Wow, what a year! More than 34,000 bots have been built since Facebook Messenger opened its platform to bot developers back in April. Thousands more are probably being designed by inspired teams across the globe as I write these lines. Saying these numbers are mind-blowing would be an understatement. The tech industry’s enthusiasm for the bot space is simply unprecedented. Obviously, there have been a fair number of “fart bots” goofs — after all, we’re all trying to figure out the space and tinkering is the best way to do so — but it’s been interesting to witness the plethora of new ideas and business models emerging from the early trial-and-error days.

As we’re wrapping up this spectacular, hyperactive, and pivotal year, I’m trading my “maker” hat for the “judge” hat, trying to identify the Messenger bots of the year that will pave the way for the emergence of best practices for 2017 and beyond.

Note: The following list is neither exhaustive (even without sleep, I couldn’t test all 35,000 bots that were built this year) nor scientific (sorry, I’m not Alan Turing). That said, it’s been built with a clear set of judging criteria in mind. Mixing the qualitative and quantitative, I’ve narrowed it down to a pretty decent list of criteria that the best bots should encompass:

  • Value-oriented concept (insight, usefulness, solving a unique problem)
  • Conversational UX (logic, content, overall experience)
  • Copywriting (personality, tone, manner)
  • Marketing (branding, promotion, discovery funnel)
  • Business model (monetization)
  • Results (number of users, value creation, engagement)

To compare apples with apples and oranges with oranges, I’ve split bots into two distinct categories: branded bots and startup bots.

Branded bots

As an industry, we’ve been preaching all year long the virtues of bots to marketers around the world. Bots represent a tremendous opportunity for brands to connect with their customers on a personal level while providing them with timely, contextual value.

GOLD: Charity: Water & Lokai

To raise awareness about the water crisis in Ethiopia (less than 50 percent of the population has access to clean water), Charity: Water teamed up with Lokai to create Yeshi. Yeshi is a chatbot that embodies a young girl in Ethiopia who has to walk 2.5 hours every day to find clean water. The team behind Yeshi leveraged the full spectrum of bot capabilities (geolocation, media sharing, and personal storytelling) to create an immersive emotional experience that helped users discover the harsh reality of Ethiopians like Yeshi. Extra points for its rich storytelling and its Stripe integration to raise funds.

SILVER: KLM

Airlines are a perfect customer service use case for bots, and KLM was the first to nail it. With KLM’s Messenger bot, you can receive your flight documentation via Messenger, including your booking confirmation, check-in notification, boarding pass, and flight status updates. No more anxiety, since all your travel information is easy to find in a single place, available at the airport, en route, or at home. Extra points for the simple yet slick discovery strategy. Once customers book their flights on the website, they simply need to tick a “Send to Messenger” box to receive all of the digital boarding perks.

BRONZE: Burberry

Building a bot is not everything; its launch strategy and promotion are also vital. For fashion brand and digital pioneer Burberry, it meant adding a sense of exclusivity to the operation. Burberry launched its bot during London Fashion Week, the perfect time to roll out a shiny new piece of tech to a few in-the-know influencers and brand ambassadors. The bot offered behind-the-scenes pictures as well as the opportunity to shop the collection. Extra points for the attention given to building an interactive experience. For example, fans had to finish a maze in order to access an exclusive show space.

HONORABLE MENTION to Bank of America for their clever chatbot named Erica (amERICA, get it?).

Startup bots

A few startups have emerged as the clear winners of the first year of this gold rush. Many entrepreneurs made (or are making) the mistake of transforming any app idea from the App Store into a bot. However, some innovative teams are actually leveraging the new paradigm and context of messaging to unlock new value. The result: real users and real love.

GOLD: Swell

Swell’s community polling Swelly bot concept is simple yet insanely smart and insightful. People love to get advice from others when making decisions. Plus, most of these decisions are binary (A or B type). Its flawless visual conversational UX and user feedback loops are highly engaging and extremely effective. Plus it’s a perfect use case for a bot. As one of the most popular bots out there, Swelly now has 1,500,000 users and growing (including the company’s 5 cross-platform bots). Extra points for its savvy marketing strategy of tapping into influencers from the fashion and beauty niches to promote the bot and grow its user base organically.

SILVER: Poncho

Poncho (2.0 version) is an extremely witty and fun weather bot. With the addition of horoscopes, Poncho has cracked an interesting use case that ensures recurring daily usage. Its fun, quirky personality should also serve as a benchmark for aspiring conversation designers (aka writers). Probably the best copywriting in the game right now. Extra points for its meticulous attention to branding: Poncho’s team knows great bot branding is vital, and it shows in their execution.

BRONZE: Visabot

Visabot is an immigration attorney bot that helps you better understand American immigration laws and apply for the right visa based on your personal background and resume. Visabot ensures forms are accurately filled out and helps you save your time in this often tedious process. Extra points for Visabot’s website design. It’s neat, straightforward, and features enticing user-generated content.

HONORABLE MENTION to Kip, the personal shopping assistant, for its playful penguin avatar and its fun, choose-your-own-adventure onboarding strategy.