Facebook Messenger continues its ascent, entrenching itself as the top cross-OS messaging app in the West. Messenger now has 1.3 billion monthly users, up from 1.2 billion in April and 1 billion in July 2016. That’s the same count as Facebook’s other chat product, WhatsApp.
Messenger’s growth rate has slowed slightly over the years. It took just six months to go from 800 million to 1 billion, and 9 more months to get 1.2 billlion, and 5 months to add the last 100 million. That could signal that Messenger is beginning to hit saturation in some core markets.
Messenger’s closest competitors that aren’t owned by Facebook include China’s WeChat with 938 million monthly users as of May, China’s QQ with 861 million monthly users as of Q1 2017, and Snapchat with 173 million users as of Q2 2017 (though not all use it for messaging). Apple’s iMessage has also reasserted itself, transforming from a lackluster SMS replacement to dynamic experiences including animations, an app platform, and in the upcoming iOS 11, Animoji you can control with your face using augmented reality.
Messenger has had a bit of a rocky year in terms of design. It rolled out an aggressive redesign that made the whole inbox just a layer on top of the Messenger Camera, with awkward round edges atop the rectangular screen. It later rolled back some of that styling, and moved to a tabbed inbox in May.
The app’s Snapchat Stories clone Messenger Day launched in March to heavy criticism, with some saying the broadcast social media feature doesn’t fit in the chat utility and stole screen space from the message threads. While Instagram Stories and WhatsApp Status have rocketed to 250 million daily users, Facebook has declined to share any stats about the traction of Messenger Day, which doesn’t induce much confidence. Some Facebook lovers may have shifted usage to Instagram’s messaging feature Direct. It’s swelled to 375 million monthly users, and now offers both permanent and ephemeral messaging.
Meanwhile, Facebook has struggled to make Messenger bots the ubiquitous utility it was hoping for. After a sloppy launch in 2016, Messenger has augmented bots with group chat capabilities, begun suggesting them through its AI assistant M, and built a bot discovery section into Messenger. Still, they haven’t driven much buzz. And Facebook hasn’t added any new voice features to Messenger despite that rabid adoration for products like Amazon Alexa and Google Home.
On the plus side, Messenger’s video chat has proven popular. The feature hit 245 million monthly users as of December when Messenger added six-way split-screen group video chat reminiscent of teen app Houseparty. Now Messenger is doubling down with integration into Facebook’s full-fledged Houseparty clone called Bonfire that was just spotted in the wild yesterday. Rather than force Bonfire to grow from scratch, Messenger’s 1.3 billion users can instantly jump into the group video chats without downloading a separate app.
Messenger has finally started to ratchet up monetization. Brands can pay to send Sponsored Messages to people who’ve already chatted with them, or buy display ads within the inbox which rolled out in July.
If Messenger wants to keep growing, it must continue to copy the best features of its competitors while innovating where it has natural advantages through its ties to Facebook. While chat may be the center of the mobile experience, and all of mobile is adapting to the visual communication era, Messenger can’t let the bells and whistles obstruct the speedy utility at its core.