Chatbots launched with a good deal of fanfare in early 2016 — only to seem much of the early enthusiasm for the product diminished when consumers and merchants alike learned that bots were often a better idea in concept than in execution. Even PayPal’s David Marcus noted shortly after Facebook’s F8 conference last year that it was still early days and a little too easy to build a bad bot that didn’t really do much to give consumers a great experience.
Flash forward a year, and Mastercard wants to get past the sins of chatbots past by helping merchants build bots that meet two important criteria.
First, the bot has to actually provide a useful commerce-related service for the customer — which means it has to enable an experience that a consumer might actually want or need to use.
Second, it had to be something that being a part of the Facebook Messenger ecosystem could improve or enhance.
Today, at Facebook’s F8, Mastercard will show the payments and commerce ecosystem what’s possible when one sets out to build a better bot inside of the Messenger ecosystem.
“We feel we have found experiences that are best when they are delivered [via Messenger] since there’s something coming out of it that one doesn’t get in other contexts,” James Anderson, group executive emerging payments, told Karen Webster in an interview on the eve of 2017’s F8 conference.
Those bots — and those three distinct user experiences — will be brought to life with three very different merchant partners: Subway, the Cheesecake Factory and Fresh Direct.
Each of those merchants, Anderson said, presented contextual experiences for which the opportunity to power a seamless payments experience was both relevant and value-added and for which Mastercard could leverage the power of its MDES platform to close the payment loop.
“One of the most interesting use cases is what we did with grocery alongside of Fresh Direct,” Anderson noted, stating that grocery represents a challenge that chatbots actually meet, given the “large cart complex order” nature of the game.
“We looked at the social element of message and chat and discovered that a consumer often builds these carts on the go and even among groups.”
Those groups can vary, he noted. Families who used to fight in grocery stores about the appropriate vegetable-to-Fruit-Roll-Up ratio in a cart can now have those discussions digitally in a group chat on Messenger. Groups of friends heading to various storefronts for beach weeks throughout the late spring and summer can now order their groceries to be there on arrival instead of making a trip to the grocery store their first priority.
For the Cheesecake Factory, on the other hand, the name of the game was gift card purchase — and making it easy for customers to snap it up in context.
“Facebook alerts you to friends’ birthdays — and this makes it easy to attach a slice of cake to that Happy Birthday message that a consumer could post in a friend’s news feed,” he offered.
Subway, on the other hand, built their own chatbot premised on the idea that a sandwich is at base a conversation with the person making it for you. Instead of having that chat in store, consumers can have it on Messenger — and just grab the sandwich as they walk by the store.
“They took what we could provide with payments and ran with it,” said Anderson.
Now, all of this isn’t to say that Mastercard is going to soon build a giant chatbot factory and start cranking out chatbots one after the other. Instead, Mastercard views this exercise as a learning experience, of getting the experience that only being hands-on can create for them. And those experiences, they hope, will inspire innovators to create their own ideas to move the market forward.
Anderson said that what they’ve rolled out with Messenger also reflects a “nice payoff” to the firm’s investment into creating a “proper digital stack” that has resulted in MDES and the move to turn card credentials into tokens and APIs that enable easy access for developers to leverage those learnings and more easily build upon them. The hurdle to overcome, said Anderson, isn’t so much a technical one but one that incorporates useful functionality for consumers and merchants alike.
It’s a bet that Anderson said will pay off, as message-based commerce interfaces and technology that works with natural language comprehension isn’t just about Facebook chat — but about the multiple interfaces where it is relevant. Today that means virtual personal assistants like Alexa — tomorrow it will mean smart cars that can buy their own gas with a simple command from their driver, for example.
And Anderson says that whatever the evolution point, their expanding digital network is built to have the payments APIs and knowledge set for innovators to plug into and quickly get to transacting — and more efficiently than anyone else.
Still, a tall order, Anderson conceded, and early days for this technology, to be sure. But an important first step as the road to contextual and conversational commerce is paved — and from Mastercard’s standpoint, with the best of intentions and payment-enabled opportunities.