Last year, it became pretty clear that Facebook was on track to turn its widely used Messenger product into something of an e-commerce platform. It tested the waters with a couple of businesses including Everlane, which uses Messenger to alert customers of order status updates and even allows them to buy things. And on Tuesday, it announced the launch of an API that allows any business to create a bot that can communicate with its customers through Messenger, debuting with a host of launch partners including the mobile-first e-commerce marketplace Spring. Facebook is calling it "conversational commerce."
While certainly not the first instance of a retailer utilizing mobile messaging, it's a pretty big deal because it means that Messenger's 900 million+ users can now shop Spring's 800+ brands and retailers (including Everlane, Uniqlo, Marc Jacobs and many designers) by opening a conversation on their phones. Other fashion and retail brands now on Messenger (besides Everlane) include Shopify, Tieks And Zulily. One can also order flowers from 1-800 Flowers, find out breaking news from CNN or get the weather from Hi Poncho.
Here's how it works if you want to buy clothes: The conversation begins with a bot asking what you're looking for and to choose between women's or men's, then it continues to present you with options to select from: clothing, shoes or accessories; a price range; etc. It will then present thumbnails with links out to products that you can buy right there on your mobile device.
According to founder and CEO Alan Tisch, Spring's suggestions take into account past purchasing behavior (for existing customers at least) to create a somewhat personalized experience. For those who have more personal or specific questions than the bot is prepared to answer — and this is a feature unique to Spring — a human "concierge" will talk to you instead. "We've spent a lot time trying to understand personal shopping behaviors and what would be the most commonly asked questions," says Tisch. "[After] a week or two of it being live to customers, we're going to look at the data and see some of the feedback to see how we can improve it from here."
Tisch explains that Spring was in the midst of developing its own live chat platform in-house when Facebook came calling, and Messenger's 900 million users weren't something he could turn down. As Spring, which only launched a year and a half ago, works to get more (and bigger) brands on board, Tisch feels that could be big draw.
The real question is, though: Is this the future of shopping? The success of WeChat, China's number-one social media platform, suggests it could be. Originally just a one-on-one mobile messaging platform (like Messenger), users can now do just about anything on WeChat, from hail a taxi to play games to shop for skin-care products. And many have speculated that Facebook more or less intends to become the WeChat of the West. But it will take time. "It's not going to be for everyone initially and it's definitely a big shift in behavior," admits Tisch. "Do I think this is going to be the primary way people shop starting immediately? No. Do I think there will be an engaged user base that loves this and over time it will grow and as we improve the product? Absolutely. It's something we're committed to."