As the latest effort to make email more like postal mail, Facebook’s new Paid Messages program is completely fascinating to me. The program, which is in beta, allows individuals to pay $1 to send someone outside of their network a message and have it land in the recipient's inbox instead of the junk-collecting black hole-like “Other” folder.
Paid Messages is in the same vein as the “pay for guaranteed delivery” program offered by the now defunct Goodmail, as well as the unsuccessful bonded sender programs that preceded it. After posting a monetary bond, bonded sender participants could send email that bypassed filters; however, the program debited the bond every time recipients reported their email as spam.
Just as those other programs did, Facebook has essentially placed a per-email price on unsolicited email, aka spam. While the social network may adjust the price, it’s interesting that it started at more than twice the price of snail mail postage, which includes the cost of planes, trucks and people to transport a letter. But more interesting for digital marketers, Facebook has put a price on permission that they can use to inform their acquisition efforts.
Paid Messages is not yet open to businesses, but if it’s successful among consumers, that’s the obvious next step. That said, I don’t think that Paid Messages will ever be open to businesses in its current form -- if indeed it manages to survive at all. That's because it will be extremely difficult for Facebook, which has a long history of disregarding users’ privacy, to overcome the perception that it’s selling out users’ inboxes. High-value users such as celebrities, athletes, businesspeople and reporters are likely to be particularly unhappy with Paid Messages, since they are likely to be big targets of these pay-per-permission messages.
To its credit, Facebook has already recognized that this will be a problem among its most coveted users. The solution it came up with was to allow these users to increase the $1 fee to whatever they think appropriate. Unfortunately, only one user is allowed to do this so far: Mark Zuckerberg. He set the fee for non-connections to reach him at $100.
With this first test case, Facebook got one thing right: that users should be able to control the price of access to them. In this case, the user also benefits from the fee, though only because Zuckerberg is the CEO and owns much of the company.
The problem is that this test case doesn’t scale. In order for this model to truly succeed, Facebook would have to let individual users set the fee and collect a portion of the proceeds. It seems unlikely that Facebook would do that. Frankly, the complexity and confusion of allowing more than 1 billion users to set their own fee would probably doom this endeavor as well.
I do wonder if someone will figure out a new scheme to disrupt the permission paradigm that currently rules over most digital marketing, but it seems increasingly unlikely. Permission is very straightforward and absolute, making it easy to understand, and consumers are growing increasingly accustomed to having this control as more and more of our communications go digital.