Facebook christens bot bandwagon: Business bonanza or brand risk?

Bots on Facebook's Messenger Platform could usher in a business and customer service boom, but there are risks. Tread carefully as the artificial intelligence kinks are being worked out.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told developers that bots via its Messenger Platform is the future, but what remains to be seen is whether users will go for them as they work out early artificial intelligence issues.

At the F8 developer conference, Facebook took the wraps off of its bots for Messenger effort, a series of application programming interfaces and tools for business bots.

Microsoft is talking bots. Facebook is talking bots. Slack has productivity bots. Google, Apple and every enterprise vendor will have some form of them. Simply put, chat bots are automated and conversational reps that can talk up products, get you to stores, be helpful and an assistant at times. Bots get you the goods without the legwork.

Every tech player will be talking some form of bots. Siri and Amazon's Alexa could be a bot--or at least a front end to one. Like machine learning, bots will be integrated into everything.

Zuckerberg during his F8 keynote showed off a 1-800-Flowers bot where he placed an order. "The Messenger Platform will move around business. To order from 1-800-Flowers you never have to call them again," joked Zuckerberg.

Indeed, bots have also proven to be handy in other markets. In Asia, Tencent has deployed bots throughout its messaging app QQ. WeChat also has bots. What Facebook's endorsement of bots does is make them more acceptable and commercial. Developers already think bots are swell.

Also: Inside Microsoft's build-a-bot strategy |

And now for the cold water. Microsoft's Tay.ai bot, which started spewing racist comments on Twitter, highlights the risks. Are you going to trust a bot to be your brand ambassador? Eventually.

Here's what could annoy me as bots and businesses begin to meld. A bot could look like:

  1. Clippy except pitchy with ads.
  2. A phone tree-ish tool you'll have to hurdle to get a human.
  3. Spam-like.
  4. A too helpful technology driven by sales and marketing people with no sense of customer annoyance.
  5. Some combination of all of the above.

No way, said David Marcus, vice president of messaging services at Facebook. Marcus even mocked a phone tree at his F8 talk. "People love to interact with businesses on Messenger," he said. "Brands become a more integral part of daily lives. You have the making of a great new platform."

Marcus said that bots will have a combination of conversation and user interface that will work. "You can build a lot of experiences," he said. Facebook is giving developers a bot engine that will be self-learning too.

However, Marcus added there will be a bevy of user controls to manage bots. But Messenger Bots can be built today with an ad model en route. "Maybe today is the beginning of a new era," he said.

Facebook's bot experience-commerce-content vision could play out, but the growing pains could result in a bot backlash for some brands. We'll see if Facebook's Bots for Messenger can thread the needle between delight and annoyance.

F8: Pictures from Facebook's annual developers conference

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