Speculation is mounting that Facebook's planning to unveil a 'Messenger Bot Store' at their upcoming F8 conference to be held next month, a move that could change the game for a great many organizations. Why would a bot store be so significant? Because it would facilitate the expanded use of Facebook Messenger for business in ways that, up till now, brands could only dare imagine. The ramifications for such a change are wide-reaching and important - here's a rundown of what we know, what might be coming, and how it could change the way we transact entirely.
Expanding the Message
Back in January, TechCrunch published an article which looked at how Facebook was giving select developers access to a new chat SDK (software development kit) which enabled them to "build interactive experiences and "bots" in Messenger for shopping, booking travel, and more". The concept's similar to how WeChat and Line are used in China and Japan, respectively - rather than pushing people to download entire, dedicated apps to improve their brand interactions, businesses are able to build interactive chat bots within these far more commonly used applications, which, along with integrated payment tools, make it easier for users to make purchases, order taxis, buy movie tickets - along with any range of other actions, all via direct message.
Bill payment via WeChat (image via TechCrunch)
As these messaging apps are in already such wide use - WeChat alone has more than 570 million daily users - it makes sense to integrate them further into additional applications where possible, and that's exactly the approach that Facebook's looking to adopt with Messenger.
Back in October, Facebook's head of product management for messaging products, Stan Chudnovsky, discussed the influence of WeChat on their planning for Messenger:
"What's happening in Asia is an inspiration - but that's more about proof of what's possible. It's proof that everything starts from a conversation."
Vice President of Messaging Products, David Marcus, agreed, but noted that they're actually aim to take the concept even further.
"We need to leapfrog what they [WeChat] have done, to create better experiences than you would get with dedicated apps. When WeChat launched, there was no Airbnb, Uber or other fast-growing apps. And the degree of what's acceptable is incredibly different in the west - if your messaging app, which is very personal, is buzzing all the time with advertising, you'll revert to SMS."
Such is the level of ambition for Messenger, to enable all the same functionality and commerce options of WeChat, but on a grander scale. But in order to do that, Facebook needs to be able to facilitate frictionless service - to make it as simple as possible for users to get from interest to conversion more efficiently than they currently can through existing options. And in this sense, Messenger may be in the driver's seat.
But in order to make Messenger into the complete customer service solution, Facebook needs to start making moves and transition audiences into conducting more business via message. And this is where the bots come in.
Rise of the Robots
In a recent post on Medium, Ted Livingston, the founder and CEO of another messaging app, Kik, explained his thoughts on the bot revolution and how he sees it playing a significant part in the development of customer service. Livingstone related a story of attending a recent baseball game, and how bots could have improve the experience by streamlining the process of ordering a beer, rather than having to wait in line, or even order through a dedicated app:
"Imagine I'd sat down and found that there was a sticker on the back of the chair in front of me that said, "Want a beer? Download our app!" Sounds great! I'd unlock my phone, go to the App Store, search for the app, put in my password, wait for it to download, create an account, enter my credit card details, figure out where in the app I actually order from, figure out how to input how many beers I want and of what type, enter my seat number, and then finally my beer would be on its way.
Now imagine the stadium once again, except this time instead of an app, what if the stadium had developed a simple, text-based bot. I'd sit down and see a similar sticker: "Want a beer? Chat with us!" with a chat code beside it. I'd unlock my phone, open my chat app, and scan the code. Instantly, I'd be chatting with the stadium bot, and it'd ask me how many beers I wanted: "1, 2, 3, or 4." It'd ask me what type: "Bud, Coors, or Corona." And then it'd ask me how I wanted to pay: Credit card already on file (**** 0345), or a new card."
And Livingston knows messenger bots - Kik developed their own bot platform a year and a half ago, and have been working to build out their capacity ever since. Livingston also notes that in their research they've seen significant variation in user take up between dedicated apps and bots, with far more people willing to use new functions within apps they know, as opposed to having to download an entirely new one. This also aligns with previously published research which shows that despite people spending 85% of their time on smart phones in apps, only five apps, on average, see any level of regular use.
"Chat apps will come to be thought of as the new browsers; bots will be the new websites. This is the beginning of a new internet."
It's an ambitious call, frm Livingston, but one which again underlines the level of opportunity which Facebook may be able to tap into with a bot platform - but given much of this functionality already exists, why would a Facebook bot store 'change the game', so to speak?
A little while back, Facebook introduced 'M', their personal assistant for Messenger. M, much like Microsoft's 'Cortana' and Apple's 'Siri', is a virtual assistant which can respond to commands - the only difference being that M is operated via message, as opposed to spoken commands. M is an extremely ambitious project - through M, Facebook has enabled Messenger users (in the few regions where the service is available) to purchase products, buy plane tickets, to conduct all manner of manual and mundane tasks autonomously, all within the exchange of messages.
M is fuelled by an artificial intelligence engine, but that engine's overseen by a team of human trainers - a small team now, but Facebook envisions that the group will expand and help M refine and improve its understanding of common queries. And that development, in itself, may prove crucial for the expansion of Facebook's bot service - while many have suggested M can't possibly succeed, at scale, that M won't be able to understand the intricacies of human language and initiate actions on behalf of Messenger users to the level of accuracy required to be useful, maybe that was never the intention for the service anyway. Maybe, M was only ever set up to train Facebook's bot AI to be able to deal with a wider range of customer facing tasks.
For example, M is already learning - when a request is sent to M the AI tries to deal with it and is assisted by a human trainer to keep it on track. And through each one of these interactions, M learns, taking into account the feedback from the trainer, whether it was right or wrong, and adding that into its calculations and language analysis to get a better understanding of each question being asked and the surrounding context. As time goes on, M's handling more and more queries without human intervention - and that, in essence, may be the real reason for M's existence.
Imagine now that Facebook opens their new bot store and they can sell bots to companies based on their specific industry. M's already dealt with 1000s of queries in relation to buying flowers, for example, and it's now able to handle around 80% of Messenger transactions in this category without any human intervention. You can immediately see why florists would be interested - and maybe, through M, Facebook's learning a whole range of industries in the same way, building dedicated, focused chat bots that can increase your business without you having to do anything but fulfil the orders as they come in.
This is in line with Facebook's wider monetization plans for Messenger - David Marcus noted late last year that they're not looking to charge businesses by taking a cut of each Messenger transaction:
"eBay takes a cut of every transaction and listing; Alibaba does all that for free, and makes money from advertising. Alibaba is bigger than eBay and Amazon combined, and is growing much faster. We take the same approach. We want the maximum number of transactions on the platform, while enabling the best possible mobile experience for commerce. The margins on payments aren't that high, and we want the broadest reach. Businesses will want to pay to be featured or promoted - which is a bigger opportunity for us."
Through dedicated bots, Facebook could monetize both the bot and ongoing learning, with input from either the brand itself and/or ongoing updates from M, as well as features and promotions within Messenger itself - a massive opportunity.
And this is before you even consider the reduced business costs of developing your own app, the time it takes to deal with customer queries and the staff costs of paying humans to assist. All of these expenses could be significantly reduced by Messenger bots, if Facebook can get users on board. And given the examples we've seen, it's likely people will welcome such an experience. If it makes a process easier, people will use it, and bots can make life a lot easier - it's not hard to imagine a bot revolution coming in the very near future.
There's still some way to go - Facebook hasn't even confirmed speculation of a bot store as yet. But it's not hard to see that the coming impact of Messenger bots will be significant.
Right now, we could be right at the edge of the next evolution in customer service.