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Ping! Say hi to sponsored messages in Facebook Messenger

If you've spoken with a company via the messaging app, that company can pay Facebook to try to continue that conversation with you.

Chatbots are getting chattier and may say hello if you click on a News Feed ad.

Facebook

Facebook is letting brands try to get chummier with you by expanding the capabilities of chatbots in Messenger.

David Marcus, Facebook's vice president of messaging products, said Tuesday the initial success that companies have seen in reaching customers via Messenger spurred the expansion. He spoke at Web Summit 2016 in Dublin.

As early as this week, you may start to see ads in your News Feed that enable you to click straight into a Messenger conversation with a company. Perhaps the biggest change for you, though, is that if you've struck up a conversation with a brand in the past, it can pay to send you sponsored messages, effectively advertising to you directly through your Messenger inbox.

Facebook emphasized that users will have control over the interactions. If a company attempts to re-engage you in conversation and you aren't interested, you can block it.

The social network introduced chatbots, which use artificial intelligence to read and understand messages and concoct a response, for Messenger six months ago. The aim of the bots is to let you communicate with companies without having to download their app or deal with web-based customer service. Messenger bots are designed to plug the gap by allowing companies -- from fashion designers to airlines to restaurants -- to have direct and ongoing conversations with you.

The aim is for bots to prove themselves useful to you, in a way that much correspondence with big companies doesn't. In turn, this could cement Messenger's position on home screens across the globe. It's a win-win-win...in theory.


In reality, there's a chance that Facebook users won't appreciate companies popping up in their inbox among conversations with friends. It could even be high risk, given the ire social media users feel when something new and seemingly intrusive comes along. But thanks to the responses to testing that began in April, Facebook apparently isn't worried about a backlash.

"I was very concerned, and now I'm not concerned," Marcus said in an interview ahead of the announcement.

Chances are if you're a Facebook user, you might have already interacted with a Messenger bot in the wild. Activision recently used bots to deliver codes to 6 million users in 24 hours that unlocked the next Call of Duty trailer. Vodka maker Absolut used them to distribute free cocktail vouchers, which when cashed in triggered Messenger bots to deliver the imbiber a code for a free Lyft ride home.

Such perks might sound appealing, but the main reassurance to privacy-loving Facebook users is that no company can get in touch with them if they haven't already started a conversation with the company themselves. This, according to Marcus, helps to "preserve the integrity of the platform."

In addition, a company has a 24-hour window after you've spoken to it in which it is allowed to send you messages at no cost. To send you any other messages, it will have to pay.

If you don't like what you are sent, that company is a click away from being blocked. Marcus said this gives companies the incentive to send only high-quality messages. You have ultimate control about how the conversation proceeds, or whether it proceeds at all, so companies need to get their messaging right.

Facebook also has a very low tolerance for spam, Marcus said. If it gets the signal from multiple users that a company is annoying them, that company will be penalized.

Back-and-forth conversations are fairly new in advertising, but Facebook believes bots could transform the relationship between people and brands.

"If a company writes you an email it's usually a no-reply ad," Marcus said. "We have a path to providing a much better user experience for that."