Your Ketchup Is Sending You A Facebook Message

Startup Helps Universal McCann Clients Heinz, BMW, Talk to Consumers in Apps

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Heinz Yellow Mustard wants to Facebook Message you.

The Heinz brand is one of Universal McCann's clients experimenting with a new platform built with messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger and Twitter's direct messaging in mind. The goal is to understand the nuances of communicating with consumers in the channels that are gaining in popularity before critical mass forces them to.

"We all got kind of punished by Facebook," suggested Natalie Monbiot, senior VP-managing partner of digital investment at Universal McCann, where she helps determine which emerging technologies and communication channels brands should invest in. She said some brands and agencies dove into Facebook communication "without having to earn that spot in someone's feed."

The agency hopes its work with startup msg.ai (pronounced "message-dot-A-I") helps clients including Heinz and BMW learn how best to use messaging platforms. "We should be investing our time and money in the messaging space," said Ms. Monbiot. "It's a key emerging space that we needed to kind of understand." Universal McCann is msg.ai's first pilot partner.

The msg.ai system uses artificial intelligence to automate customized messages, allowing brands to use their proprietary data and set rules to interact in a conversational manner without the need for an actual person to be on the other side of the discussion. When conversations no longer consist of typical, oft-repeated questions and situations, a human being can step in.

"If you were asking for a certain colored car or a certain price…you might not need a human in the beginning," said Puneet Mehta, founder and CEO of msg.ai.

In the realm of messaging apps -- 700 million people have downloaded the Facebook Messenger app alone as of earlier this month -- "the traditional advertising model just doesn't scale," Mr. Mehta said. "We had to build some sort of artificial intelligence there which can handle these type of repetitive scenarios." Mr. Mehta argues that consumers no longer want to get on the phone to talk to their banks or airlines, and Universal McCann anticipates that the same will hold true for auto and consumer packaged goods brands in the near future.

Ultimately, e-commerce and payments will be in the mix. Facebook Messenger already allows users to connect their debit cards to the system to enable payments to friends for things like event tickets or rent. When brands and retailers can allow the same payment functionality, "it scales across the customer journey," said Mr. Mehta.

The msg.ai system doesn't work with the Facebook-owned WhatsApp messaging app, Mr. Mehta said.

The serial entrepreneur is most recently co-founder of MobileROI, a mobile software firm that connects CRM, e-commerce and marketing data to predict customer behavior and optimize and monitor campaigns. Mr. Mehta is no longer involved day-to-day with MobileROI, though he sits on the board of directors, he said, noting that MobileROI co-founder Sonpreet Bhatia is not affiliated with his new venture.

Universal McCann is still in the early stages of testing automated communication within messaging apps, but Ms. Monbiot sees it as "representative of the way that young people are prepared to engage in brands."

For BMW, it could simply be another way to generate leads for dealerships and set up test drives via build-your-own car experiences, but with the ability to link Facebook data to that interaction. For brands like Heinz, it's less clear.

"If any brand is a person, how does that brand earn its way into a feed, into a direct conversation with you? That's the kind of stage that we're at," said Ms. Monbiot.

And, before brands figure out what to talk about in messaging apps, consumers will need to actively opt-in to talk to brands via Facebook Messenger. The company could prompt consumers to join its mustard brand for a chat via Facebook Messenger through a note on product packaging or a POP display. Of course, media buys such as Facebook ads also will be used.

Twitter direct messaging awaits. Twitter announced earlier this month it will end its 140-character length limit in messages sent between two individual users. Msg.ai is gearing up to enable its system for that change, set to occur in July.