The Clever Solution Behind Path’s Place Messaging Service

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path-logo-1Some of the smartest innovations don’t last. Often, they solve current problems in ugly ways, patching together legacy technologies that may eventually yield to the wider technological shifts about which Street Fight often writes. But these innovations play an important role: they help cobble together the present in a way that helps us recognize the future.

The latest project from Path is a wonderful example of one of these innovations. In late September, the company added a feature to its messaging app called Places that allows users to text local businesses with questions — and often, within minutes, receive an answer. The experience is simple and habitual for both merchant and consumer — yet the infrastructure inside is a patchwork blend of technology and people that demonstrates a remarkable empathy for the realities of the market today.

For users, the process is as straight forward as texting a friend. Earlier this week, I messaged five or six businesses in Chicago asking questions about availability and price, and even the current wait for a table. Within ten minutes,  I received a response telling me me that the yes, the Zipcar office was open, and no, there was no wait at the falafel place a few blocks down the street.

For merchants, the experience is entirely different — yet equally familiar. When a user texts a place, the message is routed to call centers around the world where agents (e.g. people) contact the businesses individually. Then, these agents text the user with the answer. Cleverly, the company has built the service on the technology which it seeks to kill: the phone.

“We realized that the only way [a small business owner] going to be interrupted was if the phone rang,” said Stuart Levinson, the executive in charge of the project who joined Path after the acquisition of TalkTo, a mobile messaging app. “So today, we’re essentially converting a consumer’s message to a phone call and then reverting back to a message so we can interact with both sides in the way they choose.”

In using the phone, the company has solved one of the most inhibiting qualities of the local market — the fact that digital demand vastly outstrips supply. As consumer adoption of mobile devices nears 70%, a little over half of small business still do not have a basic digital presence in a website. Meanwhile, the percentage of local businesses that offer the more advanced point-of-sale systems that could handle these requests will remain fractional for some time.

Levinson says that the company uses technology to help improve the workflows, but the bulk of the messages are answered and facilitated by humans.  The company plans to invest in natural language processing, for instance, to help surface old answers to recurrent questions at businesses, such as hours of operation. Levison even hinted at the possibility of using text-to-voice technology to help convert the calls to texts, and the texts to calls, without people.

The project faces an almost innumerable number of long-term threats — many of which it shares with calls as a whole. The growth of local information on the web — moving from name and phone number to richer content such as hours of operations and offerings — will allow users to answer these questions using more traditional search properties, reducing the need to contact businesses. Eventually, the systems business use to book appointments or make reservations will come online, allowing consumers and merchants to interact programmatically.

“I envisioned that my children are not going to be calling businesses in the same way we do. By that time, we’re going to be a very different business,” says Levinson. “But we’re going to have the kind of mindshare we need to evolve.”

In thinking about local, the successful companies tend to think about the market first and technology second. Online, companies can build a meaningful business at the bleeding edge, introducing more advanced products to a smaller audience and then expecting that market to grow as mainstream consumers adopt these new services.

But the geographic constraints implicit in a local service make an early adopter strategy nearly impossible for local applications. Instead, local companies need to start by introducing a product with the broadest common market, and then incremental introduce more advanced products as that community becomes more engaged.

Steven Jacobs is Street Fight’s deputy editor.