Facebook reported monster second-quarter earnings this week, and at one point on the investor call, CEO Mark Zuckerberg addressed all that the company is doing with messaging. After reminding investors that both Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp now have 1 billion users, Zuckerberg said, “The scale we’ve achieved with our messaging services makes it clear they are more than just a way to chat with friends.”
One of Facebook’s big recent efforts to prove that—that messaging can be for a lot more than messaging—is with bots inside Facebook Messenger that use artificial intelligence to talk to you like a person would.
Facebook first announced the bots at its big F8 conference back in April, and at the time, it made a big to-do over the rollout. “We think you should just be able to message a business in the same way you’d message a friend,” Zuckerberg said. He and Messenger chief David Marcus raved over the various exciting use cases of the new bots, from buying flowers to ordering an Uber to checking flight prices, all without leaving Messenger.
There’s just one problem with that vision: so far, the bots are useless almost across the board.
For the uninitiated: The way bots work is that you can send them a command or question and they respond, in a message, like a person would. (At least, that’s who they are meant to work, in theory.) At F8, when Facebook first touted the new bots, it specifically highlighted a select few “featured partners,” including shopping bot Spring and weather bot Poncho.
On Poncho, a character named Poncho the Weather Cat (yes) greets you by saying, “Hi, bb. Here’s your forecast.” The “forecasts” Poncho gives read like parodies. They are what someone would send you if they wanted to intentionally obfuscate the weather. Most of the report is devoted to a dumb joke or cuddly greeting.
Here’s a weather forecast Poncho gave me: “Chip-ping in: Yeah, low 50s temps are great, but I brought two salsas. I’m, like, 75% responsible for the success of this roof party.” And another: “Six umbrellas: All I need is morning rain, low 50s temps and a little ingenuity, and I can create my own waterpark! Take that, Six Flags!”
Another bot, PennyCat, has a similar cat mascot, and exists to help you find discounts on products. I started by trying, “discount on nespresso capsules.” PennyCat responded, “My little kitten brain didn’t catch that. But I’ve found a funny GIF for you!” You can probably guess what animal was in the GIF it sent me. Finally I realized you need to interact with PennyCat by typing a business—that is, search by typing “Target,” not “laundry detergent.” So I tapped “Check discounts” and then typed, “Nespresso.” That at least worked: PennyCat figured out what Nespresso is, but said it found no coupons. So there was a learning curve; if you type your question in just the right format, you might get the gift of an answer.
Another chat bot is HealthTap. The idea is to help you figure out what ails you, with answers pulled from the web and, if you’d like, real doctors answering the harder questions. I told HealthTap I have a rash on my chest. (I don’t.) It sent me back four basic “answers to similar questions” plus some (gross) generic photos—perfectly adequate. But searching for the same thing on Google gets me the same results, and just as fast, and in a more navigable format.
Of course, that is the very crux of why Facebook is all in on bots: it doesn’t want you to go to Google or open a separate app. It wants to create designated houses for the many different arms of its business.
Users were miffed when Facebook split off Facebook Messenger into a separate app two years ago, but clearly they gave in: Messenger now has 1 billion users. Facebook doesn’t let you view your messages within the main Facebook app, and soon it will also turn off the ability to read them in a mobile browser window, truly forcing users to download a second Facebook app. And users will do it.
It’s unlikely 1 billion users have flocked to Messenger for the appeal of the chat bots. Messenger now offers everything from exchanging money to making video calls. But bots are its next frontier, and for now, they’re awful. They are also incessant once you opt in; you must opt out again or you will keep getting daily messages.
There are already more than 11,000 bots on Facebook Messenger. Everyone from publishers (CNN, BuzzFeed, and our own Yahoo News) to retailers (Whole Foods, Target, Barneys New York) have jumped on board with what is, in many cases, a hastily created offering. A web site, Botlist, lists them all and classifies whether they are for Facebook Messenger, Slack, Skype, SMS (text message) or some other platform.
But not everyone is eager to get in.
GoDaddy, the domain-name seller, tells Yahoo Finance it has held off because it feels a “human touch” is still a better form of service than a bot. “We decided that bot technology still has a long way to go before it’s ready,” says Kevin Pigman, senior VP of customer care for GoDaddy. “GoDaddy has more than 14 million small business customers… They don’t have time to get stuck in a chat with a bot that cannot seamlessly answer their wide array of questions. And when they need help, they need it right away.”
Indeed, Facebook’s whole sell with the bots is the promise of smoother, faster, more human-like service. So far, the bots are usually clunky, slow, and anything but human. The majority of them attempt to make charming banter—and fail. (Scarlett Johansson in “Her,” this ain’t.) But analysts and entrepreneurs mostly expect that the technology will get better. For Facebook, it has to. As AI improves, Facebook Messenger ought to set the bar higher for entry, and ensure that bots are must-check. What it wants in Messenger isn’t just downloads, but engagement. The more people use and check Messenger, the more impressions it will bring to brands and their bots.
Creating a must-check bot, something that offers a crucial service each day and does it unobtrusively, is what Thomas Smyth of Trim set out to do. Trim is a personal finance bot that sends you information about your own finances (once you connect your bank account) that you may not have even realized, such as monthly subscriptions you’ve forgotten about or exorbitant monthly spending in a certain area (say, coffee, or Uber rides). Trim has $2.2 million in funding from Ashton Kutcher’s Sound Ventures and other investors. Smyth says it has saved people $6 million in its short seven-month existence, from canceling unwanted subscriptions. (The most common one? Audible, says Smyth, which people forget they were paying for, and promptly cancel.)
Trim launched late last year, before Facebook Messenger announced it would roll out bots. It was an SMS bot, meaning it operated through text message. The user can reply and interact with the bot through texts, sending commands. Digit, a savings bot, did the same. Another example is Quartz, which launched a news-reader app that gives you stories via text.
But now that Facebook has gone big on bots and Trim added itself to Messenger, it has seen a wave of new users. And a finance-related bot, Smyth says, is perfectly suited to bot form (though he is obviously not impartial), more so than other areas. “If you think about a bot as a platform that forces a company to communicate with the user through a tiny straw, you have to think really hard about what you send through that straw,” he says. “ I think that forces some really hard decisions about what the user wants to see. I don’t want to see 20 stock quotes, I want to see just the 3 that are moving today in my portfolio.”
Smyth is the first to admit that most of the bots are still “absurd” and offer, “the most absurd technological experiences I’ve had.” But he is bullish on the technology. GoDaddy, too, says that while it is not doing a bot yet, it is excited by the technology, and isn’t ruling one out.
“I think you should launch things way before they’re ready, and I think this is a great example,” Smyth says. “There are early adopters, it’s all terrible at first, and then gradually over time people will find great use cases for these bots. And the back end will get better. So there is a compelling opportunity here in the long run.”
That may prove to be the case. Trim is useful, as is the Kayak app for searching through flight options. But for now, there is nothing compelling about the vast majority of Facebook chat bots.
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.