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Facebook aims to make it easier for companies to message you

The social-networking giant is offering new capabilities to advertisers and businesses to help them communicate with customers and fans, along with a possible way to make money from chat.

Facebook is making it easier for its users to communicate with businesses and celebrities. Facebook

Some of Stephanie St. James' clients send her messages at 2 a.m., and she's fine with it.

As the head of Amazing Fairytale Parties, an Oregon-based business that puts on theme parties with organizers dressed up as characters who sing and play games, she's used to hearing from frazzled parents trying to organize their child's special day in the middle of the night -- or even in between diaper changes.

But instead of sending email or filling out a form on the company's website, some customers are starting to use Facebook's Messenger communications service, which is like exchanging text messages but through Facebook's website and app instead.

"It makes clients feel like they're having a personal dialog," St. James said.

Facebook has seen this trend, too, and now it's responding. The world's largest social network is beginning to integrate its Messenger service into its advertising products. Future ads shown on the site, stuck in a user's site in between cat videos and updates on family and friends, could include a button customers tap that will allow them to start a Messenger chat with a representative from a business or brand.

The company is also upgrading its Pages feature, the site's profiles linked to businesses, products and celebrities. The result is that Page owners can communicate with fans and customers in a private chat.

"Our ultimate goal is to facilitate communication between consumers and businesses in the way they prefer most," said Benji Shomair, director of Pages product marketing at Facebook.

For Facebook, this could represent both a way to begin making money from its Messenger service, and a way to expand ties with businesses and celebrities who have helped make Pages one of the most popular features of the site. More than 40 million small and medium-size businesses are using Pages, Facebook said.

Over a billion people visit Pages every month as well.

Facebook will add information to business and celebrity profiles about how quickly they respond to users' messages. Facebook

But it's also a way to increase usage of its Messenger service, a text-message-like chat function that's been built into the site since 2008. Over the years, Facebook has expanded the feature to include the capability to send items like photos. It also created a separate app for smartphones and tablets four years ago. Since requiring users to download it in order to use the chat service, Facebook said the number of people using it each month has grown to more than 700 million. Facebook counts nearly 1.5 billion people using its service at least once each month.

Facebook is also reacting to the changing ways we interact with each other online. Online communication has basically fallen into different levels of urgency and importance: Phone calls are instant and immediate, text messages come next, then email. Leaving a comment on a website is probably last in the list of ways you communicate (assuming you bother to leave a comment at all).

Now Messenger and similar services are trying to shift conversations with their tech.

Companies are experimenting with getting in touch with customers through Instagram, the photo-sharing service Facebook bought in 2012. There's also Snapchat, a startup that offers an ephemeral messaging app, which has expanded its "Stories" video and photo posts to allow users to watch posts from businesses, among other things.

Some companies like retailer Target have invested in making apps to communicate with customers directly, while local small businesses tend to work with loyalty program app makers to get customer's attention.

Facebook isn't the first to explore ways for businesses to talk directly with customers. TalkTo, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based startup acquired by the alternative social network Path last year, tried to help people communicate with local businesses via text messages. The way it worked was that TalkTo employees would receive a text message meant for a company, then call the company directly and relay responses.

In March, Facebook said it was beginning to work with some businesses to integrate Messenger into their ordering and checkout services. The goal there was to have customers sign up to receive their receipt through a message, for example, and then reply or have additional communication with the business. You could change the color of a shirt you just ordered before it's shipped, or order a new item without going back to the company's website.

While these new Messenger features will be optional for businesses, celebrities and other Page owners, it could also create more work for them as customers become used to using that feature. One way Facebook is counteracting that is by adding a note to Pages that have the feature turned on, telling visitors how often it usually takes them to respond. Pages that respond to 90 percent of messages and usually do so within five minutes will now earn a badge saying "Very responsive to messages" attached to their profiles.

"When people message the page, they have expectation for a response in a timely fashion," Facebook's Shomair said.

That's what St. James has learned. During normal business hours, she has her staff monitor social media, including Facebook Messenger. Often people send quick notes asking if the company can throw a party in their area.

"You don't want to lose someone while they're there," she said. And the convenience of a quick response has often helped turn that request into a sale.