Facebook code hints at ads possibly coming to messages product

New wording in the code for Facebook Messages suggests the social network could introduce a type of promoted product within a user’s inbox.

Developer Tom Waddington, who was first to spot code for a Want button, pointed us to three sections in the Facebook Messages code that now mention the possibility of promotions. “Paid promotion” is now a possible source for a message, along with iPhone, Android, mobile web and other sources from which users can send each other messages. “Promotion:promoted” is now a possible message tag, along with tags like sent, archived or spam. Finally, “is_promoted” is another bit of code now returned in the data about messages.

It’s unclear exactly what is in the works here, but it seems as though Facebook will allow users or marketers to pay to send or promote a direct message to users. The social network has a Promoted Posts feature for both pages and individual users. Pages can pay to show a post to more fans and their friends. Users can pay to push their posts to the top of friends’ feeds. A promoted messages product might be a new way for pages to reach fans, or it could be an opportunity for marketers using Custom Audiences targeting to contact their customers and email subscribers via Facebook direct messages. Facebook did not comment on Waddington’s discovery or the possibility of promoted messages.

Facebook previously allowed companies to reach their fans through the inbox with the “send an update” feature for pages. These could be targeted by location, age and gender, and pages typically used them to let fans know about upcoming promotions and events. When Facebook overhauled its Messages product in 2010, most of these page updates started getting routed to users’ Other folder, which didn’t generate notifications and was hidden in a sub-navigation menu. The open rate on these fell, and ultimately, Facebook removed the “send an update” feature in September 2011.

If Facebook gives marketers access to the inbox again, it will have to carefully lay out policies and best practices to prevent businesses from abusing the channel and turning off users. One of the key advantages Facebook Messages have over email is relevance. Messages are primarily from friends, whereas email has become overrun with newsletters, spam and other junk mail. Facebook will need to ensure that any paid promotions are relevant and valuable to users. If such a product is in development, the company will likely test it with a small number of partners and roll it out gradually to gauge user feedback.