Facebook: The Fashionably Late Star Guest To The Chat Bot Party

Although the integration of chat bots inside messaging apps has been happening for some time -- especially on APAC-based services such as WeChat and LINE -- Facebook’s recent announcement that it was betting big on them has catapulted this area into the spotlight. After all, when the biggest social network in the world throws its backing behind a new development, the industry takes notice.

Touted by some as the “new apps”, chat bots are able to maintain simple conversations with users to help them retrieve information or undertake basic tasks. Want to book a taxi? Your chat bot can do it. Want to find and then make a reservation at a nearby restaurant? Just ask your messaging app. Want to get a product or service-related question answered quickly by a company, at any time of the day or night? Simply open the app and ask away.

One of the most compelling elements to all this is just how diverse the applications could be. And from the brand’s perspective, it allows them to offer around-the-clock customer service without the need for any human input. Sure, for now at least most companies will want to retain the ability for an employee to jump into a conversation if the chat bot can’t complete the desired action or if any glitches arise. But as the technology improves and as the industry gains more experience at seeing the types of interactions that consumers want, the need for human input will become less and less pressing. Even if customer service as a whole would (and should) never become completely automated, the basic levels of it certainly could.

So far, much of the dialogue has focused on the benefits of all this for companies. But this is a trend absolutely in line with consumer behaviours too. It’s not just that customers are spending longer and longer amounts of time on their smartphones (our latest data shows that, globally, the typical Internet user is online on their phone for an average of about 2 ¼ hours per day, peaking at over 3 ¼ hours among 16- to-24-year-olds). Just as important is that the migration of many Internet activities to mobile has helped to bring about continuing rises in the time we spend social networking. Facebook announced recently that users are typically engaging with Facebook, Messenger and Instagram for about 50 minutes a day, but our data -- which includes WhatsApp as well as pretty much all other major networks and messaging services -- shows that people are devoting an average of just under 2 hours a day to networking and messaging. In fact, social activities now account for around 1 in every 3 minutes spent online.

Social networks and apps are also seen by consumers as increasingly important touchpoints for research. Ask all internet users where they are most likely to go for more information about a product or brand and search engines might still the clear favourite in all groups, but the age breakdown is pretty telling: the older you are, the more likely you are to cite a search engine as a main touchpoint. Conversely, the younger the person, the more they lean toward social networks or mobile apps. As just one example, our data shows that 25% of 16- to-24-year-olds say they go to a mobile app as part of their product research, which compares to 7% among 55- to-64-year-olds. No less revealing is that among the youngest age group, social networks are now just 5 percentage points behind search engines as the major port of call. Little wonder that brands are so keen to establish a more cost-effective but user-friendly presence in this space, then.

While Facebook is far from the first network to reveal its ambitions in this area, it’s already so ingrained within daily behaviours that its ability to act as a hub for various chat bots is very strong. From the consumer’s perspective, it’s not hard to see why they would prefer one app in which they can interact with an array of brands rather than having to install and use a separate one for each company. This surely gives us yet another reason why Facebook split off Messenger from its main mobile app; at the time, it said it would improve the messaging experience for users as the demands of this activity were too much to sustain inside the Facebook app.

Now, it’s clear that it has other real benefits to the company too – not least that it can integrate all of these commercial (and monetisable) offerings inside a dedicated messaging app that hundreds of millions of people are already using. It also gives Facebook a viable option against the rising ad-blocking tide; although mobile ads still contribute the vast majority of its current revenue, this offers another avenue to exploit if mobile ad-blocking becomes mainstream.

Facebook might therefore be a little late to this party compared to some other messaging services, but it has the global coverage and engagement levels needed to become the star guest. 

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