Facebook Messenger Chatbots: year one in review

Customer Experience 21 April 2017

Since Facebook announced during its F8 2016 – the annual Facebook gathering for developers – that bots would be integrated into its Messenger platform, bot creation for its messaging service has been growing non-stop. In November 2016, during the Web Summit in Lisbon, Frenchman David Marcus, the brain behind Messenger, assured attendees that 33,000 developers had already participated in the creation of 34,000 bots*!

The appetite for this technology grew out of the ecosystem that Facebook has built around the user/brand/developer trifecta

Facebook has made considerable efforts to maximise perceived value for bots for each of these three actors.

The interface has been improved, and it now features a persistent menu to make navigation within the bot easier, as well as Webviews support, which allows users to open, for example, an e-commerce site without leaving the Messenger ecosystem. The user experience has also been improved, and now includes features such as sending emojis to the bot and, more importantly, the possibility to send payments over chat. Still in beta stage in the US, this function could become the cornerstone of Messenger’s monetisation.

But to develop the use of this technology, developers must still be convinced of its good. Of course, Facebook has not forgotten about them, and regularly posts updates on the Messenger API. For instance, the Facebook Analytics for Apps solution gives developers access to socio-demographic reports about bot users, and even to statistics about messages sent via the bot.

Finally, the last link of the chain: brands too must be convinced of the good of chatbots as a new way to communicate with target consumers. First challenge: driving qualified traffic to the bot. To respond to this issue, Facebook developed the Messenger Ads format, which gives advertisers the possibility of redirecting users to their chatbot. Similarly, the instant messaging service has developed a widget that can be embedded in advertisers’ sites, to bring the user to the bot.

Three main reasons for use have emerged for Messenger as a hosting platform for bots. As of today, the United States is home to the most developed Messenger chatbots.

The land of the free and the home of the brave is fertile ground for the development and use of chatbots, with over an hour per week spent on Facebook Messenger and an average of 105.2 million monthly active users in 2016. This could explain why American advertisers are less timid about testing this new technology.

  • First use: Messenger is used as a new way to share content. TechCrunch, the online technology news media, thus designed its chatbot to give personalised article recommendations.
  • Second use: popular as yet only in the States, Messenger can be used for e-commerce. Recently, Domino’s Pizza came up with a chatbot through which users can place orders directly within Messenger.
  • Finally, the last developed use: customer service, with chatbots used to foster client loyalty and retention. Bank of America, for example, developed a chatbot in October 2016 whose principal function is to give clients real-time account alerts.

“Threads are the new apps”*: only time will tell

Despite the hunger on the US market for these bots, it is important to remember that this technology is still very young both technically speaking and in terms of acceptance by the public. Today, in France for example, the telephone remains the primary point of contact between the consumer and a brand, while messaging represents barely 6% of cases, according to a study by the BVA surveying group. Messaging is much more widely used in other countries, such as China. The Chinese messaging app WeChat reports some 806 million daily users, while Facebook Messenger caps off at 600 million (source: statistita 2016).

It should be noted that apps are not yet out of the picture. In the United States, despite the continued success of Facebook Messenger, which recorded 28% more active users in 2017 than in 2016 (Nielsen), other apps are growing at dizzying speeds. Among others, the Bitmoji app, which allows users to create personalised emoticons with the user’s own avatar, multiplied its audience by 52 between February 2015 and December 2016! As for Tinder, the popular dating app, it grew 16 times faster in 2016 than in previous years. In Europe too, app use across the three major markets (France, the United Kingdom, and Germany) increased by 23% in 2016 (Flurry Analytics, 2016). Despite a growing need for renewal, it is too soon for the curtain to fall on apps as they offer many services that messaging and bots do not, including e-commerce, product showcasing, and geolocation.

Slow and steady transition will win the race

Advertisers must allow users to slowly get used to this new channel. In Europe, messaging platforms are currently used as a means of communication among friends. Brands have not yet found their proper place in this ecosystem, and must integrate slowly so as not to rush consumers.

According to David Marcus, botaining explicit user consent is essential to start a Messenger conversation with a bot. Then only will Messenger conversations not feel intrusive. The proposed user experience must therefore correspond to the tool’s philosophy, with a bot whose function must be in line with consumers’ habits and privacy needs.

Just like apps in their early days, the bot market is perhaps not yet mature. Don’t forget that almost 10 years ago it was rare for brands to publish an iPhone app – most waited several years before getting involved. Facebook Messenger and its chatbots seem to be following a similar trajectory: the transition will be gradual, and it will take a few more years before all brands instantly respond over this medium, whether via a conversational agent as middleman or through auto-response messages.

Avoiding the disappointment factor

According to a study by the BVA surveying group titled “Observatory of Customer Service 2016” (“Observatoire des services clients 2016” in the original French), “social networks got started on the wrong foot and are in the second to last row when it comes to satisfaction ratings (73% satisfaction, a 13-point increase over a year), compared to 80% for phones.” Chao Liao, director of partnerships at Snaps, a bot development agency, sums up the current situation: “With the chatbot there’s actually friction because people don’t really know how to talk to a bot, so there’s a lot of guesswork and that’s a bad user experience.” This is why it’s important to work hard on the UX and on formalising messages!

A famous department store brand recently wanted to incorporate an image-recognition algorithm to help its users to locate outfits on the web that they spotted in real life. The idea was undoubtedly a good one, but the technology wasn’t there. When this happens, the consumer is disappointed, which inevitably damages the brand’s reputation. The promise of seamless conversation with no hitches, like with a real human, must be kept. This can come about through a relevant and detailed decision tree, an understanding of natural language, and a technological layer that allows the user to buy a product or make an appointment among other actions.

Most of all, it is important to understand that users still need real human contact. The chatbot project must learn to balance reality with the customer service potential of artificial intelligence.

First steps in incorporating chatbots

Are most of your clients on Facebook? Do you want to offer them a real experience via this channel? If so, why not join the bot adventure with a first POC (Proof of Concept) that will tackle one or two very simple use cases? This will be a way to test whether or not your audience is receptive to this kind of innovation before taking on a wider-scale project.

Once your bot is live, don’t forget to advertise it via dedicated Facebook advertising or Messenger plugins that can be embedded in your website. Indeed, in the absence of an official bot store, it is unlikely that your bot will be successful if you do not communicate about it yourself.

Is your chatbot a success? It’s time to convert the try and enrich the user experience for your chatbot with extra functions! A more complete Messenger experience is sure to increase client engagement and improve retention rates. This could have other benefits, too, such as cutting down on wait time for customer service by phone.

Lastly, if your brands are present overseas, it is wise to expand beyond the Messenger platform, using it as a stepping stone in a broader conversational marketing strategy which will grow to include Kik (USA), WeChat (China), Line (Japan), Telegram (Russia) and Whatsapp, and will allow you to continue interacting with your clients no matter where they are in the world.

Are you interested in trying the Messenger channel to respond to client needs?
fifty-five can help you create an experimental chatbot. Contact us today!

*Statement of David Marcus, Lisbon Web Summit (November 2016), and his note on Facebook (January 2016)

Translated from the original French by Niamh Cloughley.

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