal, don’t you think the suspicion is going to be far greater? How do you draw the line between relevant and contextual, to something where people are conscious – rightly or wrongly – of a violation of privacy? 

“That is one of the reasons we want to be end-to-end encrypted. Then, we wouldn’t have the ability to do that even if we wanted to. 

“Right now, we are saying ‘no we are not doing it’. But we want to get to the stage where we can say: ‘We couldn’t even if we wanted to and here’s why’. And we can show that to anyone who has any questions, because of the way we have architected ourselves.”  

It’s been a rough two or more years for Facebook. What sort of an impact does the conversation and criticism around the brand have on the people working within? Is this an issue you have to contend with as the leader of a product?

“It is something we constantly need to talk about since Facebook has an open culture. And so criticism from outside or raising concerns, affects everyone who works in the company. We constantly sit down and have these conversations.

“People ask – how do we address those concerns? We have been very open and public about how we are thinking about these critiques. We are addressing some of it because it is valid; others we are disagreeing with and pushing back on. 

“We are having conversations on this both internally and externally. Our key is to have the exact same conversation externally as we do internally. I think we’ve been doing a better job on that.

You were an entrepreneur who has been a part of a string of successful startups – social networking site Tickle that was acquired by Monster, Goodreads, Iron Pearl that was acquired by PayPal. How did you come to join Facebook? Were there any other options you were evaluating at the time?

“You are right in the sense that people usually don’t do a bunch of successful startups and end up in big companies – it’s generally the other way round. 

“I wouldn’t have gone to any company other than Facebook. It was either Facebook or not working for a while or working with my friends or some investing vehicle and things in that space. It was very special in the sense that I was interested in working on networks that affect businesses. 

“In addition, it was obvious to me even six or seven years ago that messaging is where the whole world was headed. Messaging being a fundamental human need is something that I had been thinking about for a while, and so when the opportunity presented itself to work on the next frontier of a company that I’d admired from a distance, it was difficult to say no.” 

Considering you moved from the Soviet Union, how did advertising in the United States strike you? 

“We didn’t have much advertising in the Soviet Union. When I arrived in 1994, it was a whole new world for me that I didn’t understand very well. 

“Over time, you learn and the most simple things end up working. It is just very straightforward: explaining the different upsides and downsides of different things.”


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