"What if you could text message a store instead of calling them?"
This is the stuff of a Silicon Valley fairytale — the promise of an app that’s never actually going to work. But this one does. Path Talk, the first standalone app from Dave Morin’s Path social networking enterprise, now lets you message businesses. I’ve been testing the app for the last few days with great results.
I messaged the Apple Store to find out if they had any 64 GB space gray iPhone 6’s in stock. I messaged Barney’s to see if they had a coat I was looking for. I even messaged Chipotle to find out how long the lunch line was. Path Talk works with any store — there’s no proprietary software for them to install or iPads to set up — since you aren’t actually messaging the store itself. Path’s call center fields your responses, calls up stores, and types answers back to you in real-time. In most cases, I got a response within 10 minutes. Chipotle, however, never responded, which was an answer in itself.
Path Talk’s "place messaging" service is built on top of TalkTo, a three-year-old company Path acquired back in June. TalkTo employs a large number of callers, now dubbed "Path agents," who are dedicated to calling stores and restaurants for you. TalkTo founder Stuart Levinson wouldn’t say how many agents exist, but said that wait times are rarely longer than five or ten minutes, and the company staffs up in response to big product launches and events.
Path spent the last few months integrating TalkTo functionality, which now lives in a tab of its own inside Path Talk. Tap "Places," then either choose a nearby place or type in a place to send a message. Path uses Foursquare’s venue engine to find nearby places and phone numbers, but TalkTo also has its own database of places to pull from. Once you send a message to a place, you’ll get an instant response from Path confirming your question, and then, hopefully, a real response a few minutes later. In my tests, responses from some stores came after 15 minutes, but I doubt I'd be able to get through any quicker had I called myself.
It’s unusual for a messaging app to have a Places tab. Most of them, from WhatsApp to Facebook Messenger, focus only on talking with friends. Path vice president Cynthia Samanian says she hopes Path Talk’s unique combination of features will draw in new users and make Path Talk their primary messaging app. "Talk is the hub for all your important messages and communications," says Samanian. Before the TalkTo integration, Talk included novel features like status icons that say when a friend’s in the car, in the neighborhood, or low on battery.
But even with place messaging functionality and status icons, Path Talk as a primary messaging service is a tough sell. In most developed countries around the world, one or two apps with hundreds of millions of users dominate the messaging market, while Path has fewer than five million daily active users total. Neither Path nor Path Talk have broken through to the mainstream in any market, though Path is popular in Indonesia, where the company raised an additional round of funding back in January. Levinson wouldn’t say how many users TalkTo had before it was acquired.
"A lot of people have said to us — 'It’s like Siri, but it works.'"
Fortunately, people today download and use tons of apps, and I wholeheartedly recommend Path Talk as a great way to contact stores when you aren’t able to call them. One especially great feature is the ability to send a message late at night, and then get a response back once the store opens in the morning. "The more you use it, the more it feels natural, and it’s why a lot of people have said to us — 'It’s like Siri, but it works,'" says Levinson. According to Path, the top three queries so far have been for reservations, product pricing and availability, and appointments.
If Path Talk catches on, it could provide Path with an important new source of revenue. (Employing an entire call center at a loss ain't easy.) "70 percent of users are using this for purchase intent — to express before they’ve bought something that they’re interested in this appointment, restaurant, or product," says Levinson. "There’s some really neat things we can do with monetization. Our brains are on fire with different things we can do right now." Monetization still seems like a ways off, however. In the meantime, I'm texting McDonalds to find out when the McRib is back.