What does an app do after it’s connected 1.2 billion people around the world?
Facebook Messenger has reached that lofty milestone, according to an announcement last week. And at Facebook’s F8 conference in San Jose, Calif., it’s announcing that a major part of what’s next involves connecting all those people with businesses.
This news comes a year after last year’s F8, when Facebook formally announced that Messenger was becoming a platform, distinct from Facebook itself and with features that allowed third parties to build bots that interact with consumers via conversation. “We’ve created an ecosystem of developers that are now enabling large companies to do different types of things, whether they want to do brand stuff or whether they want to plug into their huge call centers with thousands of people and allow them to answer Messenger messages instead of phone calls,” says Facebook VP David Marcus, who leads the Messenger team and gave me a recent preview of this year’s F8 announcements. “But the small guys, they generally don’t have the time to figure this out or the resources.”
So this year at F8, Messenger is getting Smart Replies, a bot-based technology designed to let a business have common questions be automatically answered via Messenger–such as “What time are you open until today?”–so its proprietors can focus on responding to less typical ones. Facebook is starting off by providing this service to restaurants in the U.S.; eventually, it plans to roll it out to other sorts of businesses and in more countries.
How will people learn that a company has a bot–or several of them? Well, Messenger Codes–basically glorified QR codes, akin to those used by Snapchat–will let you quickly call up a bot belonging to a business. In fact, Facebook wants companies to put Messenger Codes on public signage as a form of customer support, a move that might be useful for businesses and their customers while simultaneously helpfully establishing the service as a de facto standard for business-to-consumer communications.
Facebook is also adding a feature called Chat Extensions that will let users conduct tasks within a chat that they used to coordinate via Messenger but perform elsewhere–such as plan an OpenTable reservation or research travel on Kayak. And it’s building out its M AI-powered assistant to keep tabs on your conversations and suggest relevant actions, including allowing multiple people to use Delivery.com to look at restaurant menus and order meals together.
Chat Extensions and M’s new capabilities open up the possibility of using Messenger as a collaborative tool to get stuff done in a newly self-contained way. Marcus cheerfully admits that this direction is an experiment, and that Facebook will see where it goes.
“I don’t know whether these types of things are better by making them multi-player, where everyone can add to the cart what they want to eat,” he says. “We’ll find out, and that’s why we want to test. It might make things more complicated, or it might make them much better.”
For now, all of this is about establishing Messenger as a place to interact with businesses. If all goes well, it will give Facebook the opportunity to start monetizing Messenger by charging companies to get a higher profile within the app. Which is why Marcus explains the strategy as turning a service that people now treat as a digital White Pages into the equivalent of the Yellow Pages, too.