Facebook's social network has been as hostile as Twitter's for payments companies seeking to tap into the site's millions of users. But American Express and Chirpify separately sensed an opportunity worth pursuing.
Chirpify is one of the rare companies dedicated almost entirely to facilitating payments over social media. Other companies that tried this model failed long ago, and most of those that remain active on social media — Amex among them — treat the channel as just one component of a diverse strategy.
"Facebook has always been on our radar," says Sarah Schroeder, account manager at Chirpify. "Now that we've been around a little under a year we are able to present really good use cases and build up a larger audience of people wanting to sell through Facebook."
Chirpify is gaining 200 to 300 new members a day through Twitter and Instagram combined, Schroeder says. She would not disclose the company's total number of users. Its conversion rate, or the percentage of users who act on a promotion, is at a 4%, compared to a typical e-commerce rate of 2%, she says. Several nonprofits and fund-raising events have used Chirpify's service, including the 12/12/12 concert for Superstorm Sandy relief.
Facebook represents a particularly daunting territory because the social network is a competitor to these other social payment companies. In the past, Facebook has even forced developers to drop their own payment offerings in favor of its in-house system.
Facebook earned $810 million from payments last year, a 45% leap from 2011. However, as a percentage of overall revenue, payments earnings have stalled. Payments revenue accounted for just 16% of Facebook's total revenue in 2012, compared to 15% the prior year. The lion's share of Facebook's revenue still comes from advertising.
Facebook's payments plans are in transition. The company is phasing out its virtual currency, Facebook Credits, and is experimenting with new models, such as a system for ordering physical items as gifts for friends.
Chirpify is launching on Facebook because of its own successes, not because of any perceived vulnerabilities at Facebook, Schroeder says.
Schroeder says many companies aren't taking the correct approach to social payments.
"We are the only ones doing true in-stream commerce on Facebook," she says. "Everyone else does what we call social advertising … where they post a link that redirects users to an app or to a traditional ecommerce checkout service on the retailers site."
Amex's moves in social payments focus on the Amex Sync initiative. Sync for Offers allows Amex cardholders to receive discounts on purchases, while Card Sync allows users to purchase Amex gift cards and items from retailers, including Sony and Amazon.com, by tweeting specific codes called hashtags. Amex Sync works on Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and the Xbox game console.
Twitter "is the most dramatic manifestation of what our technology can do because it all takes place in 140 characters and a hashtag," says Bradley Minor, vice president of corporate communications at Amex.
Sync would seem to compete with Chirpify, but "the American Express thing was actually a very good thing for us," Schroeder says. "Having a big player like that come into the space of social payments definitely validates what we're doing."
Social payments have had a rough start with Twitter commerce companies like Twippr and TwitPay eventually letting the services go dormant or shut down.
Other companies see Facebook more as an advertising platform than a means to facilitate payments. SCVNGR's LevelUp credits the growth in its userbase to an integration with Facebook it launched in October, enabling users to claim offers directly from their news feed.
Facebook spokeswoman Jillian Stefanki would not provide comment about the Chirpify integration.
Schroeder says the two companies are not in a direct partnership, but "Facebook has been very supportive of what we're doing."
Chirpify plans to extend its service across the entire social Web and is eyeing Pinterest as its next channel, Schroeder says.
"Social payments are here to stay," she says. "It's a new and different way of transferring money between friends and paying for things and as people get more comfortable with online shopping … it's just where we're headed."