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Facebook’s Messenger Chatbots: Try Them, but Keep Expectations Low

Ed Terpening
Zuckerberg Keynote

Today I’m at F8, Facebook’s annual developer's conference where CEO Mark Zuckerberg shared Facebook’s 10-year product roadmap.  Just imagine, for even a second, Apple or Google doing that. We can call this transparency.

The keynotes made it clear: Facebook is in the business of scale--which is one reason they’re investing in (among many other things) chatbots--a means of automating limited “conversations” between brands and consumers. The bot experience combines natural language ask/answer and GUI components, like slideshows and buttons within Facebook’s Messenger interface to help consumers interact with brands in a richer way than today.  

What Problems do Chatbots Solve?

When I first heard about this feature, I was a bit puzzled.  After all, Facebook is about connecting people, so how do these new bots help?  Well, they don’t so far, not really.  They’re more about scaling consumer interaction with brands than making meaningful connections among people.  And that’s okay.  There’s a need, but is Facebook Messenger the right platform?  When I think about social platforms, I think about opportunities for customers to understand the people behind a brand with emotional impact. These don’t achieve that goal, but they could provide utility.

Technology Utility Creates Distance

Technology innovation over the years have scaled consumer commerce, but often at the expense of people relationships. Let’s take banking, for example.  Before the telephone, as a customer you’d visit a nearby branch (chances are, the same branch) and you may even have had a favorite teller that was always willing to reverse that nasty fee (I’m not certain, but my guess is bank fees existed before the telephone). You may need to bring in a stack of homemade cookies for the teller (I’ve seen it!), but it’s the personal relationship that got you what you needed. Then came call centers, ATMs, online banking, mobile--each creating distance between the customer and the brand’s employees.  In each step, as consumers we’ve accepted this less personal way of doing business for the sake of convenience.  It’s interesting how quickly we’ve evolved to accept convenience and expediency over human connections. In social, banks have tried to create again the kinds of human connections that they’ve lost through automation, but there’s no turning back. Today, would you rather visit a bank branch to deposit a check or simply use a mobile app and photograph it?

Why Chatbots?

Facebook is a public company that needs to make money for its shareholders, through commerce, so it needs to scale engagement and reduce friction like any ecommerce platform.  That’s where chatbots come in; removing friction in the buying process at scale on a platform people already spend a lot of time on.  Some use cases for chatbots could include:

  • Interactive Ads: Bots embedded into ads to ask/answer questions about an offer without leaving Facebook.
  • Shopping: You can use a chatbot today to order flowers from 1800FLOWERs.   When you think chat bots, think about pre-pre-Siri. They can only handle very predictable, step-by-step automation. I actually had to order flowers today, and unfortunately, the chatbot was a #fail.  When prompted for the person’s name, I included a typo (humans are so error-prone), but I couldn’t go back.  A web-based form would have been easier.
  • Customer Service: Answering common questions--you know, doing the things a typical automated customer service line would do before handing you off to a real person.  We love that, right? I do like this example from Business Insider: “Imagine users being able to message a Tide detergent bot about the best way to get a coffee stain out of a white T-shirt, and receiving a video response right in the chat app. Goodbye, advertisement-laden Google query.”
  • News: One of the first media partners is CNN.  To give you an idea of how early this technology is, I asked the CNN bot what I thought would be a simple question “what's today's news about Facebook?”.  Not so easy. The answer: “I'm sorry, I couldn't find anything on that, but here's something else”, and I was shown a football related story (I don’t watch football or follow any teams or players...hey, doesn’t Facebook know that?) about a prank played on quarterback Tom Brady.  Another #fail.

In conclusion…try it, but keep expectations low

What problems do chatbots solve that 20 years of ecommerce haven’t already?  Brands have built content, engagement scenarios, tools and automation very specific to their business.  What chatbots could prove useful for is providing utility on a platform (Facebook) where people already spend a lot of time. In a really mature state, years from now, they could (as Microsoft has said) be the “new apps”, but clearly, we’re not there yet.

Chatbots are experiential, so experience a few live bots today from this demo page http://m.me/f8bot.  Let me know what you think.