Chatbots have arrived in force and brands are jostling for space.
Facebook announced at its F8 conference that it has created a platform for companies to develop the robots that mimic human conversation to run within its Messenger app, which now counts 900 million users worldwide. Bots for Messenger enables users to get everything from weather updates to shopping notifications and personalized news as well as message companies and publishers as they do their friends.
“A lot of people are thinking about bots in a geeky way,” said Facebook VP messaging products, David Marcus. “We’d like to think of bots in a different way.”
Launch partners include shopping app Spring, HP and CNN. HP’s tool lets users print a photo by sending it to the company’s printing bot on Messenger, where the bot responds conversationally (i.e. “Hey, nice photo,”) and gives printing options.
CNN’s bot lets users message topics like “zika virus” or “politics” and be served related stories and information or it will answer a query from an “Ask CNN” feature. The bot gets to know the user as time goes on, serving more customized stories and conversational responses.
Spring’s Personal Shopper bot serves suggestions based on user preferences and sends a confirmation when purchases are made.
Retail giants Sephora and H&M just launched bots on messaging app Kik, where shoppers browse and buy products.
Taco Bell showed off its TacoBot, a way to use messaging app Slack to place an order.
“Evangelists of the technology say that bots are poised to be at the center of a crucial paradigm shift in how we think about using the Internet,” reports the Washington Post. “While a Web browser might once have been our front door to the Internet and apps often play that role today, experts say that bots could soon become our primary digital gateway.
Already dubbed “conversational commerce,” Kik spokesman Rod McLeod said, “The user has to opt into the conversation. So that’s kind of an interest indicator from the get-go.” Kik’s first 16 partners include Vine, Sephora, H&M and The Weather Channel. Third-party developers can upload their bots to Kik independently.
Chatbots are not new. Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana are bot-powered and have essentially paved the way for the full-on bot revolution as leaps in natural-language processing and artificial intelligence enable the next iteration.
“Brands don’t really want to talk to you—that’s why they invented phone trees, after all,” notes The Verge. “But they want you to feel like you can talk to them, which is why bots are the answer. Soon, a great plague of bots will descend upon us all.”
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in the Washington Post, “Bots are the new apps,” even as his company’s Tay.ai bot infamously went rogue and spewed racist comments. Last month Microsoft announced a developer toolkit for bots.
eMarketer reports that 113 million people used Kik, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger in 2014 and that number is expected to surge to 177 million by 2019.
Burger King’s Messenger bot is still a work-in-progress.
Zuckerberg showed off a 1-800-Flowers bot and placed an order during F8. “The Messenger Platform will move around business,” he commented. “To order from 1-800-Flowers you never have to call them again.”
A note of caution from ZDNet, “Facebook’s bot experience-commerce-content vision could play out, but the growing pains could result in a bot backlash for some brands. We’ll see if Facebook’s Bots for Messenger can thread the needle between delight and annoyance.”
The F8 software conference drew 2,000 developers this year. “I think advances in AI can help save peoples lives,” said Zuckerberg. Facebook is open-sourcing its AI tools so “we can all make progress together.”