At its F8 conference in April, Facebook announced its new Bots for Messenger platform. Currently being trialled by select launch partners ahead of a full rollout, this allows brands and publishers to create new experiences for their audiences within Facebook Messenger, now used by over 900m active monthly users. These users will be able to connect with bots and have back and forth conversations through typing and selecting from multiple choice responses.
The early efforts of Facebook launch partners KLM and Spring give you some idea of what this could mean for brands and indeed the future of social media marketing as we know it. In a few quick clicks, users can browse flight information, display boarding passes, move through product ranges and complete transactions. Social media marketing has matured to be a rather broadcast based, one to many channel. As bot technology improves and user adoption increases, a shift towards one to one, utility and services-focused social media marketing seems likely.
A TV campaign’s creative plot and characters could live on as fictional personas within Messenger, the days of huge call centres and armies of community managers resolving queries about orders could be over and the way people inform and carry out their purchases could look dramatically different in years to come. But for all of the opportunities on the way, the world of bots also brings with it a lot of risk that brands need to look out for.
One early risk for brands is that they get too caught up with all of the hype and rush to create a bot too quickly. When social media marketing on Facebook really took off, every brand under the sun wanted a piece of the action and a lot of money was wasted. You had toilet bleach brands spending thousands of pounds creating Facebook apps to award fans with lifetime supplies of cleaning products. There were sandwich spreads asking people to share what they were planning to eat at lunch. In many instances, brands weren’t acting with purpose and strategy, so few business and brand objectives were achieved. The thought of a brand being considered an early adopter is tantalising but it needs to be realistic and ensure that whatever bot it creates provides something genuinely useful or entertaining.
Another big consideration for brands is the actual way that their future bots talk and interact with users. Every brand in social likes to think that it has a distinct tone of voice and visual style, but if you covered up the brand logos on any number of social posts or playbooks, you’d find it hard to pick out one brand from another. What brands pre-populate their bots with is one thing. The natural language skills of a computer is another. For all of the Hollywood script writers being scooped up by Silicon Valley to develop personas for bots, they can very often still sound way too cheesy and sarcastic. Is this how you want your brand to be experienced?
Finally, user attitudes need to be explored and handled with care. Are people open enough to deal with bots rather than humans for all things currently? And, whilst the first generation of bots stand pre-populated with only a limited number of stock responses, how patient will users be? If a financial services bot can’t quickly and successfully give a customer their bank balance or a clothes retailer can’t guide a shopper through the right range of stock, customer satisfaction’s going to be low, the traditional call centre isn’t going to be any less busy and the big, expensive, standalone webstore or app’s going to be as essential as ever.
Facebook has a habit of predicting the future and making the right moves in the right way at the right time, so it’s unlikely that brand bots within Messenger aren’t going to live up to the hype. If you look at how much is done within apps such as China’s WeChat, from ordering pizzas and rides to buying clothes and banking, you get some idea of where we might gradually be heading.
Brands just need to make sure they aren’t first to be exposed by an inevitable bots version of the social agency nemesis 'Condescending Brand Pages'.