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Amazon is launching a messaging app. Or so the rumours say. So why would the world’s ‘spoiled for choice’ consumers go shopping at Amazon for a chat app? Tim Green has a think…

Last month, news surfaced that Amazon might be developing its own messaging app called Anytime.

Why ‘might be”? Because the story was based on a survey Amazon had sent to some customers asking if they would be interested in this hypothetical product.

The survey described an app crammed with just about every product feature you could imagine: filters, voice and video calls, photo sharing, stickers and gifs, games, encryption and music sharing.

Oh, and shopping. (I’ll come back to that).

It was as if Amazon had considered which of its many well-established rivals in messaging it wanted to compete against and then decided: all of them.

But that’s Amazon, right? The web site that used to sell books is now the ‘everything store’. It takes on everyone. Why wouldn’t it have its own messaging app?

Of course, messaging is not like Gone Girl or toothpaste or renting AWS servers. It’s communal. If your friends aren’t using a given chat app, you won’t use it either. This is not true of Aquafresh.

And Amazon is very late to the party in this respect. At the start of 2017, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger had around one billion users each, Tencent/QQ Mobile had 877m, WeChat had 846m, while Skype, Viber, Line and SnapChat had between 200m and 300m each.

How the heck can Amazon challenge them? Why would it want to?

Well, partly strategy. Amazon, like Facebook, is a digital giant without the platform advantages of Apple and Google. The latter control their own hardware/ecosystems. As a consequence they also hold some power over everyone that uses these ecosystems.

    “One can imagine how a messaging app that linked directly to your Amazon purchases would offer a great way to communicate and resolve issues.”

Amazon knows this well. If you have a Kindle app on your phone, you will know that you can’t buy books on it. The app is for reading only. You have to buy Kindle Books from the Amazon web site and download them later.

This is how Apple has decreed it.

Having your own messaging app claws back some control, as Facebook has discovered. Also, messaging is what everyone does now. According to Flurry, time spent in chat apps grew by 394 per cent in 2016. Giant digital players can’t ignore this.

Actually, Anytime would not be Amazon’s first move into messaging.

It recently added voice calling and messaging to its Echo voice assistant. It means Echo users can ask Alexa to call a contact, and that person’s Alexa device will begin ringing. Amazon has also announced Chime, a video conferencing app for its business users.

So how can Amazon move people over to its proposed consumer messaging app?

The obvious answer is commerce. Or, more accurately, customer care.

The Amazon app is reportedly installed on three out of four smartphones in the US, while its loyalty program, Amazon Prime, has 80m members in the US alone. The company’s sales are around $37 billion a quarter.

Self-evidently this adds up to a lot of transactions, most of which are not even conducted directly by Amazon. They go through independent Amazon Marketplace sellers – and there are more than two million of them on the platform.

One can imagine how a messaging app that linked directly to your Amazon purchases would offer a great way to communicate and resolve issues.Screen Shot 2017-08-03 at 11.08.13

There is a precedent for this. Facebook has already targeted customer care as a key area for growing Facebook Messenger. In 2016, it began working with e-retailers to let shoppers receive information through the app.

In other words, during checkout, shoppers who are signed into Facebook can choose to get order confirmations, shipping updates, customer service and more sent to Messenger.

Apple has also edged into the space. At WWDC 2017, it beta launched Business Chat. This new feature of iOS 11 gives businesses a platform for talking to their customers through iMessage.

It’s feasible that Amazon would be a little spooked by these moves, especially if the customer care experience of other e-commerce firms started to surpass its own.

Then there’s shopping. The truth is that the much-trumpeted promise of social and messaging commerce has not delivered (outside of China anyway). People don’t buy inside Facebook Messenger. Twitter closed its ‘buy button’ experiments.

But never say never.

Interestingly, just days after Anytime was revealed, Ratuken (often called the Amazon of Japan) bought an Israeli startup called Chatter Commerce. Ratuken owns chat app Viber, which had earlier worked with Chatter Commerce to insert shopping items into chat sessions.

Perhaps this ‘in-message commerce’ is the real reason for Anytime. Obviously, Amazon would need to be careful. The idea of taking to a friend about toasters and then seeing a ‘you might also like’ ad for toasters appearing in your chat session would be crass and creepy.

But this is a clever company. There must be subtle ways to do it.

Tim Green

Features Editor, MEF Minute