With 900 million users, Facebook Messenger is one of the richest pools for digital/mobile outreach—which is why the Menlo Park-California-based company’s move to open up the platform (both app and website-based) to chatbots seems so promising. The idea is to have businesses and developers to get on to Messenger and engage with users in an ‘organic’ manner—using AI and machine learning, the chatbots analyse your preferences and tendencies and engage with you as a human contact on Messenger would. In a nutshell, one may now expect automated customer support, e-commerce tips, grievance support, etc, on the platform. Facebook has already announced a slew of chatbot partnerships—with 1-800-Flowers, for delivering bouquets by just sending its Messenger account a friend’s name, or CNN, for a tailored daily digest of news. Armed with AI and natural language processing, bots can use the Messenger’s new Send/Receive API feature to respond with messages, links and call-to-action prompts (‘book now’ buttons for restaurants, tables, theatre seats, etc). The search bar at the top of the Messenger interface allows a user to browse through a sea of chatbots to link with those of interest while the ‘block’ option ends a chat with a bot at any point of time. Though Facebook hasn’t yet offered the convenience of a Messenger-linked payment option—for a transaction, the user still has to take the pop-out route—there is a world of convenience in store for the user.
As for businesses, apart from access to one of the largest messaging networks, chatbots on Messenger would mean lesser human resource costs—customer support or sales talk in the same personalised, interactive manner, at a fraction of what it takes to maintain call centres. For Facebook, this of course means a new revenue stream—there is big money in allowing companies to push ads into chats with users who have already initiated chats with them, apart from ‘click to message’ news-feed ads that allow companies to prompt users to initiate chats with their chatbots. It will also let Facebook test the ground for allowing bots on Whatsapp, its other, cleaner messaging platform that, at the moment, shuts out chatbots. It will also likely boost user loyalty, herding them away from other chats or messaging services, by offering engagement with a host of other online activity.
The biggest takeaway from Facebook’s chatbot endeavour, however, is that it signals a paradigm shift in the digital world. With bots envisaged to automate nearly every online activity, done on multiple platforms—in China, WeChat users already use bots to hail taxis, pay utility bills, etc—they could significantly lower people’s frequency and duration of interfacing with apps and websites. This is evident in the fact that Messenger is not the only game in town for bots; the likes of Microsoft (for Skype) and Amazon have already hopped on to the bandwagon. The app giants, Apple and Google, meanwhile, too are waking up to the challenge this presents.