More than 900 million consumers chat with their friends on Facebook’s Messenger app. And now they’ll be messaging with chat bots too.
Facebook announced at its F8 developer conference April 12 that it had opened its Messenger app to allow brands to build chat bots on its platform. A chat bot is interactive software that uses artificial intelligence to simulate human conversation.
Facebook’s bet is that bots can make the popular messaging mobile app a central hub where consumers interact with retailers, brands and media companies. Bots can provide customer service to consumers, search a retailer’s inventory for a certain product, suggest products and walk a shopper through a purchase.
Businesses including movie ticketing retailer Fandango, flower e-retailer 1-800-Flowers.com Inc. and office supply retailer Staples Inc. have all built bots for Facebook Messenger, but are using the nascent technology in different ways.
Fandango is building its Messenger bot to help consumers find a nearby theater with a movie they want to see. The bot will be live to users in about a month.
“We want to be wherever consumers are thinking about movies or wanting to go to the movies,” says Mark Young, Fandango’s senior vice president of strategy and business development. “We are putting ourselves in a more natural environment for consumers to take an action.”
In the Messenger app, a consumer can send a chat to Fandango asking, “What movies are playing this weekend?” or “What movies are playing near me?” The bot then facilitates a conversation with the consumer through a serious of chats, including sending movie trailers and asking about preferred movie times and theaters. The bot will prompt the user with questions such as, “Is this what you are looking for?” to get the consumer to confirm what she wants.
If a consumer selects a movie, time and place, the bot will send a link in the chat. When a consumer clicks on it, the Fandango mobile site or app (if the consumer already has the Fandango app downloaded) will open to the checkout page with the appropriate information already filled out.
For Fandango, having a bot hand off the purchase to the app makes sense, Young says, given that the app has been downloaded more than 53 million times. This way, Fandango gets the benefit of an active social network audience and still gets the traffic to its site and app.
1-800-Flowers.com Inc. is another retailer that quickly jumped on the Facebook Messenger bot opportunity. The retailer is allowing consumers to search and complete purchases all within Messenger.
“We see mobile and distributed commerce as the latest wave in our business and integral part of our omnichannel approach to retail—being wherever our customers want us to be,” says Jon Mandell, vice president of multi-brand customer marketing.
Previously, 1-800-Flowers (No. 57 in the Internet Retailer 2016 Top 500 Guide) used Facebook Messenger only for customer service inquiries, Mandell says. The strategy with the bot is to use it as a “gift concierge,” which answers questions, makes gift suggestions, processes orders and sends shipping updates, Mandell says. Customers can still choose to communicate with a live customer service support agent on Messenger, he says.
If a consumer decides to place an order, she will have to message the bot her shipping and payment information. A shopper can also have the bot save this information in Messenger for the next time she orders in the 1-800-Flowers app.
“In the future, we see this being directly tied into your existing account on our multi-branded website,” Mandell says.
Staples, however, is not ready to give its bot, which it built to respond to customer service inquiries, free reign over the Messenger app. Instead, Staples is using a combination of chat bots—which will handle simple customer service questions—and humans, for the more complicated inquires, says Faisal Masud, executive vice president, global e-commerce at Staples.
“Staples believes that a hybrid model of humans assisted by chat bots will exist in the foreseeable future of e-commerce,” Masud says. “This way humans will be making the last mile call on the best possible response for the customer from the bot-assisted curated options.”
In the future, Fandango’s Young hopes the bots will use natural language processing, meaning they can understand the intent behind a consumer’s inquiry. For example, if a consumer asks about movies playing Saturday evening the bot will respond with only evening movies.
Down the road, Young hopes that Fandango’s bot will be able to proactively help consumers, instead of waiting to be asked. For example, if two friends are chatting in the messaging app about possibly going to the movies tonight, the Fandango bot could insert itself into the conversation and suggest a movie. This is not live yet, but “Fandango thinks that would be very interesting,” Young says.
Neither Fandango nor 1-800-Flowers are worried that pushing commerce into the Messenger app will eat into mobile web traffic and sales or app sales and use.
“The bot allows existing and new customers to interact with us on their terms within the platform they feel most comfortable with,” Mandell says. “We are excited to be able to bring this service to our customers without the need to download an app.”
Staples’ Masud agrees. “Our customers are turning to these basic and natural modes of communication, and we intend to offer them experiences similar to our website on these channels,” he says.
1-800-Flowers started taking with Facebook in February and had to build its bot by the F8 conference in April in order to reveal there at the live event. The retailer worked with chat bot builder Assist Co. and Facebook to build the bot.
Fandango also worked with an external bot builder that Facebook recommended to build its bot. Fandango would not disclose the name of the vendor. The development takes about 30 to 60 days, and Fandango expects its bot to be live in about four weeks, Young says.
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