Facebook turns to discovery, third-party chat extensions in latest Messenger platform push

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Facebook’s Messenger platform was unveiled in 2015 at the company’s F8 conference with the goal of letting developers “build apps that help people connect.” Last year, it expanded to support chatbots which could have been a big thing, but ultimately wound up being “overhyped”. This year, however, Facebook is turning its focus more towards discovery, helping the more than 1.2 billion monthly users really understand the potential of its chat app, both in conversing with friends and also with businesses.

“We, as Facebook, already have 60 million businesses in the ecosystem and a large amount of them are on Messenger,” remarked Stan Chudnovsky, Messenger’s head of product. “You can talk to them, but there’s no place to find them. Businesses that are on there wonder how Facebook is improving discovery.”

While much of the past year has been about chatbots, Facebook is releasing and testing new tools to make Messenger more of what the company thinks is “the new social living room for the world”. Starting today, you’ll see new tabs around for businesses and bots, and games, the introduction of chat extensions, and offline support for parametric QR codes.

Messaging reimagined

Starting today, Facebook Messenger is getting an update that not only introduces dedicated sections to interact with brands and play games, but also adds a new way for third-party apps to be integrated into the experience.

“Our goal at Facebook is not to launch a bunch of bots, but make businesses successful on Messenger and give them the ability to communicate with customers,” Chudnovsky said. “How do you go about it? That’s where bots come in — it’s not the end, but the means to an end. Bots are there to make sure threads between businesses and people are better. We have the ability to give developers capabilities to build a more successful presence on Messenger so everyone enjoys it.”

Above: Facebook Messenger discover tab for businesses and bots.

Image Credit: Facebook

Finding a business and a bot can sometimes require a bit of work within Messenger. Users would have to either be directly linked to the bot or Page from the developer or by locating them through the search bar. Until now, a store or directory didn’t exist.

The home screen on Messenger has become increasingly congested, filled with not only your recent conversations, but unseen messages, favorites, birthday notifications, people that are active now, games, and of course Messenger Day. Facebook has now extracted all businesses and bots to have them reside in a new Discover tab. “This is the place where businesses live,” Chudnovsky explained. “The same place where you can find people, [this is] the same with businesses where you can connect directly with businesses, places, and services.”

He stated that Messenger has always “people direct”, but with brands eager to tap into the conversational commerce, it’s one thing to get them on board using the app, it’s another to drive customers to use it. Although you build it, they’ll come, but only if they can find you.

When users are in this new Discovery tab, businesses of all variations will be there, be it those with physical locations like Neiman Marcus, or well-known brands such as AT&T, Comcast, and CNN, along with bots that have been created. In addition, Chudnovsky shared that nearby businesses would be displayed, such as a local barber shop where he can talk to them, set up an appointment, tap to see when they’re open or closed, get directions — it’s “what everyone wanted.”.

Facebook has introduced numerous updates to its Pages feature, giving businesses ways to connect with customers. And while the company touted that Pages were mobile-first, it still was limited in facilitating a dialogue with people and this is the strength that Messenger can play. The current home feed on the app is too busy, so it’s time to streamline things to prove the benefit of what the platform can do. Perhaps in doing so, Facebook could somehow show brands how to be creative in their usage.

How the businesses and bots will be organized in appearance remains unknown, but it’s feasible to think that Facebook is using a variety of signals, such as previous conversations, who you’ve followed or Pages you’ve liked, and maybe even businesses nearby.

Game on

Like with Messenger’s Discovery tab, Facebook is also adding a tab dedicated towards gameplay. For more than a year, the company has slowly been introducing games that you could play natively within the chat app. Among the more recent ones is a basketball game that coincided with the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament and was played more than 1 billion times, and a soccer game timed with the 2016 World Cup.

And as businesses have clamored for more discovery features, so too have game developers. Facebook claims that more than 1.5 billion games were played in the last 90 days and to make it easier for users and app makers, there’s one central place to find not only standard games, but also turn-by-turn games to make the experience “more social.” Messenger is also getting support for Game bots.

Chudnovsky shared that these games do not have to be played within a message thread and can be done solo as well.

This comes as Facebook is beefing up its game offering. In November, it announced that it’s bringing Instant Games to not only its main News Feed but also Messenger. Instant Games are HTML5 apps that lets you lay without needing to actually install something. Games include Pac-Man, Words with Friend, Everwing, Space Invaders, and others.

Scaling the digital world conversation

Another big update that Facebook is launching is around better incorporating third-party apps into the messaging experience. Called chat extensions, this feature lets developers bring their app services directly into the conversation — no longer will users have to leave Messenger, which is definitely a good thing for Facebook. It also keeps the discussion going because we all know that interruptions can impact the exchange of ideas and we forget to say certain things.

Above: Facebook Messenger chat extensions: Spotify

Image Credit: Facebook

Chat extensions build on top of the updated composer, which some have described as being similar to iMessage. In a blog post, Facebook explained it like this: “…We enable multiple people to chat with the same business at the same time. If you are excited to share the newest song you love, you can now add a bot directly in a group thread and share the conversation and experience with your friends.”

Currently only select app partners have been integrated into Messenger, including Kayak, polling bot Swelly, Food Network, OpenTable, Spotify, the NBA, TheScore, and the Wall Street Journal. More will be added in the future, but is subject to review by Facebook. These new extensions build on the games, location-based tools, and first-party apps already available within the Messenger composer, according to Chudnovsky.

If you’re having a conversation about an upcoming concert you invited your friend to, they may not be familiar with the artist. Using the Spotify extension within Messenger, you can share a song with your friend and they’ll be able to listen to it within the Messenger app and then browse for other songs. No longer will you have to leave the Facebook app and either Google or find the YouTube link to the artist, paste it into Messenger and send it to your friend — it’s made more seamless.

Earlier this month, Facebook gave billions of people their first experience to suggested responses, a feature powered by M, its A.I. assistant. This technology will also leverage the new chat extensions. It’s feasible that if you and your friends decide to meet up for dinner after work, Messenger could prompt you with not only a restaurant it thinks your group might like, but also could recommend reservation times through OpenTable or other similar services.

The more time you spend within Messenger, the more information Facebook is learning about you and it could improve its AI service to really get to know who you are and what you’re talking about. Perhaps in doing so, it might help with the targeting of ads which could soon be launched on Messenger.

Facebook is also doing more with parametric QR codes, the feature that helps you connect with others by simply scanning the code within Messenger. Businesses, event planners, developers, and users can them in the offline world to connect customers with a chatbot to find out more information. So if you’re at a concert, museum, sporting event, or perhaps sightseeing, you could encounter a parametric QR code. Scan it within Messenger and a related bot will tell you more about where you are.

The use of QR codes is not new in the messaging space as WeChat uses it rather extensively so people can pay for purchases or find information. And Snapchat also uses it for connecting users.

All of these features are part of the Messenger platform’s evolution, something that has been going on for more than a year. While many think about bots as the equivalent of Messenger, there’s more to it and Facebook is looking to create an environment where our online lives no longer transact within a browser, but in a messaging app. From communicating with each other to brands, Facebook is launching new features it hopes will not only allow us to chat with people of interest, but also do it in a manner that’s akin to in real life.

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