If you don't think you'd ever use Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) Messenger to interact with businesses, Facebook could have someone do it for you. The Information recently reported the social network is working on a human-powered virtual assistant called Moneypenny. The assistant would act as a concierge, booking flights, ordering goods, or making reservations for Messenger users.
You may recognize Moneypenny as the name of M's secretary from the James Bond books and movies. Moneypenny is smitten with Bond, but 007 never does anything more than flirt with her (possibly because she accidentally shot him at the beginning of Skyfall when she was still a field operative). Facebook is hoping users do more than flirt with its version of Moneypenny, and the company can start making some money with M(essenger).
Not just a digital assistant
Unlike Siri, Cortana, or Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Now, Moneypenny would be powered by humans, according to the report. So, while Google Now might be able to tell you some information, Moneypenny would be able to actually perform tasks for you -- most of which would likely revolve around some form of commerce.
That's an important distinction to make, because Facebook isn't looking to compete with Apple, Google, or Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT). At least, not with Moneypenny. While Facebook has expressed interest in building out its search engine (which is what powers all three digital assistants), it'll have a hard time overcoming the integrated software layer that makes those services so appealing. Microsoft, however, is trying to do that by making Cortana available for Android and iOS, and taking advantage of its integration with Windows 10.
Moneypenny looks to be an entirely different lady. From the little bit we know so far, it seems to be a type of service that has been done before by companies like Magic, Operator, Alfred, and GoButler. But with the scale of Messenger's 700 million active users, Moneypenny could have a significant advantage over the competition.
You'd reportedly be able to talk to Moneypenny like a human, and she'd respond in kind. However, I'd stop short of providing her with top-secret MI6 information.
Why a virtual assistant?
Facebook is very interested in using Messenger to facilitate commerce. The company introduced Businesses on Messenger at its F8 developers conference in March as well as a new payments platform that recently rolled out nationwide in the U.S. The company has also expressed interest in providing local services like restaurant reservations and taxi hailing. All of these tasks are made easier with the help of a virtual assistant.
Getting businesses on Messenger is a key part of Facebook's monetization strategy with the property. Facebook is much more successful at extracting revenue from businesses on its platform than its regular users. Using Moneypenny, Facebook could easily facilitate transactions between Messenger users and businesses and take a cut of every sale.
On top of that, transferring commerce activity to Messenger through Moneypenny would give Facebook a much better sense of the type of products you might be interested in. It could use that data to feed its ad targeting for News Feed and Instagram. It could also use that data with Moneypenny itself to suggest another product to buy based on recent purchases. If Moneypenny books a trip for you to San Francisco this summer, she might suggest you book a hotel, too. Don't be surprised, however, if she suggests you buy her an engagement ring.
If Moneypenny makes it out into the public, Google should watch out. Google, too, is pushing into commerce more and more, and it relies heavily on retailers and travel sites for a big portion of its ad revenue. If users shift to Facebook to find products and book flights and hotels, Google will lose out on some valuable search traffic and ad spend.