Businesses Get Their Chatbots Ready For Facebook Messenger

(Source Forbes)

This week Dutch airline KLM said its customers could start getting their boarding passes directly through Facebook  Messenger. Eventually, it plans sell tickets through the chat app too. Late last year Uber made it possible to order one of its cars through Messenger. Since then, Facebook has been working with two dozen businesses to launch services through Messenger, a chat app that’s morphing into a Swiss army knife of services that could one day rival the very platforms (iOS and Android) it sits on.

Expect to see a stream of businesses up on stage at Facebook’s annual developer’s conference on April 12 and 13 in San Francisco, eager to join KLM and Uber. Facebook won’t comment on who might be there, or how many, but tech executives widely expect to see a number of partners that will help kickstart Facebook’s ambitions to turn Messenger into a new platform for three key areas: e-commerce, advertising and customer service.

While there will be human customer service agents manning some of these new business accounts — as they already do for Messenger’s early e-commerce partners like Zulily — chatbots will ultimately be key to making these three areas work. Bots are relatively simple forms of software that can hold automated conversations with people, and they’ve become integral to the strategies of other tech firms like Microsoft , Slack and Kik Messenger.

Several months ago Facebook released an SDK (software development kit) that allowed developers to make bots that could automatically respond on behalf of businesses to simple questions.

With less than two weeks to go till Facebook’s big conference, that toolkit is still a work in progress and is currently being re-built, according to Christian Brucculeri, CEO of software marketing firm Snaps, who added that he didn’t know when Facebook would release the new version.

Brands who traditionally spend their ad dollars on Google  suggested search results or Facebook’s News Feed, are now looking to Messenger as a new and potentially more intimate space in which to engage with an audience.

That could go incredibly well or very badly, depending on whether users find it off-putting to see advertisers invading an area they traditionally associate with family and friends.

New York-based Snaps traditionally makes money by building branded emojis and keyboards for big brands like Burger King and Pepsi . Millions of people have, for instance, download Snap’s Burger King Chicken Fries keyboard from the App Store and sent carb-coated chicken stickers and emojis through iMessage.

Female iPhone users in their 20s tend to gravitate towards the branded emojis, while their male counterparts are more interested in GIFs, says Brucculeri, and so far about 60% of people discover these keyboards in the app store, with the rest find them by accident on a messaging app like Kik, Tango or Viber.

Snaps has now been busy building chatbots for about 20 of its clients, due to launch on Messenger in the second quarter with more coming after that.

Just like the content-heavy Facebook pages that brands already make, these bots will fill a role of being both useful and promotional. “If you want to know how to get coffee stains out of a shirt, you could you just go chat to a detergent company on Messenger and type ‘coffee,’” he explains, adding that you could also start chatting to a spices company and simply type “salmon” to get recipe ideas.

“It doesn’t disrupt chat but enhances it,” Brucculeri insists, adding that Facebook’s toolkit for bots will let businesses put unique features like photo carousels and suggested-responses directly into a chat.

But Facebook is just like everyone else, in not knowing how well people will engage with branded chat bots on Messenger. “They’re trying to figure out how the consumers are going to engage with these things.”

Some have looked to Asia for an idea of how people might interact with business bots. Chat platforms like WeChat are so ubiquitous on people’s phones they’re practically portals to the Web. The Chinese frequently use WeChat to send money, pay for taxis or book any number of services. KLM’s new feature on Messenger could thus, for instance, emulate South China Airlines’s official account on WeChat,  which lets you chat to its bot to search and book flights.

Facebook can’t just copy WeChat’s strategy though, because of the big “cultural, regulatory, historical and practical differences between Asian and Western markets,” says Edison Investment Research analyst Richard Windsor. Analysts in China have also said that that smartphone users in China accept bots more readily than their Western counterparts.

Windsor believes Facebook could double its revenues in five years if it can build a thriving ecosystem for advertisers and businesses on Messenger, but the first few months after Facebook’s F8 announcements will see plenty of experimentation by cautious businesses.

Businesses don’t know, for instance, how they’ll initiate conversations with consumers on chat, or if they can rely on being pulled into conversations between users. “We don’t really know how consumers will behave,” says Snaps CEO Brucculeri. “How can you enhance a conversation between two people, and how can a brand get in the middle in a way that’s additive, rather than, ‘Hey I’m going to talk to a brand on Messenger.’”

Facebook also faces competition in building a platform for chatbots. More than 80 advertisers have already been paying Kik Messenger for more than a year to set up chatbots on its network of 200 million users, while there are thousands of third-party bots on rival chat app Telegram, which has 100 million active users.

This week Microsoft also launched a bot framework that would allow developers to make bots for messaging applications like Skype, Slack and Telegram. “Bots are like the new applications you can converse with,” Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella was quoted as saying.

Microsoft’s strategy is interesting because anyone who makes a bot with its framework also gets access to its digital assistant Cortana and machine-learning technology that’s part of its so-called “Intelligence Suite.”

Microsoft might not have the kind of huge scope that Facebook Messenger has, but its digital assistant is far ahead of Facebook’s own digital assistant M, (which is largely powered by human beings), and that could also make its toolset for bot builders just as attractive as Facebook’s.