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Facebook's Foray Into Payments: Should PayPal be Worried?

This story originally appeared on Fortune Magazine

Facebook dipped its toes in the payments world on Tuesday, but don’t hold your breath for a PayPal competitor any time soon.

Sukharevskyy Dmytro (nevodka) /

After years of speculation that the social network would enter the space, Facebook announced a new feature that would allow users to send payments to friends using its popular messaging app. The feature wasn’t a surprise announcement; CEO Mark Zuckerberg revealed the feature in his company’s second-quarter earnings call. Tellingly, the company also recently hired PayPal CEO David Marcus to lead its messaging products group.

With its introduction of peer-to-peer payments, the company is going head-to-head with PayPal, both with its namesake service and its Venmo subsidary, as well as Square’s Square Cash, which powers Snapchat’s Snapcash.

But as Forrester analyst Sucharita Mulpuru explains, launching P2P payments “doesn’t set the company up to transition into commercial payments and the feature seems more like an experiment.”

While mobile payments are rapidly growing, Forrester estimates P2P payments as the smallest piece of the overall pie. In the company’s 2019 mobile payments forecast, the firm predicts that P2P payments will only encompass 12% of all payments transmitted through a mobile phone in the United States. In contrast, remote payments—those done through buying goods within an app or online store—will represent 64% of mobile payments. In-store payments, those purchases made using a mobile phone in stores, will compose 24%.

PayPal remains dominant in P2P mobile payments. Seventy-three percent of American adults who use the Internet and make P2P payments use PayPal. More recently, its mobile app Venmo has been gaining traction with Millennials. (Last year, Venmo’s total payments volume totaled $2.4 billion. In the fourth quarter of 2014, Venmo’s payment volume was $906 million, up 29% quarter over quarter. Square says that its Cash product transacts hundreds of millions in payments, but would not specify an exact number.)

Despite the massive amount of money flowing through these apps, P2P payments aren’t a very lucrative business, Mulpuru says. Consumers don’t want to be subject to the high fees associated with these transactions, which are not a factor when paying with cash or check. For example, Venmo charges the sender a 3% payments fee for credit cards and non-major debit cards, and is free for most major bank debit cards.

For its part, Facebook isn’t charging any fees. It is incurring charges from banks on the back end, but says it will not pass these on to the consumer.

So why would Facebook launch P2P payments, then? The payments feature could help make its Messenger standalone app more sticky, especially among the younger generation where Venmo has carved out a loyal following. Snapchat, a messaging app popular with Millennials, added P2P payments last year.

As Facebook product manager Steve Davis explains: “We are not building a payments business. Payments in Messenger is focused on providing utility. People talk about money all the time in Messenger but end up going somewhere else to do the transaction. With this, people can finish the conversation the same place started it. It’s really a feature to add more value to Messenger.” International expansion for the Messenger payments product will also be key, but the feature is U.S. only for now.

Overseas, the massive Chinese messaging app WeChat has also seen major traction with P2P payments. The service, which is owned by Tencent, has offered P2P payments for its now 500 million users since 2013. Over the Chinese New Year holiday in February, WeChat users sent over one billion “red envelopes” filled with money to other users.

WeChat is seen as a forward-thinking leader in mobile commerce, Mulupuru says. It has been effective at partnering with brands to allow users to make purchases of goods. “If I were an executive at Facebook, I’d be thinking about how to explore [WeChat’s] approach,” she said.

Davis maintains that for now P2P payments on Messenger is non-commercial. But commerce is an area Facebook has been exploring in other products. For example, the company is testing a Buy button in ads and in its News Feed, in partnership with payments infrastructure upstart Stripe. If Facebook does end up exploring payments more broadly in Messenger, its foray into P2P payments may be a good way to test how much consumers trust the social network to handle transactions.

But another PayPal? Small chance, Mulpuru says: “The likelihood of Facebook creating a PayPal competitor is slim.”

Leena Rao

Written By

Leena Rao is a senior writer at Fortune.