More companies are using Facebook chatbots to communicate with customers, but how useful are these tools really going to be for businesses?

This month, Icelandair began using a Facebook chatbot to communicate with customers. Last month, Canadian firm Shopify launched Facebook chatbots through its San Francisco-based CRM acquisition Kit, bringing the functionality to its merchant accounts. Even the White House now has one, enabling citizens to send messages to the president.

“The hope is to increase customer interaction, ultimately driving revenue, without significant increases in staffing,” said Mira Perry, research manager for enterprise applications at IDC Canada.

The bots are useful to help companies talk to specific groups of users by taking the conversation to the medium that they use the most, said Icelandair spokesperson Michael Raucheisen. the airline is targeting a specific set of users with the service.

“We see this being geared more towards the millennial, the younger, socially-active passenger and traveller,” he said.

Customers interact with Facebook bots via the social network’s messenger service, which means that they can talk to companies without having to browse to their websites or dig out a little-used app from somewhere on their phone. In the early days of Facebook bots, accessibility seems to be the key.

The conversations still leave something to be desired, though. Most chatbots still offer only rudimentary interactions, according to Perry. “Personally, I have tested a few bots on other platforms so far and found them less helpful than my usual methods,” she said.

The limitation of many existing bots is that they use simple decision-tree mechanisms, and can’t easily understand context or intent. They’re essentially messenger versions of the interactive voice response systems that we’ve all come to hate.

IcelandAir’s chatbot works by sending users multiple choice questions rather than naturally processing their language to deduce their intent. As soon as you decide to book a flight that it has shown you, it redirects you to the web site anyway, where you have to fill out the mandatory forms, which begs the question: why bother with the bot at all?

Similarly, the White House bot channels users down a strict path of interaction. When it comes to contacting the leader of the free world, email looks simpler.

This makes bots interactive chat versions of web pages, where information and options are highly structured and hierarchical. Free-form content, where the bot extracts meaning from what you choose to type, is a far more difficult challenge.

The functionality is there for those companies that want to make the investment. Facebook’s bot framework includes access to the wit.ai platform that enables developers to build machine learning into their bots, bringing them closer to natural conversations.

This suggests a lack of maturity and investment in some current Facebook bot implementations, and the promise of more functional bots down the line. It’s relatively easy to implement a Facebook bot and tick off a box for the marketing team. To excel, companies will need to make an effort, Perry warned.

“The pressure to increase bot adoption is on the shoulders of the developers,” she said. “For a user to switch to a bot, it needs to be better than the method currently in use.  In terms of customer service, can a bot offer a faster and more satisfying experience than social applications or traditional call centers?”

Messenger bots offer other customer benefits for companies that get it right. They can be used to send rich media rather than just text, so that companies can send PDFs of customer statements, for example.

Nevertheless, in taking care of easy, mundane tasks, bots may be able to handle a large proportion of tasks that would otherwise be dealt with on a web site or by a human agent. There is also the ability to route more complex interactions through to a human agent on messenger, as Icelandair’s bot does.

The real benefit of Facebook chatbots may not necessarily be what they can offer the user, but what the user can offer them. Facebook is a superb data gathering tool.  It already has mounds of data about its users, and these bots will give it and its clients more.

“For businesses, the closer they can get to a 360 degree view of their customers, the ‘stickier’ they can make their interactions,” said Perry. “The addition of data feeding through Facebook enriches those customer profiles in a significant way.”

We are still in the early days of the bot revolution. Facebook only announced its bot initiative for developers in April, and this first wave of initiatives does little more than whet the appetite. The potential is there. The question is whether companies will invest the time and effort to take advantage of it.

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