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Four Months Into 'Chatbot Revolution,' Expectations Are Being Reset

Four months into the "bot revolution," and we still don't have an indispensable bot. That's a worrisome sign for the companies betting on them.

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The bot revolution isn’t exactly taking off as planned, and that could mean trouble for the social businesses betting on it.

In a Medium post published earlier this week, Ted Livingston, CEO of messaging app Kik, looked back on the four months since his company and Facebook Messenger introduced chatbot platforms, and conceded they were off to a disappointing start. “So far, there has been no killer bot,” he wrote. “This is not yet the world that the early hype promised.”

For anyone who’s suffered through a stilted chatbot interaction, Livingston’s sigh of disappointment will hardly come as a surprise. What is surprising is that it's being made publicly -- by the leader of a prominent company that's placed a big bet on chatbots. Livingston does note that he's still bullish on bots. But that seems a caveat to a longer expression of uncertainty. It's clear that if the chatbot experiment continues along its current low-altitude trajectory, it could cause some headaches -- especially for Facebook, it's biggest proponent.

Original sharing is declining on Facebook, per reports, and the company is seeing more action in its messaging apps, making them, and bots by extension, more critical to its ambitions. “A lot of people want to share messages privately, one-on-one or with very small groups,” Mark Zuckerberg said in an April earnings call. Given this, Facebook will likely need to get more revenue out of Messenger and WhatsApp in order to keep growing at the same pace — especially since its main platform’s ad load is nearing capacity.

That’s where bots are supposed to come in. On Facebook proper, the company connects advertisers with their customers via ads that take them to the advertisers’ websites, or show them a video on Facebook itself. On Messenger, the company plans to connect advertisers with their customers via Sponsored Messages that take them to the advertisers’ bots. If people don’t want to use bots, though, advertisers won’t want to shell out cash to promote them.

“I think there’s opportunity,” said Jess Bahr, director of paid promotion and strategy at SocialFlow, a social media management software company. But she said she sees more value in an engaged user. “It’s almost like a more qualified audience.”

Still only four months in, it’s too early to write bots off. And now the platforms are starting to learn and adjust. As Livingston pointed out, maybe the "chat" part of the chatbot needs to be rethought. “Part of the misfire with the conversational aspect of bots has to do with the fact that natural language processing and artificial intelligence are not yet accomplished at managing human-like conversations,” he said. Tapping through interactions, as users of China-based WeChat’s users do, could be one alternative.

Asked if they would continue to invest in the bots, early Facebook Messenger partners 1-800-FLOWERS.com and Poncho (a weather bot) said they would. And Kik investor Fred Wilson wrote in a blog post Wednesday that he still believes in bots too. “The hype phase is over and we are now into the figuring it out phase,” he said. “That’s usually when interesting stuff starts to happen.”

For Facebook and its ilk, it’s important that he’s right.

Alex Kantrowitz is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. He reports on social and communications.

Contact Alex Kantrowitz at alex.kantrowitz@buzzfeed.com.

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