Last year, at their annual F8 developer conference, Facebook announced their next big eCommerce play - their Bot platform for Messenger. Bots were heralded as the next big thing, with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg noting the growth of their messaging platforms, and the business opportunities they represent.
But a year later, bots haven't taken off as Facebook would have hoped.
There are a few reasons for this - one relates to perception. As exemplified by the usage stats Messenger has become a key place to connect with friends and send quick messages, but now, Facebook needs to expand upon that understanding in order to get people to see all the other things you can do on the platform other in addition to messaging.
This is part of the reason why they've added in new functions like games and the Snapchat-esque 'Messenger Day', to underline that there's more to Messenger than messaging - "While you're already in Messenger communicating with friends, why not also try this out, and this - and also, there are bots too".
Another problem has been communication - while there are over 34,000 bots currently active in Messenger, I'm guessing, if pressed, you'd only be able to name a few. And given you're reading this post, you're someone who's interested in the latest social trends - people with no exposure at all to such updates probably aren't even aware that Messenger Bots exist.
So how does Facebook change this? One way could be through word-of-mouth, something they've already tried to push with improved bot recommendation functions and Facebook ads which connect users into bot interactions.
But there may be another, more effective way to improve the utility of bots and capitalize on word of mouth at the same time. And just as Snapchat has provided the inspiration for many of their latest updates, it could be Google leading the way this time around.
Take a look at this:
This is Google Assistant, which is built into the chat element of their new app Allo. Google Assistant makes it easy to search Google while you're in a group discussion, helping to plan events, get immediate info for context - basically search for anything you need to know, with all group members able to see the interaction.
It's a functional, helpful addition to the group chat process - as you can see, the immediate applications in terms of planning and context are clear. And Facebook now looks set to release something similar, with TechCrunch reporting that The Social Network will release "a new class of group bots that work inside Messenger group chats" at this year's F8 event next month.
According to TechCrunch, the new group bots will be able to keep users informed of real-time news and updates during their conversation:
"For example, a Messenger group of football fans could add a sports bot to their thread, where it could report score changes, big plays and other news from the game. An e-commerce group bot could keep a group of coworkers informed about the status of their lunch delivery, letting them know that the order is being prepared and when it arrives."
Thus far, Facebook hasn't commented on the report, but it's fair to assume that if they were to go down the group bots track, the applications could extend well beyond news updates alone, and more into the Google Assistant territory.
Facebook actually started to head in this direction recently by adding the option to @mention someone withiin a Messenger conversation.
Extending upon this, you might also be able to @mention any bot. So let's say you're talking to your friends and trying to organize a movie date - one of your friends might now that you can find the relevant information through @moviebot (I've made this up for illustrative purposes). Now, instead of going back and forth into other tabs, your friend types in '@moviebot what time is Beauty and the Beast showing?'
All the group members see the response, clarifying the details immediately.
On Google, the process is a little easier because you can refer to @google, you all know the one handle to mention for this purpose. On Messenger, you'd have to know the specific bot names, but it only takes one group chat member to know the right one, then you can all benefit - which will also help boost awareness of bot capabilities.
This may not seem like the big step, like the big thing that takes bots into the public consciousness. But it'd be a good start. How many times have you have to switch to another window to look up information in order to answer a question in a group chat - how many screenshots have you posted to illustrate your point? Soon, if you know the right bots, you might be able to do this without ever leaving Messenger. A win for you, in terms of efficiency, and a win for Facebook, in terms of engagement.
Of course, this hasn't been confirmed in any way as yet, and the initial reports don't specifically note this type of functionality. But the progression would make perfect sense.
And if it catches on, bots might become a much bigger consideration for your business.
Watch the news from F8, but don't be surprised if bots become a much bigger factor in the second half of the year.
Note: Tim Peterson at Marketing Land has written a great piece on bots which points out that Kik also has similar group bot functionality