Ain’t it Good to Know You’ve Got a Friend®?
Facebook recently joined the growing chorus of tech companies encouraging users to seek everyday services and information from chat bots instead of their browsers or apps.
The company opened its Messenger platform to developers at its annual conference last week, giving them an opportunity to build custom chat bots that allow users to shop, check the weather, get the news, and experience instant customer service.
“All of those interactions that you generally have over mobile web, or normal web, or apps, or over the phone sometimes, you can now have in a much easier, better way inside of Messenger,” David Marcus, who leads Facebook’s Messenger platform, told Bloomberg last week. “People love to interact with businesses and services inside of Messenger.”
While Facebook has already integrated some customer service capabilities in Messenger—you can use Messenger to order an Uber or some new clothes from online retailer Everlane—it’s still unclear how successfully other companies will be able to integrate into the platform. Requesting an Uber is a fairly simple transaction be it on phone or chat, and the Everlane Messenger service is actually run by human beings—not bots.
It’s unclear, then, whether Marcus’ claim that people like interacting with businesses on Messenger can be translated to the wild and untapped world of bots—considering the company just launched its first set on Tuesday. But the growing number of regular Messenger users—already at 900 million—suggests the company is ready to invest where users are spending their time and compete with fast-growing chat apps like Telegram and Kik. Facebook has already quashed competition from the up-and-coming WhatsApp messenger by purchasing it for a whopping $22 billion in 2014.
To test whether chatting with bots is as easy as chatting with humans, I gave three of the Facebook Messenger’s newest bots a try—one each for weather, news, and shopping.
Hi Poncho (Weather)
This messaging bot, based on the startup that delivers custom weather forecasts to your inbox, might seem like a slam dunk for a Messenger bot. Weather updates, based on relatively simple public data sets, have been reliably aggregated on apps for years. But Poncho, Facebook’s first weather app, seems to fall short on its promise to couple quick information with easygoing conversation—despite the lovable cat in the avatar.
My first interactions with the bot led to Poncho exclaiming multiple times that he had never visited my neighborhood. Only after plugging in my zip code, after unsuccessfully soliciting a weather update through normal conversation, did Poncho give me a basic temperature and precipitation reading. Ultimately, Poncho and I failed to build the rapport one usually builds with an adorable cat, and the resulting exercise was more cumbersome than just Googling the weather.
Wall Street Journal (News)
While The Wall Street Journal retains its reputation as a sober and weighty journalistic institution, it seems to have reshaped itself as more friendly and conversational in recent years. Gone is the newspaper’s grayscale front page and its general aversion to photography. Some sections are even publishing lifestyle pieces about millennials!
It, therefore, seemed in line with the Journal’s overall brand transformation to launch a conversational bot on the Messenger debut line up. Unfortunately, this bot has about as much zest and life in it as the newspaper’s famous stippled hedcuts. The bot, in its current iteration, only seems capable of stock ticker reports and a generic display of top-item news reports—features of Mac’s desktop widgets since at least a decade and a half ago.
News organizations are experimenting generally with a conversational way of engaging their audience—some more successfully than others. Quartz’s chat bot, which launched in February, is native to iOS and doesn’t exist on Messenger. While the disadvantage to the approach is clear—Quartz won’t be able to tap into Messenger’s nearly billion users—its all-in-one app presents a much more seamless experience. The app is capable of answering questions about the news and incorporates bot AI and human elements in making the experience feel like a real conversation.
The online shopping experience is becoming easier and more seamless every month. Amazon lets you buy any conceivable good with one click, and even has physical buttons to stick on items in your home. Running out of detergent? Press the button and get it on your doorstep within a day or two. Nevertheless, Facebook hopes people will adjust their well-established shopping habits to work with the Messenger App. The results, like the previous bots we looked at, are half-baked at best.
Spring, the online retailer that boasts free shipping, seems to want users to click on dialogue options rather than type in their preferences. I resisted and decided to keep typing anyway, hoping a persistent approach would force the bot to actually listen to me. When my request for men’s boots was finally heard, Spring just redirected me to an external URL instead of showing me options within the platform. So much for an integrated experience.
It’s clear that a good deal of work has to be done on user experience and conversational features before interacting with chat bots threatens to change the way we currently purchase goods or seek out information.
But Facebook is wasting no time on a soft launch or staggered introduction. Kik and Telegram, two other fast-growing chat platforms, recently introduced their own bots, which users can purchase, like apps, in a digital bot store. Although Facebook has more than twice as many users as Kik and Telegram combined, the company knows it needs to act now to secure its market lead.
Monthly users on the top four messaging apps have already surpassed those on the top four social media networks. And messaging users are expected to increase by 1.1 billion in the next two years, according to Activate. Those reasons alone are convincing enough for Facebook to dive in head first into the world known as conversational commerce.
While Facebook is eager to connect its 900 million Messenger users with global business, there is no near-term plan to make money off the effort.
“Today there is no revenue,” Marcus said. “Gradually, we’ll build monetization on the platform like we did on all of our other platforms.”