In April, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook Messenger would offer businesses the ability to develop and integrate chatbots within the app.
As one of the ‘big three’ mobile applications, the announcement was a significant move towards monetising Messenger, but more importantly provided a new medium for companies to engage with potential customers. Businesses took up the challenge and integrated bots, officially known as “chatter robots” within weeks, with varying degrees of success. Startups like San Franciso’s PullString, Inc have gone even further, launching a private authoring platform that allows companies to collaborate and create their own chatbots.
Here at home, Sunshine Coast tech and design agency Xandra has become the first Australian company to take up PullString’s private beta program and consequently one of our first companies to launch Messenger chatbots at all.
Based in the Coast’s burgeoning innovation and entrepreneurship hub – home to creative work spaces and projects like Spark Bureau, the Innovation Centre, and the Sunshine Coast Start-Up Weekend – Xandra was initially formed as a solution to community-management issues such as room booking. They soon realised the advantage of creating personalised chatbots that interact with pre-existing, popular applications like Messenger over creating native apps from scratch, and partnered with PullString for their current initiative.
The startup is currently trialling their chatbot with Spark Bureau‘s co-working community, where co-founder of both the startup and hub Zach Johnson works with fellow co-founders Jessica Thoms and Madeline Rawlings.
“The three of us have highly complementary skill-sets and compatible personalities and work really well together,” Johnson said. “Maddy is a graphic designer and Jess is a copywriter and they both run their own agencies. [I] have twenty years tech startup and leadership experience.”
After bootstrapping their first few months of development, the team have secured their first paying customer and plan to continue self-funding into the future.
While the product is still in beta, the chatbot is being used daily for room bookings in Spark Bureau and has been approved by Facebook. In the long-term, Xandra envisions extending to large-scale community-engagement, including restaurant reservations, venue hire, event calendars, and creative storytelling for brands and businesses.
For now, they intend to focus on their “vision of using conversational interfaces to support brand experiences, while resisting opportunities that may pigeon-hole Xandra as ‘just a booking bot’.”
“We will also be actively monitoring the evolution of artificial intelligence and the advancement of new and emerging interfaces so we can keep ahead of the latest research and technologies while placing a priority on design and experience.”
And while they are the country’s first startup to work with PullString in this capacity, other successful Australian chatbots have been developed; notably, retail powerhouse Domain was first off the mark with a chatbot that streamlines the house-hunting process.
However, with over 10,000 chatbots currently in development for the Messenger platform, personalised but Facebook-friendly chatbots with companies like Xandra might, as they claim, become the new norm for both customer service and brand engagement.
“The average smart-phone user is no longer downloading new apps, and ones they use daily are mostly for messaging and daily interaction. The Xandra Labs team believes that conversational interfaces will dominate how brands engage customers, how companies transact business and how physical spaces, including cities, interact with members and residents.”