Facebook's Messenger bots were launched in a flood of hype earlier this year at the company's F8 conference. Since then, more than 33,000 Messenger Bots have gone into the live environment, serving a wide range of uses, including booking flights, checking the weather and even diagnosing medical conditions.
But while the practical use case for bots seems quite strong, they haven't seen the level of consumer take-up many had expected, which has slowed the progress of the anticipated bot takeover and of bots becoming the next level of social customer service. That's not to say it won't still happen, but the robots, evidently, won't be coming for your jobs as quickly as some may have thought.
In large part, this is likely due to habitual behavior - yes, more than a billion people use Facebook Messenger each month, but they use the app to connect with friends, for more intimate conversation. In that respect, it's possible that people haven't yet warmed to conversing with brands on the same tool, or aren't aware of the possibilities of bot interaction. I mean, we can do our online shopping in a range of ways already, do we really need to do so via message? And is it even practical, given the smaller screen size, when buying products?
This mindset shift appears to be one of the biggest hurdles in opening the gates to bots - and today, Facebook's introduced a range of new tools and options to help facilitate and activate more Messenger business.
Here's what they've announced.
New Ad Options
In an effort to raise awareness of Messenger business, Facebook's adding a new News Feed ad unit which enables brands to connect potential customers direct to a Messenger stream.
As per Facebook:
"All advertisers on Facebook now have the ability to reach people in News Feed and direct them to Messenger. This is an ad destination we began testing a few months ago and we are happy to announce that this is now available to all Facebook advertisers. Early adopters have used these News Feed ads to open conversations in Messenger in order to raise awareness of their brand campaigns and increase sales."
The option's fairly straight-forward - you target users with a sponsored post that puts them in direct connection with your brand via message.
From there, you obviously have the capacity to communicate direct or connect the user to a bot. And while it's relatively simple, it's another way that brands can actually make their audience aware of their Messenger presence, which could go a long way towards facilitating that mindset shift and getting people tuned into the fact that they can utilize Messenger in this way.
In addition to this, Messenger's also adding a new ad option called Sponsored Messages. Sponsored Messages enable brands to "re-engage people who have an open, existing conversation with a business" by sending them a message to alert them to new offers and sales.
The process may seem somewhat intrusive, but again, that's the stigma that Messenger needs to combat, so in this sense, the new option fits perfectly into that next level push to get more people using the platform for business communication. The head of Messaging Products at Facebook, David Marcus, has also made specific note of the requirements around the option, and the tools users have to stop them if they do become annoying, underlining that users have nothing to be concerned about.
"Of course, people using Messenger shouldn't worry about getting spammed, because the starting principles still remain: businesses can't send a sponsored message to threads that weren't previously opened by their customers or prospects, and users have full control to block messages or people/businesses they no longer want to hear from."
'Of course', we all know that, right? Again, it highlights that this is one of the major hurdles for Messenger, to get people to understand that even though this is essentially brands reaching into what's considered a more private space, it's all within your control - though Sponsored Messages could both help and hinder that education in equal measure.
Facebook's also adding additional referral parameters into the back-end bot systems which will enable brands to get a better understanding of how users are coming to their bots and where they're coming from. This will give developers a better understanding of their traffic flow, which could help facilitate better bot workflows. Tthe new options will also enable businesses to make more focused bot interactions - for example, if a user clicks through to your bot from a specific ad, you can create a welcome message aligned to that offer.
Product Presentation Tools
Facebook's also adding in new vertical product presentation options, in addition to the current carousel format. This gives brands more flexibility in how they choose to present their products.
"...each row is tappable and a CTA can be added to the bottom of the template, or to each individual row. The template works well when you want to show people a collection of items in an 'at-a-glance' configuration so they understand their options in just one screen."
It may seem minor, but all of those additional tools and options can help enhance the interaction experience and make the option more appealing, both to businesses and consumer alike.
And the last major addition of the Messenger Platform 1.3 update is a new opt-in tool to enable people to sign-up for Messenger updates within the message process.
"Developers can now add a checkbox plugin to easily allow customers to opt into a Messenger conversation with your business. If the customer is not signed into Facebook or the displayed identity is not the correct customer, they will be asked to sign in with Facebook and can subsequently opt into receiving messages from the business."
Again, a relatively small addition, but it's another way for Messenger to promote more interaction between users and businesses and get more people seeing the platform as a better way to connect with brands.
In addition to this, Facebook's also working on improving the in-flow payments process and providing more visibility on bot additions to Facebook Page Admins, all practical, helpful tools which push Messenger just that little bit further towards becoming a more ubiquitous, accessible and beneficial option for more users.
In the end, Facebook will be hoping that these new tools lead to more businesses promoting their bots and bot benefits to users, which may actually be the best way to get more customers active on the platform. If a business you trust advises that you should check out their bot system instead, you'd be more likely to do so than to take the risk of being spammed by a brand you might only ever purchase from once. In this sense, Facebook might actually be best served by providing better tools to enable more smaller businesses to build their own bots, as that could then lead to more of them promoting the option on their behalf, but the technical limitations of building such systems may be restrictive.
If they can overcome that hurdle, and make it easier for more brands to use bots - while also showing them the potential labor cost savings in doing so - that could be the best avenue for them to take to boost bot adoption more widely.