Jun 21, 2011

Facebook Messages

Around the office, we love taking new services for a test run. You never know when you’re going to find the next "must have" feature for our users. When Facebook began rolling out @facebook.com addresses, we had to take a look.

There’s been a lot of good commentary on the scope and impact Facebook Messages will have on the email using community.  That’s a big community, by the way, and it happens to include my mom.  Bless her heart, she signed up for Facebook last week, and now I have to explain that email, chats, and text messages aren’t separate things anymore.  It was difficult enough explaining the difference to begin with! For our MailChimp users, I thought I’d go into a little more detail.

First and foremost, you need to know Facebook isn’t offering a robust email service.  They specialize in person-to-person communication, and it helps if both people are Facebook users.  If you take that away, the connection between email, chat, and SMS becomes less significant.  What you’re left with is a click heavy interface with an intentionally limited set of options that contains all of your communication behind a series of drop-down menus.  Whew!  So what does this mean for your subscribers?

Can they receive your campaigns?

Say an @facebook.com user signs up for your newsletter. The first thing you’ll do is send a confirmation email, but wait. If they don’t have "Everyone" set in their privacy settings, your confirmation will be dropped.  Yes, dropped.  That means it won’t show up in the inbox or the spam folder, but it won’t bounce either.  You and your subscriber are just out of luck.

Facebook Messages - Privacy Setting

This privacy setting can have a big effect on your open rates.

Okay, the privacy thing wasn’t an issue, and we got that first email through the door. At this point, they can change their privacy setting to "Friends Only," and your campaigns will still get delivered.  Awesome! That’s great news for you and privacy geeks like myself, but I should pass on one warning.

Your emails are tracked and grouped by the reply-to address.  If you switch to a new address, you’re starting a whole new thread inside Facebook Messages.  That means new reply-to addresses are susceptible to privacy updates, so always be consistent. Otherwise, you might discover Facebook is dropping a lot of your emails.

Grouping Facebook Messages

All the emails you send are grouped into a single thread. These groups are separated by the "reply-to" address, but they appear under your "from" name.

Will they see your email?

Messages from bulk senders and other non-friends go to a special directory called "Other."  As mentioned earlier, emails are grouped by the reply-to address with new emails appearing at the bottom.  When a subscriber clicks on your thread, they’re automatically taken to your latest email.  However, they’re looking at the plain-text version.  Clicking an "Expand" link brings up the html version, but we need to take a special look at these plain-text previews.

Facebook Plain-Text vs HTML Views

On the left is how your emails look after the subscriber enters your thread. They have to click the "Expand" link in order to see the HTML version on the right.

You can’t ignore the plain-text version of your campaigns.  There are certain content elements that cause Facebook Messages to cut the visible portion of your plain-text campaign.  Remember, we can’t count opens unless they expand the html version, so you’ll want to play around with this preview.   So what are the cut-off signals?

  • Underscores (e.g. _HEADER_)
  • Numbers separated by spaces (e.g. Sep 21, 2010 03:05 pm)
  • I did a lot of testing, but that doesn’t mean I caught everything.  Please comment if you find something new!

By the way, these cut-off signals also apply to text-only campaigns.  Instead of an "Expand" link, there is a "Show Hidden Text" link that appears in a completely different spot on the preview.  Odd? Regardless, if you care about presentation, this is an important feature to keep in mind.

Side by Side Comparison of Plain Text Preview

This side-by-side comparison shows the effect a date can have on the email preview. On the left, the date read "Jun 13, 2011 08:00 am." On the right, I removed the spaces to make it "Jun 12,201108:00 am."


Facebook’s policies toward bulk email senders can be summed up very simply: "Facebook only accepts bulk mail from highly reputable sources and does not offer support for any issues encountered."  This may sound harsh, but it isn’t uncommon.  It means the best thing we can do to ensure delivery is to maintain our IP reputation.  That’s something we already do, and it’s why you’ll hear us talk again and again about permission based lists, double opt-in confirmation, and engagement.

The truth is, no one knows if Facebook Messages has a future or not.  Right now, MailChimp users don’t seem to have noticed.  We send 1.5 billion emails a month and see less than 10 thousand @facebook.com addresses in that time.  Of course, things could change at any moment.  Like a giant hovering its foot over your house, you really shouldn’t ignore Facebook.