As had been widely anticipated, Facebook has today announced a new bot store for Messenger which will enable all businesses to build their own chat bots - automated response tools within Messenger which will be able to handle increasingly complex customer queries. Facebook included various examples of bots in action options in a new video showcasing the expanding utility of Messenger.
As per Facebook's official announcement:
"We're excited to introduce bots for the Messenger Platform. Bots can provide anything from automated subscription content like weather and traffic updates, to customized communications like receipts, shipping notifications, and live automated messages all by interacting directly with the people who want to get them."
As you can see from the image, Facebook's already partnered with a range of businesses to enable Messenger bots, including 1-800-Flowers.com, Poncho, Spring and CNN.
Messenger bots will facilitate a whole new range of ways for users to connect with brands, and have the potential to cause a significant shift in eCommerce more widely. And given the amount of users on Messenger (now up to 900m MAU), and the surrounding trends around app use (people using fewer) and messaging in general (people messaging more), you'd suspect that Messenger bots will prove popular. They're quick, they're easy and, over time, they'll learn to become more and more intuitive.
Facebook has noted that the Messenger Send/Receive API - the back-end system on which bots will be built - will support not only sending and receiving basic text, but also "images and interactive rich bubbles containing multiple calls to action". This will allow users to make reservations, view their boarding pass, check the details of their order, all from within the message thread.
While the Messenger platform doesn't currently allow payments direct through a credit card added to Messenger (which you can bet is coming soon), these features will also enable businesses to add weblinks which users can click through to make payments on the web.
Facebook says all developers and businesses will be given full access to documentation around building their own bots for Messenger, which can then be submitted for review to ensure your bots adhere to Facebook's standards and protect the user experience. Additionally, if building bots is beyond your technical capacity, Facebook will also provide a listing of bot-building partners, along with Facebook's own bot engine, powered by their natural language interface Wit.ai - the same core system Facebook uses to power their Messenger assistant service 'M'.
Effectively, this will enable businesses to use the learnings Facebook has gleaned from the development of M to build improved bots that have greater understanding of conversation context and semantics, ensuring your bot can respond to more requests, more accurately. Bots built on Wit.ai will also be able to learn over time and improve their responses based on previous interactions.
All of these new features will, of course, be made easier with improved connectivity options, including the recently announced Messenger Codes and the upgraded Facebook Messenger Page Plugin. Expect to see a heap of Messenger codes built into advertisements over the next 12 months, connecting users direct to a message thread with the respective business.
Importantly, Facebook's also noted that there will also be improved controls to protect users and ensure they're not inundated with bot messages and prompts.
"As businesses begin to interact with people - from reservations to customer service to a small test of sponsored messages - we've built a new suite of controls and policies that we're putting in place now and for the future. We are focused on facilitating messages from businesses that provide meaningful value to the people who receive them. People will be able to mute and block communications that they don't want to receive. There are also strict policies for developers and businesses to uphold and we will have review processes to ensure we carefully evaluate how our community is responding."
As we know from automation options on other platforms (Twitter DMs, anyone?), give businesses a chance to use automation and they'll abuse it, so it's important Facebook gets this element right and ensures that the user experience is enhanced by bots, not destroyed by it. This will be critical in ensuring wider take-up of Messenger bot adoption and use - if it's not improving people lives and on-platform experiences, they'll stop using them. In this sense, every bot experience will count, particularly early on in the roll out.
As noted, Facebook's bot marketplace has the potential to change the game for a great many businesses. It'll make it easier to connect and get a response from your favorite brands - and even if it's not directly linked to eCommerce, it gives businesses a whole new way to meet their fans on the platforms which they're most comfortable with, and are already using anyway. Given this, and Facebook's focus on maintaining and building the user experience through bots, it's easy to imagine these new features will be widely popular. There's no certainties, of course, and Facebook does have to tread carefully in allowing brands to step into the Messaging space, but the positives are big, the benefits are huge.
Messenger bots could be the next step in the evolution of eCommerce.