What Does the Bot Bubble Mean for Facebook’s Long Game?

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In this regular Street Fight feature, local marketing gurus David Mihm and Mike Blumenthal kick around some of the biggest ideas affecting the local search ecosystem and the broader industry. Send an email or leave a comment if you have specific topics that you’d like them to touch on in future columns!

Mike: How is Portland? Did the weather improve over my vacation week there last week? Here we are in the midst of our typical mid-March last of winter storm…. The east coast cities are freaking out but in the Buffalo area it’s just another snowstorm.

David: No (sigh), we’re still right in the middle of the longest winter ever. Oh well, it keeps the Californians from moving up.

This week I thought we might use an interesting infographic from ActivateTech I came across on Slideshare as a jumping-off point. It attempts to assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of the “four horsemen” (and Microsoft) along the stages of the consumer journey.

Given last week’s news about the chatbot bubble perhaps starting to burst, I wonder what your thoughts are on Facebook’s long-term positioning vis a vis Messenger?

Mike: The graphic is interesting. I largely agree with its design but it seems limited in two ways to me; it ignores group messaging and it only looks at the pre-sale side of the customer journey not the post-sale side. Facebook has long been a force in post-sale retention and Messenger can really play a huge part as a CRM tool.

I wondered when I read about the fall off in chatbots whether that wasn’t just the necessary reset of expectations as reality set in and that if over time, as chatbots improved, we would see on-going uptake.

Certainly Messenger (and all group messaging apps) are critical for success of any of these companies. I see it as the “real” social network… the one where folks communicate with those closest to them. Facebook and Apple seem to be in the lead in regards to having heavily used, viable products. Google and Microsoft look on with envy.

David: Totally agree that Messenger has an incredible lead on Google and Microsoft (not to mention Amazon).

It’s been curious to me that after all these years, Google hasn’t developed a better native SMS application for Android.  Highlights the risk (or stupidity) of the “fail fast” product axiom when it’s product that is so central to the long-term success of your business. You haven’t seen Apple release 6 different flavors of iMessage or FaceTime.

Mike: Google has SMS all figured out; they developed 10 clients…they just forgot to tell others in their company or the consumer.

David: Ha! Back to your point about the expectations around chatbots, I see the problems as two-fold.

#1, for small businesses without the resources to automate responses, it’s a colossal time-suck to live your entire workday in Facebook (desktop) or Messenger (mobile). While Facebook has done a terrific job with its UI for this persona, it’s unrealistic to expect the time commitment.

#2, for larger businesses that might have the desire and capital to invest in a chatbot for Messenger, there isn’t enough consumer adoption (yet?) to justify the expense or complexity relative to email-based ticketing systems like Zendesk or even Twitter.

Mike: It is interesting that the platform does scale so well but I agree, for most small businesses it’s not going to replace the phone any time soon. The spam problem further degrades the value. And the gamified expectations of responding in minutes to get the badge are totally not reality-based.

So do you think that chatbots are critical even before Messenger has become a reliable B2C communication channel? It seems that both consumers and businesses both need to learn to use the tool effectively. That gives bots some time to evolve, no?

David: Re: chatbots being critical, no, in fact quite the opposite. I would argue Facebook needs better human-to-human tools for Enterprise (similar to what Twitter seems to have developed or its development partners have developed) to get to a critical mass of consumers who are aware of Messenger as a viable C2B channel, let alone a useful one.  

I guess my primary question is why aren’t Comcast, United, Target, etc. touting Messenger as a customer service channel the way they do with Twitter?

Mike: I would guess that the ROI isn’t there yet and they don’t want to spend their resources making Facebook even more ever present? It’s the classic chicken and egg technology problem. But Facebook has the reach to solve it. Even if SMBs aren’t responding in 20 minutes they are responding in a day and both consumers and businesses are starting to use Messenger.

And perhaps the Messenger API might be an appropriate early business investment, funneling chats into the existing help platforms, before Chatbots become “real”.

David: That last statement should be double-bold and underlined. I agree with that 100%. It looks like Zendesk at least is already pursuing this. If I’m a customer success manager, I’m probably waiting to see the volume of Messages coming in via Messenger before I decide if a chatbot investment for Facebook is worth it.

Mike: As for the chart…I am starting to see Facebook’s impact on the presale side of the funnel finally. And that is a huge shift and one that will take place over time against strong Google headwinds. Google won’t give up that space without a fight.

David: Absolutely. I can speak to that from my recent experience of sponsoring EngagePDX conference in Portland. Thanks to visitors sharing photos of our booth on Facebook (though not from our own shares), Tidings got demonstrable digital awareness and interest from attendees.

And I would argue that Facebook’s search engine should get a little more credit than it does…drip by drip, we continue to get hints that Facebook is actually thinking about local search, at least.  In hospitality and retail categories it probably has at least as good local business data as Google.

So it seems like both of us are saying that even without a real AI product and despite the bot bust, Facebook remains well-positioned against the other horsemen because SMS has become such a default interface for consumers–and, oh by the way, we haven’t even mentioned WhatsApp.

Mike: Well, given Google’s recent shuffling of SMS titles and apps, it appears that they won’t be dethroning either Facebook or Apple anytime soon. And as you can see in this 2013 article they knew they had a problem, tried to fix it and yet Google is still limping along trying to figure it out.

Given the lame competition, Facebook has some space and time for chatbots to develop.

David: Whether or not voice assistants end up taking hold, SMS is not going away. We’re never not going to text. And as a result Facebook will remain some of the most fertile ground for innovation in B2C marketing and CRM.

Got an idea for what you want Mike and David to discuss next time? Send it to either [email protected] or [email protected], or just leave a comment below and we’ll put it in the hopper!

After more than a decade in local search, David Mihm now serves as VP of Product Strategy at ThriveHive, leading the direction of the company’s search-related product offerings. He’s also the Founder & CEO of Tidings, an email newsletter platform for small businesses that leverages their everyday social media activity, and his own weekly newsletters, Minutive and the Agency Insider. He’s the former founder of GetListed.org, Director of Local Strategy at Moz, and along with Mike Blumenthal, he’s a co-founder of Local University. Mike Blumenthal is the co-founder and analyst at Near Media where he researches and reports on reputation, reviews and local search. Mike has been involved in local search and local marketing strategy for almost 20 years. He explores the online to offline local ecosystem and helps businesses understand it and benefit from it through writing, speaking and education.