Companies test the waters with Facebook chatbots

The Muppets and theScore are in first wave of Messenger chatbots

When The Muppets Studio wanted Miss Piggy to be able to chat with her fans, executives there decided to connect her with a new Facebook Messenger chatbot.

"We were very interested in creating an opportunity for Miss Piggy to connect with her fans in a very personal way," said Debbie McClellan, vice president of The Muppets Studio. "Messaging is a natural way for people (and internationally famous pigs) to communicate. Chatbots made it possible for Miss Piggy to engage in one-on-one conversations and to develop a deeper relationship with her fans."

Facebook announced last week at its annual F8 developers conference that businesses will be able to use chatbots in its popular Messenger app.

Chatbots are programs that use artificial intelligence to simulate human conversations.

The idea is that companies won't have to depend on telephone calls, or even apps, to communicate with customers who want to do such things as order flowers, complain about a product they just purchased, or, even talk with their favorite Disney character.

Disney, which owns The Muppets Studio, sees chatbots as another avenue of communication with fans, and and one its wants to take advantage of right away.

The Miss Piggy chatbot, which is aimed at engaging with fans and promoting The Muppets television show that airs on ABC, was first launched in December, well before Facebook took the wraps off its Messenger chatbots.

"The Messenger [chatbot] made it possible to go beyond what happens in the TV episodes and deliver a new kind of Muppet experience," McClellan said. "During this campaign, we've seen that people will speak with Miss Piggy for approximately eight minutes on average… This initial chat experience was a great breakthrough for us, and we're hoping to build on it in the future."

For Riaz Lalani, vice president of product at theScore Inc., a Toronto-based media company, chatbots may be the next big thing, possibly eclipsing mobile apps.

"Chatbots provide another opportunity for us to have a relationship with sports fans," said Lalani, who noted that the company's theScore app is the second-most popular sports app in North America – right behind the ESPN app. "Sports are already bringing people together. Conversations already exist around sports. It's a natural extension of our core mission to deliver sports news and content to sports fans where they are."

The Canadian company isn't looking to replace its popular theScore app but rather to complement it with a Messenger chatbot that could be out as soon as this week, though this month may be a safer target.

The bot is designed to push information out to users about their favorite teams, giving them game scores, stats and player info.

"There are 900 million monthly active users on Messenger," Lalani said. "There are people in Messenger for 80 percent of the day, having conversations with their friends and family… We can create conversations around the great content that we have."

For theScore, the challenging part of the process will be analyzing how people use the chatbot and what they want it to do for them in the future.

"The challenge with something new is fundamentally trying to understand what is going to be the best experience," Lalani said. "The challenge starts as soon as we launch. With any new platform, you have to understand how people will interact with a new experience."

He added that theScore has high hopes for chatbots.

"If we fundamentally nail it, it could be just as important, or even more important, [than apps]," said Lalani. "Who knows? This could be the next way to interact. If people are encouraged to use chatbots, then the market for this could be big, and we'll be there to play on that opportunity."

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