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The chatbots are coming

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Facebook’s move to put messaging front and centre in its plans to change the world – well, that and giving everyone access to Facebook: that’ll help feed the starving multitudes – marks the beginning of something potentially very interesting for retailers. And consumers. And social media.

Facebook – and its charge, WhatsApp – already processes something like 60billion messages a day. That’s three times the 20billion text messages sent worldwide on a good day. Messaging is already its thing. But now it is looking to messaging as the real way to monetise social media.

To date advertising on social media has been its bread and butter: but there has always been a disconnect between the amount of eyeballs that might see an ad and act on it and the number of eyeballs that actually did. Hence why Facebook’s valuation and its bottom line are two figures in different ball parks on different planets.

And it is this crucial bit – the “might act on it” bit – that is the Holy Grail. That is what brands will pay for. Facebook now thinks that leveraging its messaging volumes holds the key. Messaging, it figures, will be the way to get some interaction going between its 900million users and the brands and their (and your!) wallets.

Many of the headlines around the Facebook move have centred on the chatbots and it is this where there might be something interesting for retailers. Chatbots, if you don’t already know, are algorithms that can simulate basic chat between a ‘company’ and a client. They are very good for basic tasks such as handling FAQs that arrive via text or message with reasonably preprogrammed answers.

In short they take the donkey work out of mass interaction with messages.

And it is this that makes Facebook;s move interesting. Its proposition is that your social store front and your social media advertising can now be properly interactive, since it can leverage the power of chatbots to handle all the conversations so you don’t have to… well at least get the ball rolling.

There is form for this. In the US, Tex-Mex fast food chain Taco Bell has been experimenting with chatbots to handle FAQs, menu enquiries and tweaks to orders on the chat app Slack with some success. Retail heavyweights Sephora and H&M also recently launched bots on messaging app Kik that help shoppers browse and buy their products.

Facebook now wants to open this sort of thing up to all the brands that use it and potentially connect them to 900million Facebook users world wide.

The fact that Facebook is doing this means that there must be something in it. The case for a bot-run messaging world goes like this: Smartphone users have proved they are only willing to download and spend time in a limited number of apps. So companies might be better off trying to connect with consumers in the apps where they are already spending time – in this case Facebook. And proponents say that a bot can potentially provide greater convenience than apps and Web searches because it can understand natural speech patterns.

So can it work? Only time will tell, but the argument that Facebook is where people are so you should be too and that now you have a way to communicate with them makes perfect sense. It could be great for retailers. It will certainly see chatbots and the use of chat networks – and social – take a mighty leap forward in the retail sector.

It also looks like being a way that Facebook for one can finally start to leverage its customer base with retailers and brands and make the kind of money that analysts think it should do.

The move also revolutionises what an advert means, as well as tapping into the growing – nay exploding – messaging world.

The downside is that, as Apple’s Siri has proved automated interaction has some way to go before it actually works seamlessly, but it will get there. My vision of being able to talk, through my headset, to brands via my phone to ask questions and to buy stuff just came a step closer. And it’s made me rethink my relationship with Facebook. Not bad for a day’s work Mr Zuckerberg.

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