Facebook is trying to breathe life back into branded chat bots.
The platform is rolling out a new section within Facebook Messenger, “Discover on Messenger,” where users can browse and find bots, nearby places and businesses and message them.
Here’s how it works: When you tap on the Discover icon on the lower right-hand corner of the Messenger Home screen, you can browse by category, recently visited businesses and featured experiences. Messenger includes a broader set of categories like news, entertainment and finance, among others, to help users narrow down their bot searches. Users will also be able to find their recently used bots from a free-form search field on the Messenger home screen.
“Our goal with Discover is to ensure that experiences in Messenger are compelling, high quality and easy to find,” Facebook said in a statement on its blog announcing the update. “This latest update makes it even more intuitive for people to find what they care about most.”
It first announced the section at its developer conference back in April, along with a new vision for chat bots. Instead of being focused on direct, human-to-bot conversations, Facebook now wants bots to only pop up only when they can be of assistance.
Chat bots were originally seen not only as a way for Facebook to monetize Messenger, but an attempt to join Amazon, Apple and other tech giants in their quests to develop powerful, artificially-intelligent assistants. But after the initial hype last summer–when as many as seven bot-focused startups raised first funding rounds according to CBInsights–these automated tools have largely failed to catch on.
Early Messenger bots were plagued with bugs, and didn’t have the ability to maintain fairly basic conversations. Even Facebook’s head of Messenger, David Marcus, admitted at a tech conference last September that bots were “overhyped.” Back in March, Facebook also admitted that its bots hit a failure rate of 70%, implying that they could only fulfil 30% of requests without some sort of human intervention.
With this step, Facebook seems to want to revive bots, Matt Lang, senior digital strategist at AI-focused agency Rain, told Business Insider. It will likely attract the interest of brands and marketers since messaging apps, in general, continue to be where consumers are spending increasingly more time. It is prudent for brands to be on emerging platforms early, with a longer term strategy in mind, he said.
“Including a free-form search and new discover space feels like familiar territory–with Apple, it was the App store, and more recently with Amazon it is the Alexa Skill shop,” he said. “When it comes to these giants, brands want to be featured prominently so that users can find them, and this will be true in the new Messenger space too.”
Still, even with these updates, Facebook Messenger has yet to find a meaningful way to monetize its vast user base. As Business Insider reported earlier, Facebook isn’t charging businesses to create or host their bots in Messenger, and it doesn’t plan to take a cut of digital payments in the app either. For now, it is focusing on testing out ads in Messenger through ads. Brands can run ads in newsfeed that open up a Messenger thread as well as sponsored messages. It recently rolled out Instagram to Messenger ads as well.