Facebook’s annual F8 developer conference took place last week, and of all the headlines the event created, none has generated more buzz than its push to encourage marketers to embrace Facebook Messenger. As I predicted about a year ago, it’s time for businesses to embrace this platform.
With over 900 million users, the scale is there. So, too, is the association with Facebook’s robust, mobile-first advertising platform, which enabled Instagram to get off to such a fast start when it debuted to advertisers in 2015.
But Messenger’s optimal utility, as I see it, will not be as a placement alternative to Facebook and Instagram. Better to conceptualize it as a tool that can reduce barriers to purchase by humanizing the engagement between customer and company.
There are two ways brands can use Messenger for this purpose.
They can power Messenger with actual people. In this scenario, Messenger becomes a substitute for a customer service rep that you might call.
Alternatively, brands can develop Chat Bots using Facebook suite of tools. As the name suggests, bots are software, not people, that can be designed to understand and act upon our questions, requests, and statements.
In other words, Messenger is following in the footsteps of Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexis, and Alphabet’s Google Now, digital assistants that enable users to talk to their devices. With this announcement, Facebook signals its intent to enable any brand, product or service with a Facebook page to build its own Siri-like assistant, one that is built to power sales and customer service.
1-800-Flowers.com already has been experimenting with Chat Bots, so I decided to give it a whirl.
It’s Facebook page includes a too-small link to “Message Now.” Using my Surface Pro, I clicked that link and asked 1-800-Flowers.com, “How long is delivery wait time in my hometown?” I got an answer from “Cat” in less than five minutes. Turns out that Cat is an actual person. She told me I could try the Chat Bot by closing the session and then typing “Place Order” in the Messenger window, which I did.
What followed next is best described as Messenger meets Amazon. I was shown a carousel of flower products. Though the product images were small and the navigation arrows obscured the price, selecting my arrangement, entering a delivery address and date, indicating the recipient’s name and phone number, and completing a note all took less than a minute.
I tried repeating the exercise on my smartphone, but I couldn’t confirm my address. The bot’s offer to help simply resulted in asking me to confirm my address once again.
Overall, the exchange was very mechanical, but I can see its potential. Bots may scale more efficiently than people, but while brands iron out the kinks, they can deploy human reps or a human-bot hybrid approach.
As such, Messenger’s value goes beyond just bots. Imagine an airport that is canceling flights because of bad weather. Passengers frantically speed-dial travel agents or airline service reps to try to get another flight, find a hotel, or rent a car. They’re also contacting family. A company such as Expedia could react by running in-feed ads on Facebook that target users by location with an invitation to “Chat Now” with a human or bot to help devise a travel Plan B.
I don’t ordinarily endorse The Newest Tech Thing so quickly, but given Messenger’s scale and Facebook integration, brands should start planning to use Messenger to connect with their customers. I’m not alone. Some are predicting that brands will publish chat bots in a flurry that resembles their push to publish mobile apps. It’s a future that doesn’t stretch plausibility. Bots have work to do before they can replace humans, but within a year, maybe two, they’ll feel a lot more human.
When that happens, we’ll talk about bots the same way we do about apps: a tremendous leap forward in the way people engage their digital worlds.