Speaking at Facebook’s annual global developer conference F8, CEO Mark Zuckerberg revealed his plans for global expansion. Artificial intelligence (AI) in the form of ‘chatbots’ – that send live, automated messages via messaging apps – virtual reality and global connectivity were at the forefront of the agenda. Each venture undoubtedly brings opportunities for brands – but are they as exciting as Facebook would like us to believe?
Judging by the past couple of weeks, Messenger seems to be Facebook’s main focus for commercial expansion. Only last week it announced it would be rolling out new features on its Messenger app, allowing users who scan business codes to talk to brands directly. The app currently has over 900 million monthly users, but the majority are already friends. This development will see brands finally enter the equation.
Yesterday’s announcement, however, adds an AI aspect to the app. Facebook will be launching a developer platform for creating automated Messenger chatbots that, with the help of AI and natural-language processing, can conduct transactions and provide information. One of the first brands signed up to the service is media business CNN, which will be sending users tailored news updates. Other bots will be able to send users flowers with personalised messages, weather updates and shopping notifications through the Messenger app.
Meanwhile, Facebook will start making money from Messenger by letting companies buy News Feed ads that will take users directly to their bots, as well as being able to reach customers through sponsored messages.
At first sight, Facebook’s announcement sounds like a game changer by providing marketers with new opportunities to connect with customers.
“It’s creating a new marketing channel in itself. It will be good for brands to explore the channel as it will provide an extra touchpoint to connect with consumers before buying a product and can have a positive impact on brand perception and loyalty,” says Emmanuel Arendarczyk, managing director UK and France at digital marketing agency NetBooster.
However, brands shouldn’t abandon their websites and apps just yet because if they fail to produce a bot that can understand complex consumer queries, it can do more harm than good.
“If it’s a straightforward query, like getting the weather forecast or your daily horoscope, then it can work quite well,” he says.
“If you add something more sophisticated and it doesn’t work, it can be quite a frustrating experience for the user. So brands need to understand the technical limitations.”
Emmanuel Arendarczyk, managing director UK and France, NetBooster
As a result, the real success of the chatbot might not lie in the proven usefulness, but in its ability to mimic a user’s way of speaking.
“Real human connections are not always focused on the content of the story but instead on the essence of delivery – chatbots will need to prove themselves adaptable, and prove it quickly to users, to gather traction beyond the gimmick of ‘new’,” says Jenna Law, user experience director at brand consultancy Wolff Olins.
Connecting people through VR and drones
Besides updates to its Messenger app, Facebook also announced it was looking to provide an integrated VR and augmented reality headset that looks like a pair of glasses in 10 years. Earlier this month, the brand announced it would start shipping out the first commercial Oculus Rift VR headset this year.
Zuckerberg also reiterated Facebook’s interest in enabling social experiences via VR, but the initial VR app is predominantly focused on gaming. Nevertheless, he believes “a golden age of online video” is only just beginning.
While VR has been a buzz word for quite some time among brands, NetBooster’s Arendarczyk does see opportunities for sectors that are not linked to gaming – but there are limitations to its use.
“Part of Zuckerberg’s vision is to have VR-enabled ecommerce rolled out. For shoppers, it will be a new way to discuss products, explore different materials and get shop assistance. However, it all comes down to what is technically feasible. It needs a lot more investment and consumers will need to be equipped as well,” he says.
Another barrier will be whether the public will be comfortable picking it up. The immersive nature of VR means it can be unsuitable for certain brands and sectors.
“Brands will have to prove the attraction of being completely immersed in an experience. Not everyone will want to be completely shut out from others while shopping.”
Alistair Dent, head of product strategy at iProspect
Facebook’s final priority is global web connectivity. It plans to do this through
building autonomous drone planes and satellites and developing “terrestrial solutions” to bring the web to more people. In this case, the obvious opportunity for brands is to reach more people who otherwise would not have had access to their products and services.
Grounding technology in consumer needs
Facebook’s new features are undoubtedly worth exploring for brands, providing new ways to connect to potential customers and develop existing relationships. However, iProspect’s Alistair Dent, head of product strategy, warns that “just because it’s new, doesn’t make the technology better”. For example, Google’s voice search did not pick up as much as it thought it would. Ultimately, it comes down to brands to provide the best possible user experience.
He explains: “We don’t know how well people will pick up that paradigm and embrace a new user experience. Whether users react well will come down to brands providing a good experience. If too many companies create bots and a VR version of their website when it doesn’t fit with their brand, users won’t ever pick it up.”
For brands to succeed, any new technology should enhance the customer experience as well as deliver ROI.
As Ranj Dale, head of technology research at GfK, concludes: “Always ask – what will it do for consumers? That’s at the heart of it and the biggest challenge for brands. People can get too caught up focusing on deploying technology just for the sake of it, but grounding it in consumer behaviour and needs is key to success.”