Opinion / Chatting With Bots
John Cavacas, VP technology at Critical Mass argues that Facebook’s Messenger Platform announcements mean that brand interaction is becoming more personal and human than ever before
The message from Facebook’s announcements at F8, its annual developers conference, was abundantly clear. Brands: Messaging Platforms are the next playground. If you aren’t already playing, you will be forced to sooner than you think.
The naming of the product as the Messenger Platform is a conscious effort by Facebook. It sends a message that should be loud and clear. It is about a new platform of interaction, commerce, social and services.
The bots, while useful, are perhaps more of a novelty at this stage, however, there are a few really good examples starting to emerge. Bots are important as they bring utility to the platforms they operate on, but the key thing to take away is that the interaction model your users have with your brand is yet again changing. It is becoming much more personal and and human.
Messaging platforms remove barriers of entry. For example, the app download barrier is effectively removed. Brands can develop a service and simply just be part of the messaging platform. Once in there, there is no app for a user to install. All brands need to do is have a meaningful and human conversation with a user. That, of course, is the hard part.
Mobile devices and messages have become the universal communication method. Children learn how to operate mobiles and very quickly understand how to communicate with their friends via messaging. It has inherently become second nature. The next phase is then to have services that can be used through this interaction model. In a brand context, it’s about brands having conversations with users through these same familiar mechanisms.
If we look closely at what Facebook announced, we see that their intent is to ensure brands and their technical enablers have a good way to use the Messenger Platform to develop new services. It is of course also a play for Facebook to remain relevant as messaging platforms quickly evolve. Brands get access to an already dedicated user base, and the tools to interact with them. The starting pieces announced are Bots and the Send / Receive API.
Bots can provide automated features like subscriptions to services, the weather, customized communications such as shipping notifications, promotions, and step by step workflows like ordering an Uber, flowers and perhaps a pizza. The Messenger Send/Receive API makes it easy to create the interfaces inside of Messenger to enable conversations, capture user input and provide responses. This is powerful and a direct attack on Twitter and the customer support role that brands have adopted on that platform.
The inclusion of Wit.ai’s conversational bot engine in the Messenger platform starts to make things interesting. The very idea of using a bot engine that is offered as a service, which in turn is used to design a service which operates in Messenger can be hard to wrap your head around. Wit.ai will enable smarter AI-powered services to be created within the Messenger Platform.
This all sounds exciting and i’m sure many can’t wait to start creating their own services and bots. But before you do, there are a few key questions that you as a brand need to ask yourself.
1. Do you have a service that you can offer?
2. Have you actually made inroads into the technology capabilities required to provide that service?
3. Have you really thought about your users and how they would use your service?
Let’s focus on the third point. As always, you need to consider the user first. Research has shown that users are much less tolerant of bot/AI like behaviour that appears to be “dumb”. When we, as humans, attribute anthropomorphic qualities to inanimate things, it works because those things don’t talk back. Once they do however, it is really easy to make users angry when that illusion is broken or when a bot does not behave in expected and contextual ways. There are different strategies to deal with this, but one popular method is to consider strategies like creating bot to human handoff points. The trick here being when the handoff is done in a seamless manner. And yes, humans can and should still play a role.
So before you rush and build your new conversational service on the new Messenger Platform, how are you going to design your service? How will you relentlessly focus on your consumers, to ensure a pleasant, useful and human experience?