Facebook to Highlight Messenger at F8 Conference

Facebook Messenger is getting down to business.

At its annual F8 developer conference this coming week, Facebook Inc. will feature enhanced tools for commerce over its Messenger app, according to people familiar with the matter. The new offerings will use so-called chatbot technology to help users order goods and services through the app, the people said.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg introduced the messenger platform at the F8 summit in San Francisco last year.
This will be the second consecutive year Facebook has highlighted Messenger at F8, a sign of messaging’s growing prominence inside the company. Last year, Facebook opened Messenger to outside developers, including makers of photo- and video-editing apps, and businesses such as Everlane and Zulily, which use the app to field customer questions and provide shipping updates.

Facebook has cited 1-800-Flowers.com Inc., which sells and delivers flowers and food baskets, as a potential partner for the new Messenger services, according to a person familiar with the conversations. Under one scenario, 1-800-Flowers could contact past customers over Messenger about upcoming holidays such as Mother’s Day and highlight promotions. A 1-800-Flowers spokeswoman declined to comment. Tech news site The Information earlier reported the potential tie-up.

Separately, Facebook is also expected to reveal more about its push into live video. Recently, Facebook introduced changes to get more users to create and stream live video, including a feature allowing users to stream live video to select people such as family, instead of all followers.

Facebook didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Over the last year, Messenger has intensified efforts to connect its 900 million users with businesses. Users can tap the app to hail rides on Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc. In late March, Dutch airline KLM said it would provide booking confirmations, flight updates and boarding passes through Messenger.

But the services have attracted few users so far, because Americans and Europeans tend to use messaging apps for communication, rather than commerce. In China, by contrast, Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s WeChat is hugely popular as a hub for commerce and entertainment.

Chatbots, software programs that answer questions inside a messaging app, could help Messenger lure businesses to the platform, analysts and developers say. “For businesses this will be actually easier to staff,” said Jeff Lawson, CEO of Twilio, which helps apps such as Uber add messaging to their services.

In a note Friday, Macquarie Securities analyst Ben Schachter suggested Facebook may open a “bot store” for outside developers.

Bots are getting better at mimicking human conversation, but the technology remains buggy. Microsoft Corp. recently shut a chatbot, Tay, after users taught it to spew anti-Semitic posts. The incident “probably did a great disservice to conversational commerce,” Mr. Lawson said.

Bots are a part of Facebook’s broader investments in artificial intelligence. It is developing M, a virtual assistant that is expected to rival Apple Inc.’s Siri, Alphabet Inc.’s Google Now, Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon.com Inc.’s Alexa. Facebook says M can complete tasks for users, including making travel arrangements and booking appointments.

Facebook is laying the groundwork for Messenger to generate revenue. Some users are starting to see ads for Uber and Lyft within the app. Evercore ISI analyst Ken Sena says eventually Messenger and Facebook’s second texting app, WhatsApp, could generate $4 billion in annual revenue.


Facebook will announce chatbot and live chat APIs at F8

Chatbots could replace 1-800 numbers, and Facebook wants them on Messenger. But most businesses don’t have the resources or technical skills to build chatbots themselves. That’s why Facebook is currently providing developers with API tools to build chatbots and Live Chat web plug-ins for business clients, according to multiple sources and a leaked deck Facebook shared with devs. The tools will be announced at Facebook’s F8 conference next week.

Facebook already has a directory for approved marketing partners. It lets businesses find technology and service providers that can help businesses with ads, content, measurement and community management. But Facebook doesn’t yet provide a distinction, badge or separate directory for partners that can specifically assist with messaging.

Developers we’ve spoken to say Facebook hasn’t formalized or named a specific Messenger platform partner program. Still, it’s expected to refer businesses to Messenger developers and a more official partner program could come later.
Facebook Platform Partners
What we do know is that Facebook has been working with B2B developers of two types, with some overlap. It’s all part of Messenger’s big expansion into connecting potential customers with businesses via chat, which it teased at F8 last year.

Chatbot providers will help businesses build automated response systems for fielding messages from potential customers. Instead of having to develop the complex technologies themselves, or fumble around the Internet trying to find someone who can help, they’ll be able to easily find ones Facebook’s given the thumbs-up.

Facebook Messenger Structured ResponseTechCrunch has reviewed a presentation sent by Facebook to some Messenger chatbot developers. It details how beyond just text chatbots will be able to respond with what it calls “Structured Messages.” These include a title, image, a description, a URL and calls to action such as visiting a website, viewing an e-commerce order or making a restaurant reservation.

This Structured Message functionality essentially lets developers build systems similar to Uber’s and KLM’s integrations with Messenger. Here you’ll see a mockup we made based on the presentation Facebook shared with chatbot developers. This builds on the scoop we ran in January about Facebook testing a secret Chat SDK with developers that allows them to build bots.

Facebook is also working with Live Chat developers who can build plug-ins for “Message Us”-style contact buttons for websites. This way, rather than pushing customers to email them or call them on the phone, they can interact with a human support agent over Messenger chat instead.

When tapped, the Live Chat buttons will bounce users over to the Messenger app on mobile or Messenger.com on the web. Users should be able to see read receipts and “typing…” indicators, depending on how the integrations are built with Facebook’s Chat SDK and various APIs.

Facebook declined to comment. Marketing Land previously reported Facebook will let news publishers distribute content through Messenger.

Currently, Facebook isn’t charging developers any sort of subscription or per-message feed for operating on the platform. However, Facebook could still make money from chatbots and live chat customer support.

One option is for Facebook to push businesses running chatbots to buy News Feed ads that initiate conversations. We got Facebook’s ad czar Andrew “Boz” Bosworth to provide early details about “Click To Message” ads at TechCrunch Disrupt last year. But that was before chatbots and chat customer support were a big deal.

Soon you could imagine businesses buying ads that when tapped, start a Messenger conversation with their chatbot that tries to sell you something. Making humans answer these pings might be too costly for businesses, but chatbots can scale efficiently, making the Click To Message ads worth buying.

Another option is for Facebook to allow advertising inside Messenger itself. That’s the plan, according to a leaked presentation attained by TechCrunch in February, sent by a Facebook team member to one of the biggest brands in its platform. The presentation says advertisers would be able to pay to send marketing messages to people who’ve already messaged that business.
Facebook suggests businesses to chat with in Messenger, which could become an advertising opportunity.
Image via Business Insider
To get those conversations started, the presentation explained that Facebook had quietly launched Messenger shortlinks that instantly open a Messenger thread with the corresponding business. These “Messenger Links” officially launched this morning. One other possibility is that Facebook could let businesses pay for preferred placement in its list of suggestions of businesses to message, which Business Insider spotted yesterday.

Facebook can’t start a chatbot and chat customer service revolution on its own. By fostering an ecosystem of developers to help businesses the same way it did with ads and Page publishing, it could make sure every niche is covered. And the more of our communication that’s routed through Messenger, the closer to the Facebook family of apps we’ll stay.

by Josh Constine (@joshconstine), Steve O'Hear (@sohear) / techcrunch.com