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Connectivity

Facebook Wants You to Chat with Business Bots

Forget calling customer service. Your next interaction with a business might be inside Facebook’s messaging service.

More than 900 million people use Facebook’s Messenger mobile app each month to connect with friends and family. Now the company wants them to chat with businesses, too.

The social network announced today that companies can set up on Messenger. Some are already experimenting with using the platform for customer service, or to offer automated, interactive “bots” that can be used to browse online stores or request information such as news and weather. Burger King's bot can take food orders, for example. The Dutch airline KLM provides boarding passes and customer service via Messenger. Facebook announced its new approach at a conference for developers in San Francisco on Tuesday.

Facebook claims that talking with businesses and their bots offers a smoother way to get information and services that must otherwise be hunted down on the Web or in a mobile app store. “I don’t necessarily want to download a separate app for every business or service I interact with,” says Seth Rosenberg, a product manager for Messenger. He predicts businesses will flock to Messenger because the service provides a ready-made connection to almost a billion people.

Messenger is offered for free and doesn’t generate revenue for Facebook. But Asia’s largest messaging services, such as China’s WeChat and Japan’s LINE, have built substantial businesses by letting companies build on top of their services to offer things like shoe shopping, medical appointments, and banking services. One logical option for Facebook would be to let businesses operate online checkouts inside Messenger, as they already can inside Facebook’s main service.

Rosenberg said companies might one day be able to pay to promote their presence on Messenger. But today businesses are banned from sending ads inside the service, and he says Facebook is wary of letting the service become too commercial. “We’re not going to let it be like e-mail and become spammy,” says Rosenberg.

Businesses cannot send messages to you on Messenger unless you have opted into a conversation. Chats with businesses will feature a prominent “Block” button so people can easily shut down bots or businesses they don’t like, and Facebook will screen what companies build before allowing them to let it loose on Messenger.

When Facebook has opened up its platform to businesses in the past, for example by allowing third-party games into its main service, it has produced big shifts in online business practices, and spawned successful startups.

Startup Poncho created a "chatbot cat" that delivers weather information inside Facebook’s Messenger mobile app.

Alexander Taussig, a partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners, says that opening up Messenger could have similar effects. Messaging services now attract more users than social networks, and companies need to shift to follow consumers, he says.

Taussig guesses that e-commerce services could be particularly successful inside Messenger. “Shopping conversationally brings service back to the transaction—whether you're interacting with a human or a bot,” he says. “The thing you used to do by tracking down a sales associate at your favorite store isn't really executed well on the Internet today.” Facebook could make money by taking a cut of sales, says Taussig.

Some businesses are trying to use Facebook’s platform to create chatbots designed to engage in simple conversation. One service launched today on Messenger is a weather app called Poncho that manifests as a talking cat. Businesses can also create services with more intelligence by creating what Rosenberg calls “cyborgs,” which combine human customer service agents and automated messages. A startup called Spring used the tools announced today to create a personal shopping service operated that way. Facebook is already experimenting inside Messenger with a virtual assistant called M, built on that model.

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