Here’s how Facebook will finally convince you to use Messenger – Yahoo Finance

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At its annual F8 conference on Tuesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg brought out the bots.

No, not robots in the traditional sense, but virtual chat bots that live inside Facebook Messenger, which the social networking giant launched as a separate app in 2014. The company today announced Messenger Platform, which lets customers communicate with businesses live, in the moment, via bots. It simultaneously opened up a new API for developers to build their own bots for Messenger.

“We think you should just be able to message a business in the same way you’d message a friend,” Zuckerberg said. “You shouldn’t have to install a new app.”

That statement is a little ironic considering that Facebook (FB) forces users to download its Messenger app to read a message. The two functions were originally in the same place, but after it launched a separate Messenger app in 2014, you now can’t even see, on the main Facebook mobile app, who sent you a message—it tells you that you’ve received one, then demands you download the separate Messenger app if you haven’t. That has annoyed some users, even though 900 million of them have downloaded Messenger. A CNET article in 2014 summarized the resentment many users felt: “Uh, no. Why should I install a second app just so I can trade the occasional message with a Facebook friend?” Many tech sites ran stories about how to get around it and send messages without downloading Messenger.

The bot bonanza is Facebook’s way of sweetening the pot and convincing the last remaining holdouts to use Messenger regularly. It had been quietly pushing this effort in more subtle ways before today: last month, Facebook rolled out a hidden basketball game only playable within Messenger. (It also has a Chess game.) Facebook’s VP of Messenger, David Marcus, referenced it at F8 on Tuesday, saying, “For the first time ever, we recently allowed ourselves to build little delightful surprises inside Messenger– like allowing you to gift-wrap your messages for Valentine’s Day, or our little March Madness basketball game.”

The live chat bots are not unrelated to the new Facebook Live video plans that the company announced just last week. One is video, the other is text, but both services are all about live— whether that means streaming, watching, and sharing a video, or speaking to, ordering from, and connecting with companies and services. Facebook wants to be the go-to place for basically every task, whether social or commercial, that you need to accomplish right now. (Yes, “right now” was originally the territory of Twitter and Snapchat, and yes, both should consider themselves warned.)

When Zuckerberg introduced the new bot services, his first example was CNN, which he said can now “send you a daily digest of stories right into Messenger.” Then he mentioned ordering flowers through the Messenger app from 1-800-Flowers. “Now, to order from 1-800-Flowers, you never have to call 1-800-Flowers again.” In other words, if users are willing to turn to Messenger for a wide range of new services, it could disrupt everything from retail companies’ own apps and web pages and news apps from publishers. It could disrupt the iOS App Store, since you can download some new apps from within Messenger.

It could even disrupt… healthcare. One of Facebook’s “launch partners” on Messenger Platform, the company confirmed to Yahoo Finance, is HealthTap, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based health-tech startup founded in 2010. HealthTap has raised $35 million in funding and has about 100 employees. And at the launch of Facebook’s new bot-laden Messenger service, it is the first healthcare-related service.

By communicating with HealthTap on Facebook Messenger, users can have a medical question answered instantly, by an automated bot, or in a matter of minutes, by a real doctor. “Text messaging is the number one mode of communication all over the world now,” HealthTap CEO Ron Gutman tells Yahoo Finance. “That’s the big deal of what we are doing, is giving people immediate service. I mean, think about it: health care is the one area where we’ve gotten used to waiting rooms and delays. We expect to wait. But on HealthTap, it’s instant gratification.”

One could quibble with Gutman’s claim about waiting. You still wait at the DMV, or at Trader Joe’s, or at McDonald’s. But his point is clear, and maybe a little scary: Most people now want to get helped, whatever the context, right away, this second.

Gutman says HealthTap is especially useful to two groups: millennials and moms. “We have college students asking questions about acne, sexual health, things important to them,” he says. “And then we have lots of moms asking about pregnancy, or their kids getting sick. And it’s easy for them because moms are busy, she has just one hand or even one finger free, and with one finger she can tap and ask a question and get a quick answer. This is the beautiful thing about the platform—it’s for busy people, like us. We don’t want to go to a doctor, waste a lot of time, we often just have a quick question we want to ask.”

HealthTap is not for booking an appointment; it’s closer to doing a simple online search for a simple medical problem. (If you need to go to the hospital, one hopes you won’t open up Facebook Messenger instead.) You might compare the HealthTap bot to WebMD, but Gutman calls that site a “dinosaur.” Using a library of 4.2 billion vetted answers, HealthTap can serve you up a free, instant, automated response, or you can ask to speak to a live doctor (it has 100,000 on the platform; they are contractors a la Uber) and it will connect you with one within minutes.

HealthTap is just one example of a company that jumped on the new Messenger service. David Marcus, in his presentation, mentioned Spring, a shopping app, as well as Poncho, a weather app that delivers the weather report to you from a character named Poncho the Weather Cat. (Seriously.) All of these are eager corporate friends of Facebook, and it’s easy to see why more brands will be happy to hop on board and create bots for the Messenger platform. (Facebook also announced, you guessed it, sponsored messages from brands.)

Last year, Facebook Messenger was the fastest-growing app in the U.S. Second fastest? Facebook. Between Messenger and WhatsApp, people are sending 60 billion messages a day, Zuckerberg said. But it’s not enough: 900 million people use Facebook Messenger. The company wants that number to be higher, and it hopes instant connection with services can be the way to do it.

For a change, this chat-bot rollout is a utilitarian bet—on the usefulness and functionality of getting things done—more than a social bet. With 1.5 billion monthly active global users on the social network, it’s a bet that will likely pay off.  

Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology.

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Here’s how Facebook will finally convince you to use Messenger – Yahoo Finance}