From WhatsApp to Telelgram to Facebook Messenger, each messaging platform has its own approach. The interfaces, capabilities, and focus all vary in subtle ways. Each user base is made up of distinct demographics and is receptive to different types of products and experiences.
Building a successful conversational app, service, or bot on messaging requires understanding the users of each platform, from their key demographics to their reason for using the service. Yet, with so many messaging platforms and such variety in capabilities and approaches, it can be difficult to understand where to launch. “If you build it they will come” is not a good strategy with bots and conversational interfaces. To get traction, it’s important to understand your target customers and their needs. That means thinking about how to solve their problems most efficiently and then figuring out how and where to deliver that solution.
For many use cases, the popular answer right now is to serve customers though messaging. But first you need to pick which messaging platforms to target.
The messaging platforms vary in several key ways:
- Consumer versus workplace focus
- Communication style
- Messaging capabilities
Slack is first and foremost a workplace communication tool. However, its elegant user interface and client apps have allowed it to be used for customer support, online communities, and in some cases even communication between social groups from the real world.
In many ways, Slack has become one of the platforms that’s most misunderstood and misused by developers.
Slack has been very forward about having an open platform, and it has welcomed bots for quite some time. As one of the earliest messaging channels to both support bots and become popular in the U.S. and Europe, it has served as a test bed for many types of bots.
Quite a few companies have been so eager to introduce bots to their customers that they have even ventured beyond Slack’s core user base — people at work — to offer services that are more personal and consumer-focused.
The problem is, Slack isn’t always the best place for some of those services. Shopping for shoes or checking your personal finances via a bot on Slack doesn’t really make sense — those services should probably be on consumer messaging channels.
Demographics: Mixed, but mostly people at work
Geography: North America and the world
Interesting capabilities: Primarily oriented around channels and groups, not one-on-one communication, although direct messages are a major feature. Limited support of buttons.
How to approach: Focus on doing things that are useful for Slack’s users, who are primarily at work. Slack might not be the best place for entertainment bots, personal finance tools, and non-work related uses, but it’s great for getting work done.
Interesting fact: Slack has a venture fund investing in companies enabling bots on its platform. Slack itself has started to invest in language processing technology, as well.
2. Facebook Messenger
Facebook Messenger has exploded in the U.S. in terms of mindshare in the bot space. Messenger recently crossed 1 billion users across every part of the world. Messenger has a unique connection to Facebook itself, which is still the dominant social networking platform globally.
Messenger is being used primarily for promotional, entertainment, and informational purposes right now. However, Facebook has the potential to make it easy to monetize direct services and ecommerce transactions through integration with Facebook’s payment system.
Interactions on Messenger are a hybrid. “Structured messages” — lists of images with buttons — are critical for providing a good user experience right now. But Facebook, as a company, is investing heavily in machine learning through its research group and its acquisition of Wit.ai. It’s likely that natural language will play a bigger role in automated Messenger experiences in future.
Geography: Developed countries like the U.S., Canada, and Europe, but Facebook itself is popular globally
Messaging capabilities: User-to-user. Bots and conversational apps are not allowed in groups right now. Structured messages like carousels are recommended by Facebook.
Notes: Messaging with businesses is done via messaging within Facebook Pages, and a presence on Facebook goes hand-in-hand with a presence on Messenger.
How to approach: Messenger is a great place for consumer-focused applications, especially in North America. For now, judicious structured messages will deliver the best user experience, but as conversational tools get better, this will change.
WhatsApp is one of the largest messaging platforms and has been the most popular messaging platform in the majority of countries in the world.
It has historically been much more popular in developing countries, since its original value proposition was as a replacement to expensive SMS. WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, and together with Messenger, gives Facebook dominant coverage of messaging in most countries in the world.
WhatsApp is not open to bots or conversational apps yet.
Geography: Developing countries and those in developed countries with whom they communicate
How to approach: WhatsApp is not open to bots yet. When it does open, keep in mind its primary audience — people in developing countries — and focus on their needs.
Kik is the cool new kid on the block.
Kik has become a phenomenon among young Americans. Its target audience is ripe for influence but short on money.
If you’re creating a bot or conversational app and looking to approach the Kik crowd, then direct monetization is probably not a good option. Kik users are still deciding what products to use when they get older. Their decisions about what stores to shop at, what bank to use, and what clothes to wear have not been made yet and are open to influence. So the smart strategy with Kik is to be fun, accessible, and hip, forming a lasting good impression.
In some ways, Kik both competes with and complements Snapchat, which also has some chat features and is popular in an overlapping demographic.
Geography: North America
Messaging capabilities: Kik has substantial support for bot features, including buttons that replace the keyboard to drive navigation. Bots can be mentioned in group chats or messaged one-on-one.
Interesting facts: Kik’s Bot Shop is one of the most extensive and well-developed bot discovery systems.
How to approach: Don’t try to monetize Kik users immediately. Try to gain mindshare so that as they get their first job and start to form their own ecosystem of service providers, they pick you.
WeChat is dominant in China, but it can be spotted in other countries, as well.
WeChat, in many ways, started the bot explosion in the rest of the world. The service has supported automated accounts for several years.
Experiences on WeChat still serve as inspiration for bot makers in the rest of the world. For example, WeChat’s heavy support of non-textual content, from buttons and images to what could best be described a “mini apps” embedded in conversations — and the success of these extra features — has served as evidence that bot makers need to go beyond plain text to provide simple, compelling user experiences.
WeChat separates accounts into those publishing content and those used for serving customers. Although the platform supports automated responses, humans are expected to support interactions, as needed.
Messaging capabilities: Extensive extra-text capabilities, including payments
Interesting notes: WeChat has very significant revenue per active user, thought to exceed $7 USD per year, which is a telling sign of the opportunities for Western messaging platforms
How to approach: Historically, WeChat has been relatively inaccessible to Western companies. This is starting to change, however. In fact, WeChat is now accessible via connectors like Smooch.io to companies in the West. However, your app will need to be well-localized. As with every platform, to be successful, you must focus on the needs and habits of the users on the platform.
Telegram is unique in its openness. It has had public APIs and bot access for much of its history. It even open-sources its client applications. It has open-source clients and an open, flexible protocol. Telegram embraces privacy in a way that other messaging platforms shy away from.
The platform is comparatively small, with about 100 million users, and it is not dominant in many countries in the world. However, the users it does have are well-distributed, and its user base is growing.
Geography: Distributed, with little concentration or dominance in a specific region.
Notes: Telegram’s founder has a $1 million fund to incentivize developers to create high-quality bots and awards $25,000 for each bot the company deems interesting.
How to approach: Launch your service on Telegram alongside other messaging platforms
Skype, believe it or not, is a messaging platform, too. Microsoft surprised many when, with its Bot Framework releases, it also opened Skype to automated agents and bots. These include text and image messages, similar to what is available on other messaging platforms, as well as something more exotic: video bots.
Geography: Global, with low penetration in messaging but high in audio and video
Messaging capabilities: Historically video- and audio-based, with nascent and rapidly emerging bot and conversational app capabilities, including carousels with buttons and other types of visually structured messages. Bots within groups are also supported.
How to approach: Skype, despite Microsoft’s efforts, is still primarily an audio and video communication platform. However, its dominance in that space gives it a large install base. So there is opportunity to have great reach with lower competition relative to the other messaging platforms. Long-term, Skype’s video bot capacities could provide interesting opportunities that other platforms do not offer.
Viber is a messaging, voice, and video communication app with a large user base. It is dominant in parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa. In the U.S., Viber is best known for its encryption capabilities, which have made it popular in countries and environments with close surveillance. The company has previously announced plans to begin more heavily marketing in the U.S., but it faces stiff competition.
Messaging cabilities: Viber is currently exploring its Viber for Business offering, which enables Service Messages and an API. However, businesses need to request access.
Geography: Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa
How to approach: If you are targeting a country where Viber is popular, then it would be prudent to request access to the Viber for Business Service Message API.
9. Google Hangouts / Allo / Duo
Google’s messaging products are turning into a suite of related offerings. At the company’s annual Google I/O conference, it announced two new products to accompany Hangouts: Allo and Duo. Only Google knows precisely how these new platforms will fit in the ecosystem.
What Google has shared is exciting in terms of its capabilities. In addition to new clients, the company is opening up to businesses who wish to offer bots and conversational services.
During their demonstrations, Google also hinted at some of the language processing technology the company is working with, including the capability to understand the content of images within conversations. Google is an obvious leader in this type of technology, although image-content understanding is also offered by Microsoft and others, and the conversational language understanding that Google touted is being approached by others, including my company, Init.ai
Hangouts is not open to developers right now.
Demographics: Google users, which is much of the world, especially those on Android.
Geography: Distributed, but limited in countries with restrictions, like China
Messaging capabilities: Unknown at this point, but includes both text and structured content.
How to approach: When launched, an open Allo and Hangouts will give access to a tremendous install base, and launching consumer services on these platforms should be prioritized.
Line is a messaging platform and social network that’s dominant in Asia. It has been growing rapidly, but it is approaching penetration in Japan. Line recently went public and raised over $1 billion to support its expansion plans.
Line includes voice and video calls. The platform also has a payment solution called Line Pay.
The service received attention in April when it launched a “first come first serve” restriction around its experimental bot APIs.
Geography: Japan and Southeast Asia
Messaging capabilities: Line’s bot platform is very new and offers different levels of accessibility depending on the type of Line account you connect it to.
Twitter has seen wild swings between good fortune and growth and lack of direction and stagnation.
The platform is still very popular in the technology community, and it is mandatory for American businesses to maintain an active presence on Twitter to support their customers and maintain public relations. There is significant opportunity in automating interactions between customers and businesses on Twitter, especially for routine support questions.
Twitter is a unique medium, however, in that it is primarily public, not private. Historically, its messages have been limited in length, so communications have a distinct style from other, more conversational messaging platforms.
Demographics: Early adopters and technologists who have used it since its early popularity, as well as consumers seeking a public support forum.
Geography: U.S., Europe, the world
Messaging capabilities: Comparatively limited, based on single limited-length messages, with no real support for anything other than images
Notes: Twitter has changed its position toward developers over time. Initially, it embraced them, then it restricted access, and now the company is trying to become more open again.
How to approach: Twitter is a good tool for mass communication and quick questions and answers between consumers and businesses. The best opportunities are around lowering the cost of handling support questions at scale.