Facebook thinks that we’re at the start of a new era, but the developers who will be responsible for ushering it in still need a lot of convincing.
The social network is trying to revolutionise the way people and businesses communicate with the launch of a new set of tools to let companies build “smart” chatbots for automating conversations with users.
The thesis here is that people hate talking on the phone and downloading new apps, so chat bots within Messenger are a new avenue for customer service, sales, and content distribution.
Facebook launched its beta platform with 33 partners — for example, Staples has a bot to answer product questions, a startup called Spring has one to sell people apparel, and CNN’s will blast out links to news stories.
Walking around Facebook’s F8 developers’ conference, we heard more buzz about bots than any of the other product updates that the company trotted out. From startup developers and brand people, we heard some excitement but a lot of hesitation, too.
Here are four concerns we heard:
Poncho the weather cat doesn’t feel very useful yet
1. The technology is not fully baked
“It’s brand new and, well, it feels very brand new,” the CTO of a photobook company said after checking out Facebook’s informational booth on building bots.
Although he can see the eventual benefits of an automated system to help new customers easily create their books by pulling photos from Facebook, the current tech isn’t “there yet.”
“Bots are unlikely to have much of an immediate impact other than creating a ton of buzz that companies will over react to,” says Forrester analyst Julie Ask. It might be easy to order an Uber, but other experiences will still feel clunky for a while.
“A lot of heavy lifting has to be done in AI and other supporting technologies for these experiences to be truly magical.”
2. Customers may balk
A common refrain was “wait and see” whether customers will use them.
Yes, tapping into a new base of 900 million users sounds appealing, but chatting with businesses feels like something only power users will embrace, and there’s no sense whether those 900 million are using Messenger for anything more than — for example — the occasional group thread with their one friend with an Android phone.
Without real proof that users will embrace chatbots, smaller companies with a bunch of other tech problems to work on don’t see setting up a bot as a big priority.
One exec at a marketing company said that he sees real potential as a way for clients to reach new customers outside of “noisy” email blasts, but right now, businesses can’t reach out to people directly through Messenger bots anyway (though they can buy ads that direct people into a chat).
His enthusiasm represents a line Facebook will have to straddle very carefully: Making an investment in chat worthwhile for businesses without alienating users.
If people already find these initial bots spammy, they won’t use them. And if developers don’t hear proof about how bots drive real sales or increased customer satisfaction, they won’t bother building them.
Because monetisation is a big factor. An employee at a big media company said that the jury would be out until it was clear that bots really drove traffic. He also expressed annoyance that this new bot experience seems to have replaced the Notify app that Facebook launched last fall.
3. Our users aren’t on Messenger
Messenger currently has 900 million monthly active users and people are exchanging over one billion messages with business accounts per month.
But several business owners we talked to who cater to an older audience didn’t feel like they’d find their target customers on Messenger anyway. (Facebook hasn’t released demographic stats around the app.)
Something else we heard several times was a call for Facebook to release numbers around Messenger’s daily active users, like Snapchat does.
4. What about WhatsApp?
One startup CEO who had flown in from India expressed his dismay that the bot API only works with Messenger, not Facebook’s other chat app, WhatsApp, which is incredibly popular in India.
Letting users bypass the need to download a separate app to use a service is particularly valuable in emerging markets where people have less smartphone memory and less bandwidth for downloading, he reasoned.
5. Facebook is too powerful
Facebook is trying to eat the internet.
At least that’s the perception of some developers who feel uneasy at the thought of someday relinquishing their app experience to Facebook’s ever-expanding universe.
“It feels inevitable,” one startup developer sighed, believing that when Facebook wants something it usually gets it.
Others aren’t so sure.
“They’re trying to create this paradigm shift,” an exec at a digital ad company said, “But I doubt they can make it work.”
Although a lot of really smart people have said that chatbots are the next big thing, even Facebook’s gargantuan size isn’t a guarantee that that they will take off. Silicon Valley might be obsessed, but we don’t have real proof yet that users will be too.
Facebook / Stan Chudnovsky
Just day one
Ultimately, Facebook’s Messenger Platform is just in beta, and we won’t really know how it will fare until it’s loose in the wild for a while.
“Facebook rolled out the earliest, v.001 version,” said the CEO of a brand messaging company. “Facebook gave the business world a canvas, it’s up to partners to create.”
Stan Chudnovsky, head of product for messaging, says he hopes that at next year’s F8, Facebook will be able to regale the world with success stories from tens of thousands of bots:
If we can say, next year, that we have tens of thousands of bots on the platform, and they are providing amazing experiences to the vast majority of our users, and we go from one billion messages sent between people and businesses today to a number that is significantly larger than that and have a list of businesses that have substantially grown because of being on Messenger… That would be the goal.