Facebook to test option for paid messages between users, announces new filtering controls

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By Brittany Darwell Comment

Facebook today announced a small test that will allow some users to pay to send direct messages to another user’s inbox rather than their “other” folder. The social network is also releasing new filtering options for users to help users indicate who they want to see messages from.

Facebook has a two-folder messages system. Communications from friends and other close connections appear in the inbox, whereas messages from users who don’t have mutual friends or messages that originated as an email to a user’s @facebook.com account are likely to be sent to the “other” folder. For the most part, this reduces spam, but it also hides some messages that users would want to see.

Now in a limited test among a portion of U.S. users, a sender whose message would have appeared in the recipient’s “other” folder will be prompted with the option to pay $1 to have the message routed to the inbox instead. If the sender chooses not to pay, the message will still be sent but not to the main inbox. Messages sent to the “other” folder do not generate any notifications for the recipient, so they are not always viewed right away. This test is only for user-to-user communications. Companies cannot pay to send messages to consumers. There is also a limit so that users can only see one of these types of messages in their inbox per week, although the message will not be designated as paid in any way.

A Facebook spokesperson suggested that professionals who met at a conference might be among people who would find use for this feature, as well as recruiting managers looking to contact a potential job candidate. These are similar reasons that people use LinkedIn’s InMail, however, there are some differences between the products. InMail is part of a LinkedIn premium account, which users pay monthly subscriptions for. In this test, Facebook provides the option to pay a small amount on a case-by-case basis. InMail allows LinkedIn users to contact people they would not otherwise have been able to message, whereas Facebook is allowing people to pay for priority delivery, not the message itself. LinkedIn also guarantees a response, and if a sender does not get a reply within a week, they can send another InMail message for free. Facebook is not currently testing anything like this, but the social network does show read receipts when a message has been viewed.

Public figures who have enabled subscribers will also be included in the test, but the company is testing a higher price point than $1 to have messages routed to these users’ inboxes.

As announced last week, Facebook is eliminating the setting that allows users to designate “only friends” as being able to message them. This was necessary after the social network launched Messenger for Android, which lets users without Facebook profiles to create Messenger accounts using their phone number. As Facebook’s messaging platform evolved to support emails, group messages and now Messenger-only accounts, the “friends” setting became less relevant.

Starting today, all users will have a choice between “basic filtering” and “strict filtering” for messages. Basic filtering will be similar to how most users’ inbox currently works. They’ll mostly see messages from friends and friends of friends, but emails to their @facebook.com account, messages from Facebook for Android users who have their phone number, and group messages including some of their friends might also start appearing in the main inbox. Strict filtering will limit a users’s inbox to only friends, as well as the occasional message that another user paid to have routed there rather than the “other” folder. Strict filtering will be the default for users who previously had their messages set to “only friends.” Basic filtering will be the default for everyone else.

These are very simple settings that don’t give users the level of control they might want, but allows Facebook to use different signals to sort messages with better accuracy than a user would be able to up front with explicit privacy controls like “only friends” or “friends of friends.” For example, a user might know someone who is not on Facebook but who has their phone number and wants to reach them using Messenger for Android. On the other hand, a user might be connected to people who make a lot of events or send a lot of promotional messages. Even though the users are “friends,” some of those messages might not be as relevant to a user. Facebook emphasizes that it is continuing to test what type of messages to send to the inbox and which to send to “other.” When users mark messages as spam or move messages from “other” into the inbox, they provide feedback that Facebook can use in the future.

With the option for users to pay to reach someone directly in the inbox, Facebook is trying to ensure that the most important messages are seen and spam is hidden or not sent at all. In a blog post about the test, Facebook wrote:

“Several commentators and researchers have noted that imposing a financial cost on the sender may be the most effective way to discourage unwanted messages and facilitate delivery of messages that are relevant and useful.

This test is designed to address situations where neither social nor algorithmic signals are sufficient.”

In October, we wrote about how Facebook’s code revealed mentions of “paid promotion” as a source for a message. It’s unclear whether that is related to today’s test or another potential product for promoted messages. Facebook could try opening the inbox back up to brands and businesses at some point, but it hasn’t publicly shared any intention to do so yet.