Facebook will now allow businesses to deliver automated customer support, ecommerce guidance, content, and interactive experiences through chatbots. By providing utility through its huge developer and business ecosystem, Facebook could boost loyalty with Messenger, one-up SMS, and keep up chat competitors like Kik, Telegram that have their own bot platforms.
This confirms TechCrunch’s scoops from February that Facebook was working with chatbot developers, and last week that a program for automated agents would launch at F8. [Update: the official name for the platform is “bots on Messenger”, not “agents on Messenger”, which was a previous codename]
How Messenger Bots Work
Through the Messenger Platform’s new Send/Receive API, bots can send more than just text. They will be able to respond with structured messages that include images, links, and call to action buttons. These could let users make a restaurant reservation, review an ecommerce order, and more. You can swipe through product carousels, and pop out to the web to pay for a purchase.
Importantly, Facebook’s Messenger Platform currently doesn’t allow payments directly through a credit card added to Messenger.
A new persistent search bar at the top of Messenger will help people discover bots. For companies already connecting with customers over SMS, a phone number matching tool will let them easily shift those conversations to people’s Messenger account instead, thanks to a partnership with Twilio. To keep people on control, a block button appears at the top of every bot conversation so you can easily silence them.
Developers will be able to build their own bots or work with Facebook’s bot-building partners. But Facebook also has its own Bot Engine built on its acquisition of natural language interface startup Wit.ai. Based on the same system Facebook uses to teach its own artificial intelligence M, developers can feed the Bot Engine sample conversations, and it will learn how to handle similar conversations on its own.
Making Humans Obsolete
Chatbots have suddenly become the biggest thing in tech. They unlock the ability to provide personalized, interactive communication akin to talking to a human customer service or sales rep, but at scale for much cheaper than call centers.
A conservative estimate is that chatbots could replace 1-800 numbers, offering more comfortable customer support experiences without the hassle of synchronous phone conversations, hold times, and annoying phone trees.
But if bots on Messenger and other chatbot platforms thrive, they could redefine how businesses sell products and services. Instead wandering around an app, a chatbot could ask your criteria and surface relevant things to buy. Rather than sifting through tons of content on a news site, a chatbot could learn what you like a deliver personal digests and suggestions.
Currently, Facebook has been keeping its acquisition WhatsApp as a cleaner messaging experience while experimenting with content and commerce on its own chat app. But if bots on Messenger succeed, Facebook could potentially allow chatbots on WhatsApp, which currently shuts them down.
Facebook sure isn’t the only chatbot game in town, but because of Messenger’s 900 million user reach, its vast connections with advertisers, and a healthy developer ecosystem built over years, it might provide the most attractive platform on which to run them. Businesses focus where the biggest number of customers are, and it doesn’t get bigger Facebook.