Facebook recently unveiled the new Facebook Messenger platform at the company's annual F8 Conference.

The update can be summed up in one word: bots.

Now, you can use Facebook Messenger to not only communicate with other human beings, but also with chatbots that can provide the information you're looking for or make it easier to complete an online task.

Here's what you need to know about the new "bots on Messenger" platform and why you might want one for your business.

They're Already Here

Bots are already here. If you'd like to see them in action to get an idea of what they can do, just fire up your Messenger app and look for yourself.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated bots from 1-800-Flowers and CNN at the conference. The CNN bot serves up daily news of interest to users while the 1-800-Flowers bot allows people to order flowers or contact customer service.

Zuckerberg said that Messenger bots use artificial intelligence (AI), natural language processing, and human assistance so that users can talk to the bots just as they would talk to friends.

Discovering Bots

If you're looking for a bot to interact with, you can find them thanks to the Search function on the Messenger app.

On Android, tap the "Recents" tab (with the clock icon). At the bottom of that tab, you should see a plus sign. Touch that and you should see an option to search. Plug in the search term that you're looking for (for example, "CNN").

On iOS, searching for useful bots is even easier. There's a fixed search bar at the top of the Messenger app. Just use it the same way you'd search for an app in the App Store.

Of course, you can also find bots on the web. Check out Botlist.

Finally, if you're on the receiving end of a company's SMS marketing, the app will use a phone-number matching tool to enable you to move your conversations over to Messenger.

How It Works

The Messenger platform has a new Send/Receive API that enables developers to create bots specific to their own requirements.

Even better: bots aren't restricted to simple text. They can send messages in structured format that include images, links and call to action (CTA) buttons.

If you check out the CNN bot on Messenger, you'll find that it sends you stories in carousel format with both images and headlines. The 1-800-Flowers bot, on the other hand, offers a couple of simple CTA buttons: one for ordering and one for customer support.

It should be noted, though, that the Messenger platform isn't currently integrated with any payment systems. That means users will have to click a web link to complete an order. 

Building Bots

You can build a bot to help promote your brand using Facebook Messenger.

If you've got a development team in house, you can let them handle the task by following the guide. Otherwise, you can work with one of Facebook's bot-building partners.

Also, Facebook has its own bot engine since its acquisition of Wit.ai. You can use that engine to "teach" a bot how to interact with users based on sample conversations.

Are Humans Obsolete?

The reason that businesses use bots, of course, is to streamline operations while still satisfying the needs of their market. Facebook Messenger bots are no exception.

"Old school" bots are currently in use in phone-based customer service systems. People call and tell voice-recognition software why they've called, or they press numbers to direct them to the right department.

You can think of Messenger bots as a more modern version of the same concept.

The difference with bots, though, is that they have the ability to learn how to properly interact with users. That's because of advances in AI development.

Messenger users could literally communicate with a system while thinking that they're going back-and-forth with a live human being. That's not good news for people in customer service, but it's great news for businesses looking to boost their bottom line.

Paid Promotion

Facebook isn't a charity. The company plans to monetize its Messenger app platform.

How? By selling sponsored messages that appear to users who've already started a chat with a business. Also, companies can buy a "Click to Message" news feed ad that strikes up a conversation with their Messenger bot.

Of course, those are opportunities not only for Facebook to make money, but also for you to promote your brand. If you've got a great bot that you think people in your target market will appreciate, you can advertise it to people who "Like" your Facebook page and bring them on board.

You have to wonder, though, if Facebook might be cannibalizing itself. The company relies, in part, on advertising revenue from brands that "Boost" Facebook page updates so that customers are more likely to see them in their news feed. If those people opt for a push-style notification via Messenger, brands might not need to pay Facebook to promote content.

Messenger Bots Are Here To Stay

The new Facebook Messenger platform enables brands to develop bots that can make it easier for people their target market to get information, contact customer service, and even place orders. 

Facebook is not along in this endeavor, as this is a part of the core concept behind Google Assist and the Allo platform. 

Published on: Jun 21, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.