Facebook is about to open the ad gates on Messenger.
The messaging app, with 1.2 billion monthly active users, is going to start showing ads in its home tab. Facebook had been testing these homepage messages on Messenger overseas, and will now unleash them on U.S. audiences, the company announced on Tuesday.
Messenger is one of three core Facebook apps, along with the main app and Instagram. Facebook has been under pressure to open new territory to marketers, however, and Messenger has been mostly ad-free while the Facebook News Feed and Instagram are nearly saturated.
The difficulty for Facebook is balancing the need for ad space against consumer happiness. Fortunately, Facebook has plenty of experience springing ads on users who had grown accustomed to ad freedom.
"Facebook has gotten pretty good at native advertising," said Chris Tuff, director of content marketing and partnerships at 22squared. "So introducing ads sounds a lot more daunting to consumers than it actually will be. It's not like Facebook will do an about-face and ruin the experience. We know that, and they've earned it."
In 2013, Facebook introduced commercials into people's Instagram feeds with sponsors like Michael Kors and Ben and Jerry's testing out the creative possibilities. That highly controlled ad rollout drew plenty of consumer criticism that ads would ruin the photo-sharing app, which Facebook had bought for $1 billion in 2012.
The Messenger ads will appear as extensions of campaigns on Facebook and Instagram. Brands just need to check a box to have any sponsored post from Facebook, not including video ads, also run on Messenger.
The ads can include a photo or a carousel of photos that people swipe through, which was a format launched two years ago in the main News Feed.
Messenger is avoiding video ads, for now, but that could change as the offering gets refined over the coming months, according to Ted Helwick, a product manager at Messenger.
Facebook has been testing the Messenger ads in Thailand and Australia since the start of the year, and wants to be methodical about how it presents them.
Facebook said the ads will start appearing to users worldwide over the coming month, first slowly and eventually be shown to every user.
They will appear inside the home section of the app, which has become a sort of activity hub inside Messenger, where people find media and chatbots.
For months, Facebook warned that it was running out of available ad space, and couldn't squeeze more out of News Feed. The company told investors this would become a problem for growth by the middle of this year, meaning the new Messenger ads arrive just in time.
"Ads in Messenger would open up massive pockets of inventory and help brands further scale their Facebook campaigns," said Lance Neuhauser, CEO of 4C, a data and technology company that helps brands run campaigns across digital media. "The key as always is not disrupting the user experience and keeping ads relevant."