SAN FRANCISCO — The robot sales associates are coming — at least to Facebook.
Chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg said Tuesday the social media giant is opening up its Messenger service to developers wanting to create “bots” to assist shoppers via chat.
This creates new possibilities for brands that connect with customers using Facebook and could have a major commercial impact, potentially bringing chat-based commerce into the mainstream.
“I have never met anyone who likes calling a business,” Zuckerberg said. “You should be able to message a business the same way you would message a friend. To order from 1-800-flowers, you never have to call 1-800-flowers again.”
Fashion brands have long included chat features on their own Web sites while companies such as Everlane, Uber and Zulilly have experimented with chat-based functions on their Facebook pages before. But Zuckerberg’s statement Tuesday supercharges the model with bots and brings it onto a bigger stage, giving more brands chat access to the 900 million people on the social media platform.
Like a virtual assistant, a bot can recognize and respond to messages that are made up of text, image and audio. Everything that a shopper could do on an app or a Web site can be done with messaging. So a shopper could correspond with a brand using Messenger and say, “Show me a red dress,” or something more vague, like, “I need a gift for my wife,” and then be offered choices and the means to place an order.
In a departure from the catalogue-like approach favored by e-commerce sites, in which the shopper has to sort through options, the bot can aid in the discovery process by inferring meaning and taking cues given by the customer to refine the selection — just like a store associate.
Chat-based commerce can use a combination of automated bots and human interaction, so when the technology can’t fulfill a request, it can be transferred to a store associate who can.
Robin Chan, cofounder and ceo of Operator, which worked with Facebook on this initiative, said the move takes commerce from the catalogue-based format of surfing the Web back to human conversation. “We are getting back to basics; for 20 years with e-commerce, there was no interaction,” Chan said. “This goes full circle because messaging is about communication.”
Chan considers chat-based commerce, or “c-commerce,” to be the third way of shopping, after a physical store and a Web site.
The opportunity for retailers, he said, is greater than ever, especially for retailers with a large physical presence, because the messaging app can integrate with a location-based delivery service like Uber to deliver merchandise to the customer immediately.
“The last 20 years have not been fun for retailers,” Chan said. “It’s been all about forcing them to invest in a capability that they were unfamiliar with. This is playing to their strengths, which are strong sales associates and having products closer to the consumer.”
The mobile commerce app Operator was introduced five months ago and treats shopping like texting, using a combination of bots and humans to help customers discover, view and purchase products. Its integration with Facebook offers a simplified version of Operator inside Messenger that will evolve over time, Chan said. He observed the “early days” of chat commerce two years ago in China, where, he said, commerce is woven into WeChat in a hybrid of messaging and Web.
Shopify, which powers many small- and mid-sized e-commerce sites, also was one of the first to integrate services for businesses into Messenger. Shopify Merchants can use Messenger for customer support, order confirmations, shipping updates, push notifications and more.
Zuckerberg echoed the sentiment of experts who think that messaging could replace apps since mobile users don’t have to download stand-alone apps from brands but rather can have access to goods through a single Messenger platform.
“My perspective is that this is bigger than social media,” Chan said. “There are more users [of chat-based services] than people on social networks; it’s the biggest thing on the Internet right now.”
Not everyone was quite so bullish. In a post on the topic, Forrester analysts Michael Facemire and Julie Ask were hesitant. Bot services, they said, needed to be convenient, with “zero friction for the consumer to get what he or she wants immediately in context.” They added, “customers don’t want to chat with machines that ask them dumb questions,” and included a finding that only one-in-four enterprises surveyed by Forrester used location data to make mobile services more relevant.
They did say bots will be a tool in a retailer’s toolbox. “Bots — and the chat platforms they run on — provide an amazing opportunity for brands to deliver contextual experiences on borrowed mobile moments.”
Futurist Erica Orange of The Future Hunters said that brands have to make it worthwhile.
“For a lot of consumers, there are so many tools at their disposal, so retailers are scrambling for ways to interact more seamlessly or provide a more customized experience,” Orange said. “For a younger generation, it has to speak to them in a way that is authentic and doesn’t add to the noise.”
The Forrester analysts conceded that chat-based commerce did potentially provide a solution to an “apped out” consumer. Messenger vice president of messaging products Davis Marcus emphasized this when he introduced the details of the Messenger Platform, which begins beta testing today
“Before the Internet era, everything was conversational,” Marcus said. “Then came the Web, and we traded personalization for interactions at a larger scale.”
Then in the mobile era, he said, “We download fewer and fewer apps and we don’t turn on push notifications.”
Messenger brings the best of these previous methods of interactions into one place, he said.
Facebook has tried to build a selling component before and came up somewhat short. Brands such as Oscar de la Renta launched so-called “F-Commerce” pages in 2011 only to find that the social media giant’s feed — at least at that time — was better suited to diversions other than shopping. To that end, Facebook on Tuesday also shared that it would begin selling Newsfeed Ads that, when clicked, can immediately launch a chat with the brand.
Gupshup founder Beerud Sheth said, “You probably don’t have 50 fashion apps on your phone. It’s really painful to download all these apps and maintain and upgrade.” This is convenient for Facebook, as research consistently suggests that people are spending time in only five apps — one of them, ostensibly, Facebook, which shared on its blog that it’s the second most-popular app on iOS and was the fastest-growing app in the U.S. in 2015.
“Facebook Messenger and their 900 million users just entered the brave new bot world where they never have to call, download an app our use a Web site again to reach a business,” Sheth said. “Every business is now right at your fingertips — just a few taps away.”
Or, as, Marcus said hopefully, “Maybe today is the first day of a new era.”