Facebook has bold ambitions for its Messenger platform, following the announcement of new features, services and the launch of bots—chat-based interfaces designed to simulate human conversation and to help consumers complete tasks—at its recent F8 developer conference. By allowing developers to create bots on Messenger, Facebook aims to transform it into an integrated digital-lifestyle platform that plays a new intermediary role between brands and consumers.
Facebook is not the first messaging app to introduce bots. In Asia, apart from WeChat, the wildly popular Chinese messaging app that has already morphed into the lifestyle platform where Chinese consumers spend almost half of their mobile Internet time, Japan-based Line also recently announced its intention to give developers access to building bots.
Bots: New conversations between brands and consumers
Facebook hopes these changes makes "the product a more central part of people’s daily lives," according to David Marcus, who leads messaging at Facebook. Here, Facebook is playing catch-up with WeChat and its rich mobile ecosystem, which is filled with powerful features and services, including branded public accounts, WeChat Payment, e-commerce, access to smart services such as hailing a taxi, paying utility bills and more.
With the aim of offering more convenient and contextual experiences within Facebook Messenger, bots reduce the need for consumers to switch between apps to perform tasks. This is evident in some of the partnerships that Facebook announced, enabling brand interactions to take place inside the existing chat environment that consumers are already familiar with.
While the functions of existing bots are limited, bots powered by artificial intelligence (AI) will be able to learn consumer preferences over time and eventually be able to deliver more utility by personalising content. Facebook M—Facebook’s own virtual assistant that mixes human curation and AI—is for now only available to a few thousand users in California. Once more broadly rolled out, M will automate and aggregate this network of bots to make them smarter and more relevant, facilitating more adoption and reliance on Messenger.
Adoption in APAC
Facebook recently said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that the potential is greater in Asia Pacific than it is in any other region because it consists of two-thirds of the world's population, and it's all mobile. Of Facebook's 1.59 billion monthly active users, 540 million are located in this region, and the region also represents more than a third of the company's entire user base, making it Facebook’s largest geographic segment.
Our data mirrors Facebook’s publicly announced numbers: 84 percent of metro Indian online adults are on Facebook at least once a month, as are 71 percent of Australian online adults. This is also in line with how marketers in Asia Pacific are focusing their social marketing efforts. According to Forrester's Q4 2015 Asia Pacific Social Marketing Online Survey, Facebook is the most adopted social-marketing platform by marketers in the region. In particular, Australia, India, and Singapore showed social platform adoption more similar to Western countries than to non-English-speaking markets in the region such as China, Japan and South Korea, where platforms like WeChat, Line, and Kakaotalk are highly popular.
This bodes well for the adoption of Facebook Messenger, as the company encourages its users to download the Messenger app to use its direct messaging feature amongst Facebook contacts. Similarly, we expect to see similar trends in terms of the adoption of Facebook Messenger bots in Asia Pacific, with mature markets like Australia, Singapore and Japan beginning to experiment with bots, followed by other maturing markets that include India, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Answering to new customer expectations
The changes to Facebook Messenger have the following implications for marketers looking to utilise bots to increase engagement with their mobile customers:
- Facilitate always-on conversations: Facebook’s objective is to have consumers talk to Messenger-branded bots the way they talk to friends, facilitating always-on conversations between brands and their customers. Beyond the promotional opportunities, marketers should not lose sight of the fact that personal and human-to-human interactions are key, especially for the questions bots will not be able to answer.
- Create two-way conversations, not ads: In a world that is dominated by mobile, marketers must be ready to deliver utility to their customers in their mobile moment—in real-time context, with relevant content, and accepting dialogue under their customers’ terms. To be human, helpful, and handy, marketers must mix human interactions into bots.
- Provide real-time customer service support: Facebook Messenger allows users and brands to exchange pictures, emojis, maps, shipping notifications, or real-time status updates for a package delivery. For example, a number of large global brands such as AXA, Hyatt, and KLM have already started using the platform to provide customer-service support. It offers key benefits to brands: weaving brand message into customer’s daily lives, keeping conversations private, and mitigating the potential for negative viral messages.
- Get ready to lose some control to Facebook’s walled garden: While Facebook has not yet shared details on how it plans to monetise Messenger, based on past indicators marketers should expect to have to spend money with Facebook’s broader ecosystem to get access to the affinity data Facebook collects. Marketers risk losing direct data and insights if their customers use more of Messenger and less of their own branded apps and sites.
Although Facebook Messenger is trying to play catch-up to WeChat, the bulk of WeChat users are within mainland China, with many WeChat functions unavailable to international users.
While these announcements from Facebook are disruptive and can potentially change the way brands interact with their customers, it is still early days. Marketers in Asia Pacific who are not already using WeChat as a social-marketing platform can consider Facebook Messenger as an alternative to engage with customers outside of China. They should also learn from the rush to apps and do not launch a bot for the sake of it: Only do so once the marketing organisation can be sure that it can deliver value. It may also be wise to focus on a few core services when experimenting with bots. While the design of how the bot is important, it would not matter if it did not have the ability to deliver more contextual experiences in real time.
We expect more to come from Facebook, especially for e-commerce opportunities, bearing in mind that Facebook Messenger does not yet allow payments directly through a credit card like its competitors. Given the e-commerce boom in Asia Pacific, we wouldn’t be surprised if Facebook takes on Apple, Samsung, Google and WeChat to make a play for the mobile payment opportunity.
Thomas Husson is VP and principal analyst and Clement Teo is senior analyst with Forrester