Will Facebook Messenger’s Updated Platform Cause a Rise in Chatbots?

How brands can benefit from the change

Headshot of Marty Swant

Yesterday, Facebook unveiled a major update to its Messenger app, that allows developers to create chatbots for brands through its chatbot API. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's announcement has major implications for messaging platforms like Kik and Skype. Now, with 900 million people around the world using Facebook Messenger, will the social network with a reach broader than any other be able to bring bots into the mainstream?

For starters, Facebook's bot battalion launched with 30 brands and publishers, including the likes of CNN, Burger King, Bank of America, StubHub, HP, eBay and Expedia. According to R/GA chief technology officer Nick Coronges, Facebook's advantage is its ability to integrate its mission for Messenger with Mark Zuckerberg's larger vision for his social network empire.

"The big story obviously here is that unlike Kik or Telegram, where they focus on the bot story, Facebook brings this incredible reach," Coronges said. "Now the question is how mainstream will this become?"

Facebook isn't the first player in the space. There are already plenty of startups that have been making bots for customer service, e-commerce, news or entertainment. Just days before Kik announced its own bot shop—launching with more than a dozen brands including H&M, Vine and Sephora—the Canadian messaging app's head of messenger services said the ballooning of the bot sector helps to show the value to both users and brands.

"Everyone is watching the space right now, and that's great," Mike Roberts, head of messenger services at Kik, said at the time. "Every major messenger is in [the chatbot space], and I can't remember the last time we've all made a bet together. It's only going to drive more interest."

Around 1.6 billion people could be using messaging apps by the end of this year, according to eMarketer. That number is then expected to continue growing through the rest of this decade, with 1.8 billion in 2017, 2 billion in 2018 and 2.1 billion in 2019. So, with nearly 1 billion people on Facebook alone, brands are beginning to look for new ways to meaningfully engage with consumers.

"The bottom line is the business promise of conversational web requires easy access to customers, and Facebook's investments with the Messenger platform will help facilitate that," said Pypestream CEO Richard Smullen. "Beyond Facebook, however, there are many other opportunities for brands to leverage bots or AI to deliver customer service, marketing and other conversational services to consumers."

Tom Hyde, social communications strategy director at Droga5, thinks that while it might be difficult to imagine the scope of bots beyond booking flowers or receiving news, the space will evolve quickly.

"A new creative medium—particularly one with the built-in audience and scale that Facebook has—will quickly become a fertile space for innovation," he said. "We've seen it with the iOS app store, and I'm really excited to see what evolves out of this space, in both text and voice-activated experiences."

Companies that already have been building bots say they've seen impressive engagement between users and brands. In December, Swyft Media built a bot for the movie The Forest, targeting teens on Kik, with some users spending as long as 30 to 45 minutes within the chatbot experience.

According to Swyft co-founder Evan Wray, bots are the natural evolution of messaging apps, which have been a conduit for marketers seeking high engagement through the use of custom emojis. 

According to Wray, messaging apps today are in a similar boat to where social media was in 2006 and 2007 with Twitter and Facebook still only on desktop. Both have massive audiences that tend to be younger and highly engaged. And while many have talked about the spending power of millennials, the even younger generation using the app the most—namely Gen Z—are estimated to influence $600 billion in family spending.

So are emojis the gateway drug for bots? According to Wray, not quite.

"I don't necessarily look at emoji as a gateway drug for bots, per se, but emoji was the first step in really educating the mass market—but also the mass brand market—on the power of messaging apps in general."

Another new bot in Facebook's first wave is Poncho, a weather-forecasting feline based on a cat from Brooklyn. Over time Poncho will act more and more like a cat, leaving users to figure out how to interact with him. "Just like a real cat," said James Cooper, head of creative for Betaworks.

Cooper said brands that don't embrace messaging apps will be left behind and lose out on valuable engagement.

"It's an amazing opportunity to leapfrog competitive brands," he said. "Once you try this type of interaction with a brand everything else seems really archaic. There will be a whole generation of people that think it's crazy that they can't message their favourite brand or chat with them."

@martyswant martin.swant@adweek.com Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.