Facebook Messenger for Ecommerce: Human Versus Inhuman Chatbots

Facebook Messenger for Ecommerce: Human Versus Inhuman Chatbots

The fundamental sin ecommerce companies commit on Facebook is as simple as it is destructive.

In a nutshell, ecommerce companies do not use Facebook the way Facebook users do. Instead of going native and investing in the conversational and deeply human atmosphere that makes Facebook Facebook, ecommerce comes off decidedly inhuman and (ironically) faceless.


By treating Facebook as little more than a dumping ground for all their usual on-site products, offers, promotions, content, and communication.

But there is hope. Facebook now lets you humanely automate your ordering process, interact with customers, manage support and service issues, upsell, cross-sell, and -- yes! -- even build relationships.

It all comes down to one of Shopify’s newest Facebook integrations: Facebook Messenger Chatbots. The trend is known as conversational commerce, which Chris Messina, Developer Experience Lead at Uber, defines as

Conversational commerce ... [means] utilizing chat, messaging, or other natural language interfaces (i.e. voice) to interact with people, brands, or services and bots that heretofore have had no real place in the bidirectional, asynchronous messaging context.

Naturally, the upside of using Messenger for conversational ecommerce is huge, but so is the danger. Let’s take a look at both sides -- the inhuman and the human -- to see exactly how your ecommerce business can start getting conversational.

The Inhuman Side of Facebook Messenger

First off, what are Facebook Messenger chatbots?

Chatbots are interactive programs designed to automate communication tasks a person would normally do on their own. Used correctly, they simulate conversations making a host of business-critical communication points feel far more interactive and natural.

Here’s a quick video overview of what they look like in action:

The good news for Facebook users about Messenger is that businesses can’t access your email address or other personal details if you don’t provide them. Neither can owners of Facebook pages message people who don’t contact them first.

However, just because someone does give you permission to contact them via Facebook Messenger, that doesn’t mean it’s time to start inundating them.

The inhuman side of Facebook Messenger comes in two forms.

1. Do Not Market with Facebook Messenger

We all know Facebook is a tool to connect family and friends, and this space is sacred. Mess with it and, as a business, you’re likely to be crucified.

This means do not attempt to use Messenger as a blatant marketing tool. Facebook Messenger is not the newest and coolest email list. Instead, it’s best to think of Facebook Messenger as a customer-experience enhancer and user-information gatherer than a full-on marketing tool.

Not only do you run the risk of violating the norms of Facebook if you use Messenger to market, but the truth is Messenger chatbots simply aren’t up to the challenge on interacting with humans on the front end of your funnel, at least not yet.

Much of the news about chatbots has centered on its integrations with machine learning and artificial intelligence, something about which all marketers get excited. The temptation is to create a chatbot, go hands off, and then simply unleash it.

Unfortunately, Messenger automation won’t work if you don’t have humans manning it, specifically if you’re not using a bot managed by humans. As we’ll explore below, bots can certainly be used successfully to automate a host of tasks, but they can’t be relied on to take all the responsibility. Human input is still very much a necessity.

Microsoft recently learned the hard way that even the most advanced AI-driven bots still demand oversight. In March, Microsoft released TayTweets: an AI chatbot on Twitter that “the company described as an experiment in ‘conversational understanding.’” The idea was straightforward: the more Twitter users interacted with Tay, the more human it was supposed to get.

Tragically, that’s exactly what happened -- just not in a good way. It took all of 24 hours for TayTweets to go from “casual and playful conversation” to what my editor said I can't even show you here (but you can Google it). While your bot may not run the risk of spiraling into racist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic hate speech, the inhuman side of Facebook Messenger AI does pose a great danger to marketing.

2. Do Not Sell with Facebook Messenger

Aspect -- the company who developed Natural Language Understanding (NLU) which helps make conversations sound human on Messenger -- freely admits that when conversations reach a certain complexity, humans would have to pick it up from there.

And “complexity” in conversational ecommerce is a decidedly relative term.

Back in April, for instance, Lukas Thoms set about the task of shopping for clothes with two of Facebook Messenger’s premier bots. Not to ruin the ending, but Thoms’ initial summary paints a less-than-perfect picture:

Facebook’s demo … was very slick, so I decided to try these shopping bots myself. Needless to say, the experience was not as advertised.

The piece walks through a number of challenges the bots presented: namely, that the shopping experiences themselves were little more than a rigid replication of each store’s usual ecommerce flow, and worse that both bots eventually recommended products that were outside of Thoms’ originally selected sizes and price range.

Image Via TechInAsia

Perhaps most disappointing was Thoms’ experience with one bot’s “emoji shopping option”:

Image Via TechInAsia

To test one of the Messenger bots myself, I visited Fynd, which Forbes recently listed as the very first of 10 Facebook Messenger Bots You Need To Try Right Now. My wife constantly “berates” me for my love of cargo shorts, so I kicked things off with a fashion question I thought she’d appreciate:


It’s understandable my initial question was too complex. So I followed their instructions:


Unfortunately, while the very first product they showed me was a pair of non-cargo shorts, the other products where an odd mix of gym shorts, female shorts, and even -- to my wife’s chagrin -- cargo shorts:

So I tried to clarify my request again, and that’s when things got even worse:


All this goes to show that conversational ecommerce as far as bot shopping goes still requires development before it can be used for sales itself.

The Human Side of Facebook Messenger

I’ve already stressed what a sacred space Facebook is for its users. When your ecommerce business enters that space, the same relational rules apply. In fact, instead of initiating a relationship -- i.e., through marketing or sales -- you should be deepening one that already exists. And here’s where the power lies to change existing B2C relationships to become more intimate shines.

In other words, Facebook Messenger can seriously boost current customer experiences as well as build loyalty and commitment to your brand.

1. Facebook Messenger for Confirmation

For instance, Chubbies Shorts uses Facebook chatbots to automate both its order processes and customer support. Approximately 85% of people who buy from Chubbies are already logged into Facebook, so in order to enhance the customer experience, confirmation messages are automated through Messenger:

True to the company’s word, once Chubbies ships the goods, the bot updates the customer:

And when the order is delivered, the bot again messages:

Unlike traditional email messages -- or even stand alone ecommerce apps like Amazon -- Messenger chatbots offers three distinct advantages.

First, they place the order confirmation and shipping process within the native environment most people exist in by default. And this isn’t just about the popularity of Facebook itself. Data from Business Insider shows that messaging apps now outpace social networking apps in terms of monthly users:

Image Via Business Insider

Facebook Messenger bridges those two worlds. More importantly, by going to your customers -- instead of forcing them to come to you -- you reduce friction throughout the entire process.

Second, Messenger dramatically reduces the cost and turnaround time for customer inquiries. Because chatbots function much like a one-on-one FAQ page -- addressing only those questions a user actually poses -- not only are they responsive, they also offload front-end issues customers commonly face and can be set up to seamlessly bring in a real human when needed. In Facebook Messenger boss David Marcus’ words: “You can do things in a tenth of the time that you can over email or other platforms.”

Third -- and most powerfully -- they build relationships with customers through what feel like genuine conversations. As the Telegraph recently reported: “A Messenger chat retains your identity, the context of your previous conversations and always follows on logically from your last message.” Logistically, this is a major advantage. But the real relationship builder comes from making your companies chatbot your own: infusing it with a voice that matches your brand itself.

2. Facebook Messenger for Service

Along these same lines, Facebook Messenger is a brilliant, low-cost way of providing customer service. And customer service via social is becoming more and more a requirement than an option.

Research shows that you’ll lose 15% of your customers if you don’t respond to those who contact you via social media. The same study reveals that when you do respond to customers via social media, you can expect an increase in revenue per customer between 20 and 40%.

I share these statistics with you because shockingly 45% of retailers ignore customers on social media because they have not integrated it into their regular customer service process.

Facebook Messenger provides a golden opportunity to provide instant feedback via a channel your customers are on anyway.

3. Facebook Messenger for Upselling

I’ve gone to great length to warn you against using Messenger for marketing and sales; upselling, cross-selling, and repeat selling, however, are different matters entirely.

Still, you have to be careful.

If your product lends itself to repeat purchases -- i.e., anything with a built-in shelf life -- then Messenger could be your go-to tool to send reminders based either on the average repeat purchase time or -- even better -- your customer’s individual history. Facebook’s one-click ordering makes this kind of repeat purchases insanely easy on customers.

Similarly, if your customer shows a specific buying pattern, then Messenger can be used to upsell and cross-sell similar products. Zulily, for instance, missed a golden opportunity when I order my seventh pair of shoes from them in a six-month period. Not only that, but I also ordered fancy socks more than a handful of times.

While that pattern may tell you more about my “problem” with footwear than I’d like, each time Zulily simply sent me an order and shipping confirmation:

What they should have done, and what your ecommerce company should do, is migrated their shoe-and-sock-related product emails over to Messenger instead:

For a someone who struggles with footwear issues -- which Zulily should know -- I would have been powerless to resist one-click ordering with my previous sizes already loaded up.

4. Facebook Messenger for Fun

Lastly, do not be afraid to have fun with Facebook Messenger.

Just because the order’s been delivered, doesn’t mean Facebook Messenger's conversational job is over. Just look at the response Chubbies got from one of the Messenger string we've been following in this post:

Whether you work at programming your chatbot to respond with your brand’s voice or ensure a human takes over at clutch moments, capitalizing on them goes a long way to ensuring your company uses Facebook Messenger the way Facebook Messenger users do.

Conversational Ecommerce Must Be Conversational

We’ve really just scratched the surface of the possibilities of conversational ecommerce by using Facebook Messenger to build stronger relationships.

Hopefully, new iterations will make the two no-nos possible: marketing and sales.

Even now there are still more benefits, like learning more about the customers who message you and making a connection by being able to find commonalities. Messenger can also act as a free CRM tool to keep notes and for keeping moderators in the loop for a seamless customer experience.

Facebook Messenger for ecommerce allows retailers to automate their ordering and customer service process via Facebook, the very place those customers live and breathe online.

Chatbots automate communication in as human a way as possible, and when humans monitor these interactions, the process works well -- so long as it stays genuinely conversational.

About the Author

Aaron Orendorff is a content marketer at Shopify Plus as well as a regular contributor to sites like Mashable, Lifehacker, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, Fast Company, The Huffington Post and more. You can connect with him on Twitter or Facebook.