Facebook Developing Chatbots for its Popular Messenger App

Facebook is working with more than 25 companies to help them use chatbots in Messenger to order goods and answer customer service questions, without human assistance. Among its new partners are Disney, eBay, JetBlue, and The Wall Street Journal, all of which are contributing to making the Messenger app a focal point for shopping, news and entertainment. Facebook owns two of the largest messaging apps, Messenger and WhatsApp; both are piloting programs to let businesses communicate with customers.

The Wall Street Journal reports that chief executive Mark Zuckerberg “believes messaging apps will be central to the company in the next five years,” and that Facebook is also trying to make it “easier to stream high-quality live video to the network.”

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Although Facebook began testing such ideas as letting customers track Zulily orders or order towels at Hyatt Hotels, it’s uncertain that Messenger will catch on as a shopping or customer service destination since users aren’t used to the idea.

Chatbots, however, could “help expand the number of businesses that can interact with Messenger’s 900 million users,” as 1-800 Flowers president Chris McCann demonstrated at Facebook’s F8 conference. But, notes Operator co-founder/chief executive Robin Chan, sometimes a chatbot can be more difficult than a simple website.

“Putting the storefront into a straw” puts pressure on advertisers to choose the right items, he said, adding that he expects “a lot of bad bots” initially.

According to Bloomberg, Facebook’s “bot strategy” is a way to siphon users’ “mobile experiences” away from Apple and Google’s dominant smartphones. Since Facebook “failed to convert its success to smartphones… [it] has been trying to claw back at this territory for years.” At last year’s F8 conference, Facebook let developers start to offer services within the Messenger app, but “the results haven’t been earth-shattering,” because users found there wasn’t really any advantage to opening an app within Messenger as opposed to a home screen.

Facebook is betting that bots will change the equation, by making basic interactions, such as customer service requests, more pleasurable than via a smartphone app. “The more time Facebook can keep people locked into Messenger, the more Facebook becomes essential,” suggests Bloomberg, noting that it relies on natural language processing and artificial intelligence, both technologies with “massive potential” and “plenty of room for development.”

Chatbots, however are in their infancy and it remains to be seen if companies such as Apple and Google will follow in Facebook’s path or not. “It may just be Facebook adding to its business, and it’s not transformative and it’s not really a threat,” said Union Square Ventures analyst Jonathan Livov.