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Facebook will announce chatbot and live chat APIs at F8

TechCrunch TechCrunch 7/04/2016 Josh Constine and Steve O'Hear

Chatbots could replace 1-800 numbers, and Facebook wants them on Messenger. But most businesses don’t have the resources or technical skills to build chatbots themselves.  That’s why Facebook is currently providing developers with API tools to build chatbots and Live Chat web plugins for business clients, according to multiple sources and a leaked deck Facebook shared with devs. The tools will be announced at Facebook’s F8 conference next week.

Facebook already has a directory for approved marketing partners. It lets businesses find technology and service providers that can help businesses with ads, content, measurement, and community management. But Facebook doesn’t yet provide a distinction, badge, or separate directory for partners that can specifically assist with messaging.

Developers we’ve spoken to say Facebook hasn’t formalized or named a specific Messenger platform partner program. Still, it’s expected to refer businesses to Messenger developers and a more official partner program could come later.

What we do know is that Facebook has been working with B2B developers of two types, with some overlap. It’s all part of Messenger’s big expansion into connecting potential customers with businesses via chat which it teased at F8 last year.

Chatbot providers will help businesses build automated response systems for fielding messages from potential customers. Instead of having to develop the complex technologies themselves, or fumble around the Internet trying to find someone that can help, they’ll be able to easily find ones Facebook’s given the thumbs-up.

TechCrunch has reviewed a presentation sent by Facebook to some Messenger chatbot developers. It details how beyond just text, chatbots will be able to respond with what it calls “Structured Messages”. These include a title, image, a description, a URL, and calls to action such as visiting a website, viewing an ecommerce order, or making a restaurant reservation.

This Structured Message functionality essentially lets developers build systems similar to Uber’s and KLM’s integrations with Messenger. Here you’ll see a mockup we made based on the presentation Facebook shared with chatbot developers. This builds on the scoop we ran in January about Facebook testing a secret Chat SDK with developers that allow them to build bots.

Facebook is also working with Live Chat developers that can build plugins for “Message Us”-style contact buttons for websites. This way rather than pushing customers to email them or call them on the phone, they can interact with a human support agent over Messenger chat instead.

When tapped, the Live Chat buttons will bounce users over to the Messenger app on mobile or Messenger.com on the web. Users should be able to see read receipts and “typing…” indicators depending on how the integrations are built with Facebook’s Chat SDK and various APIs.

Facebook declined to comment. Marketing Land previously reported Facebook will let news publishers distribute content through Messenger.

Currently, Facebook isn’t charging developers any sort of subscription or per message feed for operating on the platform. However, Facebook could still make money from chatbots and live chat customer support.

One option is for Facebook to push businesses running chatbots to buy News Feed ads that initiate conversations. We got Facebook’s ad czar Andrew “Boz” Bosworth to provide early details about “Click To Message” ads at TechCrunch Disrupt last year. But that was before chatbots and chat customer support were a big deal.

Soon you could imagine businesses buying ads that when tapped, start a Messenger conversation with their chatbot that tries to sell you something. Making humans answer these pings might be too costly for businesses, but chatbots can scale efficiently, making the Click To Message ads worth buying.

Another option is for Facebook to allow advertising inside Messenger itself. That’s the plan, according to a leaked presentation attained by TechCrunch in February, sent by a Facebook team member to one of the biggest brands in its platform. The presentation says advertisers would be able to pay to send marketing messages to people who’ve already messaged that business.

To get those conversations started, the presentation explained that Facebook had quietly launched Messenger shortlinks that instantly open a Messenger thread with the corresponding business. These “Messenger Links” officially launched this morning. One other possibility is that Facebook could let businesses pay for preferred placement in its list of suggestions of businesses to message, which Business Insider spotted yesterday.

Facebook can’t start a chatbot and chat customer service revolution on its own. By fostering an ecosystem of developers to help businesses the same way it did with ads and Page publishing, it could make sure every niche is covered. And the more of our communication that’s routed through Messenger, the closer to the Facebook family of apps we’ll stay.

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