Social network Path is putting its own spin on mobile messaging, and it might be just useful enough to work.
Thanks to an update on Tuesday, Path Talk, the company’s standalone messaging app, now allows users to text local businesses. That means your barber, your bank or your favorite watering hole are all, in theory, just one text away.
Here’s how it works: You find your local business on the map within the Path Talk app. A chat box opens in much the same way it does when you send a message or text to anyone else in your contact list. Your message, which can be a general question (“when do you close?”), a reservation request, or any other question in between, is routed to a call center where a Path agent manually calls the business and asks your question for you. Then the call agent texts you back with an answer, hopefully in about five minutes, according to the company.
We tested the app more than half a dozen times over the past week, and the feature actually works. We tried various businesses, including setting up reservations, then canceling reservations (sorry, Osha Thai), and we always heard back in a timely manner (our slowest response was nine minutes). Every answer also included additional info. We’ll have to see how it works in the real world when more people start using the app at the same time.
Path Talk is free, and will likely remain free in some form down the road. It’s possible that Path will charge users at some point (first 10 questions each month are free, then a small fee), but for now, the app won’t make Path any money.
With a number of different messaging apps out there, Path Talk has found a way to offer something unique. The company announced in June it was removing messaging from the company’s flagship app — the same, less-than-popular strategy adopted by Facebook.
More importantly, Path acquired TalkTo, a startup that already allowed users to text local businesses, as part of its plan to offer said messaging app. Path CEO Dave Morin sees its new messaging app as part of his overall strategy for the social network. “We’ve made connecting with your family and friends more personal and now we are making your connection with the local businesses in your life more personal,” he said in a statement to Re/code.
Still, it feels like a pivot for the company. The messaging app is separate — you don’t need a Path account to use Path Talk — and it appears to be a move to regain traction with existing users while also attracting new ones.
Mobile messaging companies are also seeing sky-high valuations these days given Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp and Snapchat’s major funding rounds.
Of course, obstacles are still looming for Path, most notably the issue of scale. If Path Talk gains millions of users the way Path hopes it will, is it feasible to expect a call center of human beings to keep up with demand? The company plans to use APIs to answer some questions automatically in the future, says TalkTo CEO Stuart Levinson. Scale is not a concern, he added.
There’s also the challenge of monetizing, although Path seems to have an abundance of options for when that moment comes. The most helpful would be a commerce feature, where users could not only ask if the local deli has a pulled pork sandwich on the menu, but pay for the order (and delivery) through the same app.
“We’d love to make that happen,” Levinson said.
Next up for Path? Morin said in June that more standalone apps are coming before the year is over.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.