“Bots” (noun):

  • Automated programs that can answer customer questions, make appointments and suggest products to mobile phone users in a conversational style with back and forth messaging. Sometimes  known as “chatbots”.
  • A big new direction for Facebook, as it pushes to move business-to-customer communication to its Messenger mobile app.

“We think you should message a business just the way you message a friend,” Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg told f8, the company’s convention for app developers and other geeks this week. Some new friends signing up for Facebook Messenger bots include Disney, eBay, JetBlue and the Wall Street Journal and 20-plus other big firms.

But not so far off, chatbots could be an opportunity for small business to offer big-business levels of customer service on Messenger. Here’s why: 

  1. Bots for business fairly soon could be cheap and plentiful. At f8, Facebook opened the Messenger platform to bot developers—in other words, giving Messenger something like the Apple App Store—and that should lead to an explosion of bot development.
  1. Bots could provide ready customer service 24/7, far beyond the current capability of small business to answer phone calls, email or social media comments.

To explain…These bots for business would not be like Siri on iPhones or Cortana on Android phones, the “personal assistants” ready to answer any question, essentially working as voice search on the internet.

They run on “artificial intelligence” or AI, that is, they get trained to message back and forth with a human on the limited set of topics that might come up in making a hair salon appointment, for instance. AI typically starts with real humans operating the bot until a library of questions and answers gets built to power an automated version that would work for any salon.Spring Shopping Bot for Facebook Messenger

You can see this in action already on Messenger with the clothes shopping bot, Spring (see this video). The bot asks a series of questions to narrow down your preferences – men’s or women’s, clothes or shoes, price range, etc. – then serves up suggested items. Really, it’s limited compared to just visiting a shopping website or app, but presumably it smartens up about your preferences over time.

Still, it raises the question: Who needs to do tasks as step-by-step conversations when apps exist? Chatbot defenders make a couple arguments:

  1. “We’re conversational creatures,” David Marcus, head of Facebook Messenger, told the New York Times. “That’s the way our brain functions.”
  1. Apps can be a bother— you need to download, update, and then just find the app among all the others on your phone—and sometimes sign in. In Messenger, a bot is always on and knows who you are, no password needed. It lives in easy reach where you do your other messaging.
  1. The people of the world love messaging apps: Use grew 31% in 2015 over the previous year, according to eMarketer.

Anyway, the bots are coming. Google and Twitter are in various stages of bot development and so is Microsoft (despite recently testing a chatbot for Twitter called Tay that was supposed to converse with fellow Tweeters but instead got “trained” by pranksters to make offensive comments).

So your customers may come to expect bot service.

And they may well expect it on Messenger, already the most used messaging app in the U.S. (followed by Apple’s iMessage, Skype, WhatsApp—another Facebook property–and Yahoo Messenger), according to eMarketer, with 900 million regular monthly users worldwide.

Over the past year, Facebook has steadily added features to Messenger for business such as messaging launched from ads and even an inbox for messages that’s a light version of customer relationship management software (see Facebook Wants to Be Your Customer Service Center). Whether you’re a bot believer or not, you should at least get yourself ready for Messenger by claiming the Facebook handle (or “username”) for your business before someone else does.

See also: 

Snapchat, The Next Facebook

5 Types of Engaging Facebook Post Ideas 

Finally, Real Local Search on Facebook