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Private messaging is social's next big ad frontier, but there’s huge potential for these apps to evolve beyond being just another ad platform.
In the East, platforms like WeChat show how messaging apps can be potent channels for commerce, and all indications are that the same could one day be true in the West.
Last week, Microsoft announced the Bot Framework, an addition to its Cortana Intelligence Suite that allows developers "to build intelligent bots that enable customers to chat using natural language on a wide variety of platforms including text/SMS, Office 365, Skype, Slack, the Web and more."
It also released a Skype Bot Platform that paves the way for companies to build bots that can interact with users on Skype via text, voice, video and interactive characters.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is committed to the idea of "conversation as a platform" and Microsoft isn't the only company aiming to make it possible for consumers to interact with digital services via a variety of digital conversations – many of which will only have a human on one side.
Already, companies are embracing Facebook Messenger, one of the world's most popular messaging apps, to interact with their customers.
For example, Air France KLM is integrating with Messenger and will soon allow flyers to check in, receive flight status updates, make itinerary changes and interact with customer service through Facebook's messaging solution.
According to Tjalling Smit, Air France KLM's senior vice president of digital, it's all about serving customers where they are.
"The KLM app is not one" of the apps that its customers use on a regular basis, "however Facebook, Messenger, etc. are. This made us decide that we have to turn third-party platforms like social media (including chat platforms) into a new entry point for our customers."
Challenges, opportunities ahead
Of course, interacting with customers through messaging apps presents brands with a number of challenges. They won't have full control over the user experience, so delivering a high-quality customer experience will require effort.
There is also the potential that interactions with corporate chat bots could be sources of a major fail.
Microsoft, for instance, was forced to take Tay, an AI Twitter bot, offline after it was manipulated into posting offensive, embarrassing tweets.
But despite the fact that perfecting human-computer interactions will take time, brands should start thinking about how they might be able to engage with their customers in an automated fashion.
This is because it seems increasingly likely that a large number of consumers will not only be comfortable with this kind of engagement, but might even find it desirable.
Case in point: bots are one of the most popular features of popular collaboration platform Slack, and as more and more people are exposed to the utility bots can provide, brands may find it necessary to think about a "bots everywhere" strategy in preparation for the day when bots are ubiquitous.