Forget video. Since Facebook’s F8 conference last week, the new hot topic is the humble chatbot.

Bots are by no means new to us. From the voice guiding you through a call centre to the spam in your inbox, they are ingrained in our lives to take on simple and repetitive tasks.

Chatbots are the next level up. Apps like WeChat and Line in Asia have introduced the idea of being able to shop and read news – all without leaving the chat apps. It’s another bridge between companies and consumers, and is bringing the product straight to the audience without the audience having to go looking for it.

Conversation-starter

Much as the name suggests, a chatbot simulates conversation – not just the simple question-and-answer format of Siri, but more intelligent backwards-and-forwards responses with a user.

“We think you should just be able to message a business, the same way you message a friend,” said Zuckerberg to the audience. “And you shouldn’t have to install a new app.”

Microsoft also hinted at the end of the road for apps when it launched its infamous bot Tay on Twitter, which was quickly manipulated by users to learn racist behaviour. Microsoft described chatbots as the “new apps” that “unlock conversation as a platform”.

Tay might have gone downhill very quickly, but are these latest predictions for the death of apps at all realistic?

“Just Google it”

For most things at the moment, the answer is (of course) no. Quite simply, bots lose out on efficiency. All the demos so far show bots mimicking human users with responses ‘within an hour’, with little ‘typing’ bubbles appearing.

Due to the conversational nature, getting information will also require a number of clarifications, and the misunderstandings that have arisen so far are very amusing. For now, if you want to know the weather forecast, it’s much quicker just to Google it.

However as Nick Statt points out on The Verge, “bots are not necessarily designed, at least not now, to be faster than us”

“The idea is to anticipate our needs and wants and deliver something useful at the right time, without us having to ask” he says.

Google should be very worried – this approach to chatbots is a direct threat to their search model. Apple’s app store is also at risk if the need to download apps is being bypassed.

Why are Facebook doing this?

Essentially, Facebook want everything to be brought into their ecosystem so they can keep people in their apps longer (and therefore sell more advertising).

What’s interesting is that they have opened up Messenger to any company, brand or publisher that wants to create a bot that can interact with users. This approach is a big contrast to previous innovations; Instant Articles have only just opened the invitation to ‘normal’ publishers to look under the bonnet after a year working with big brands. Perhaps this open-door method will give some reassurance about their intentions.

Messenger is the most intimate area of Facebook for many users, and there are huge opportunities for brands, publishers and other companies to snuggle up in between your closest friends.

Think of it like this. A shop can put posters around town, in bus stops and in their shops, but it has the most impact when it’s pushed directly into your letterbox with your personal mail (pretend for a second that you send and receive lots of handwritten letters). The difference is that this will open a two-way conversation.

That’s all very well for e-commerce and customer service, and it will inevitably transform our everyday lives. But why should publishers care?

A two-way street

As a publisher, chatbots are appealing as they give you the opportunity to interact directly with the user and have a conversation. The one-way ‘content delivery’ mentality has very little mileage left in it, so any way of automating a two-way process should make us sit up and take notice.

This philosophy also aligns with many publishers who are adopting the membership approach of listening to its readers and building communities around content.

As with many of these ventures, there is a great deal of nervousness around monetisation. There are certainly ways that Facebook plan to make money for themselves – publishers will be able to send ‘sponsored messages’ to users, but the returns on that are unclear.

Chatbots may even be a useful way to point users towards apps, much like developments in Google and Apple search, which can now scour content apps as well as websites.

So do we think that bots spell the end for publishing apps?

Right now, no. Siri didn’t kill search, and it’s clear that chatbots just aren’t there yet. What we’re likely to see is a slow integration in changes so small users will barely notice – this is what has happened with in-app browsers and Instant Articles over the past couple of years in Facebook.

There are certainly short-term uses for retail, breaking news and recommendations, but we have a long way to go until they threaten publishers and content apps.

 


More chatbot articles worth a look:

Why the killer app of 2016 won’t actually be an app – CheatSheet.com
WTF are chatbots? – Digiday

Why are Facebook and Microsoft building chatbots? – Fool.com
Why are chatbots on Facebook Messenger? – CheatSheet.com

Header image via Mark Zuckerberg/Facebook

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