It’s been two months since Facebook Messenger opened up a bot platform to outside companies, and several publishers have thrown bots up, eager for the chance to interact with Messenger’s 900 million users. What they’ve learned is that a simple bot is easy to make, but making it good is hard work. Facebook also hasn’t sorted out how it will promote the bots to users or share overall user data, making it hard for developers to get them discovered and know how they’re doing. Facebook also hasn’t allowed them to monetize the bots, either.
That said, publishers are optimistic about the users they’ve attracted, and working to make them more responsive to natural language. Here’s a look at what four are using the platform for and with what effect:
You can get the news via text or video anywhere, but to reach young people, Fusion developed this Emoji News bot to reach users fluent in emoji. The bot delivers news summaries with key words replaced by emojis, followed by a link to the full story on Fusion’s site. You can also ask for news by topic by entering the corresponding emoji. The answers are automated, but the bot is staffed by two editorial employees from Fusion’s News Lab who input the stories manually into the bot’s database every day.
Reading emojis doesn’t seem to be the most natural or efficient way to get the news, but despite that and the fact that the bots haven’t gotten much promotion, Fusion claims 42,000 users for the bot after a month, one-fifth of whom are using it on a daily basis. Outside the emojis, the bot doesn’t have much personality, but Fusion says it’ll be experimenting with more functions, including improving natural-language responses and testing different story types.
Powered by bot developer Chatfuel, the tech publication’s bot sends trending stories once a day. Type “menu” and you can get personalized recommendations based on your TechCrunch reading history. You can also subscribe to specific categories or topics. A few nice features: Stories can be read on the web or in the bot itself in text bubbles. You can share your location to get daily stories delivered based on time zone, and you can submit feedback to the bot. It can also answer basic questions like “What is Theranos” with a summary and related articles, though it’s not clear that such a search function is going to replace Google anytime soon.
The bot also doesn’t answer questions about events, which users have been asking about; and the article summaries could use some work, two areas TechCrunch plans to address. TechCrunch won’t share user data, but Travis Bernard, director of audience development, said that from May to June, subscribers and the number of active sessions has doubled. “In the next few months, if we continue to grow at this rate, [usership] would definitely surpass the TechCrunch app,” he said.
This weather bot delivers personalized weather forecasts based on city or ZIP code and on demand or on a schedule from a jaunty cartoon cat that says things like, “I wouldn’t wish this afternoon rain and low 50s temps on my worst enemy. Because he loves mud! He’s a pig, by the way.” The 14-person Betaworks team that runs Poncho has also been fine-tuning the bot to respond to natural-language questions like “Do I need an umbrella” and “Will it snow tomorrow.”
Betaworks won’t say how many users it has or its engagement rate, but said weekly users are at least in the “tens of thousands” and that average session time has more than doubled, to more than one minute, as the bot has learned to answer follow-up questions.
Poncho just provides the weather for now, but by giving it a personality, the goal is to extend it to other subjects, which some users apparently have already done. “We definitely have users who appear to be younger who want to talk to Poncho about things that like boyfriends and girlfriends,” said Sam Mandel, Poncho’s CEO.
The men’s lifestyle publisher’s bot sends users top trending articles each day, and users can also sign up to get alerts on key topics, such as Nike, Drake or Yeezy, plus the latest Complex cover and videos. One nice feature: you can read articles within the bot itself so you don’t have to leave the app. It can also answer simple questions such as “Who or what is” something or someone, with a brief description and related articles, though again, Google already does a good job of that.
Complex has had over 100,000 sessions since the bot launched in early May, with the daily digest the most popular use of the bot so far. Average session length is short — under one minute — but the company is analyzing what people are asking about so it can answer different kinds of questions, which could lead to more time spent on the bot.