After creating Facebook Messenger bots for musicians including Hardwell, Olly Murs and Zara Larsson, agency We Make Awesome Sh is spinning the technology off as a standalone startup called The Bot Platform.
The system has already processed more than 10m conversations for clients, who also include Axwell /\ Ingrosso and Bastille. The Bot Platform is keen to sign up other artists as clients, as well as brands, sports teams and other companies outside the music industry.
Its system provides templates to help create Messenger bots, which can then sign up fans; send and respond to messages; and sell merchandise, tickets and music.
Those early clients seem impressed. “We’ve managed to sell over £10,000 worth of merch directly via Facebook Messenger in just a couple of months,” said Sean Hill of Axwell /\ Ingrosso’s management company ATM Artists. “It’s going to be at the forefront of all our marketing for 2017.”
While The Bot Platform will provide support for the bots running on its system, it’s designed for labels and managers to be able to keep it updated with responses to common fan questions, as well as controlling the outbound promotional messages.
We Make Awesome Sh’s founder Syd Lawrence demonstrated The Bot Platform at Music Ally’s NY:LON Connect conference in London earlier this week, and talked to us ahead of the launch to explain more about the plans. Including why you won’t hear his company talk about ‘chatbots’.
“They’re not chatbots. No one wants to chat with a bot beyond the first five minutes of novelty value. What they want is to use it for specific tasks,” said Lawrence.
“These things aren’t sexy, they’re utilitarian. We’ve spent the last six months trying to figure out how they can be useful. We held off on this launch because we wanted to make sure there was actual business value in these, rather than just hype.”
Lawrence said that Virgin EMI’s decision to move the Bastille bot over from the rival system used to launch it in 2016 is one sign that The Bot Platform is onto something. The figures coming back from early clients Hardwell and Axwell /\ Ingrosso another.
“This costs you money, and if it costs you money, you have to make money back – and more money back than it costs you! We believe we’re now guaranteeing decent return on investment for these bots,” he said.
“Axwell /\ Ingrosso’s bot has had zero [press] coverage. Most people probably don’t even know they’ve got one unless they’re a fan. They haven’t done any PR of it, but within six weeks it started to generate real returns: it was making them more money than it was costing them.”
“We’ve been seeing a 99% read rate, and a click rate of anywhere between 20% and 40%. They launched a new, limited-edition cap, and sold out within minutes – and the only place they marketed that cap was on Messenger.”
Lawrence thinks that bots appeal to fans because they sit within a private communications channel: subscribing to an artist’s bot is less public than following them on Twitter or liking them on Facebook.
“I don’t think as a fan you’re going to subscribe to more than five to 10 artists, and they’re going to be your favourites,” he said.
Facebook is firmly behind the idea of bots on Messenger: launching tools for developers to create them in April 2016, with more than 34,000 created by November that year.
Lawrence suggested that for music marketers, one appeal of Messenger bots is that messages will go to every fan that has subscribed to an artist’s bot, whereas public posts by Facebook pages only reach a small percentage of fans who’ve liked an artist.
Isn’t there a risk that this will change at some point? That Facebook could suddenly change the way Messenger works for bots to force their owners to pay to reach their full audience?
“They could do that, although I’m hoping they don’t. Facebook are investing a lot in Messenger at the moment: they’re constantly updating it and pushing it quite hard. If they turn people off it, that’s not going to be a good thing,” he said.
We Make Awesome Sh partnered with Facebook on the social network’s first bot hackathon at the end of 2016, and has been working with the company “quite closely” over the last six months, so Lawrence’s optimism is hopefully well-founded.
Lawrence said that the success of an artist’s bot will depend on the commitment of the management and label behind it.
“We had one bot that didn’t hit any of its targets, but all they did to promote it was post about it on Facebook once. We all know that organic reach on Facebook isn’t big at the best of times,” he said.
“You do have to drive people to your bot: the ones getting most value out of them now are driving people to their bot instead of to their mailing list.”
(This point is likely to spark debate within the management and label communities: is it risky, for example, to shuttle fans away from a mailing list, where they own the data on fans) to a messaging app where Facebook controls that data?)
The Bot Platform is already working on new features, including the ability to send targeted messages based on keywords that fans have mentioned in their past interactions with the bot.
“If someone has said the word ‘cucumber’ and you want to send a message to everyone who’s signed up to alerts and has said the word ‘cucumber’ you can. We hope to have that live within the next few months,” said Lawrence.
Cucumbers may have little use in a music context, but for an artist, this feature could be very useful. For example, if a band has just booked a gig in Lisbon, they could send a targeted message to any fan that’s used the word ‘Lisbon’ with the bot.
How much does it cost to run one of these bots? The model will vary according to the size of the artist’s fanbase on Messenger, and the level of support required from The Bot Platform’s team – for example, hooking it into a major label’s custom CRM system will add costs.
A few hundred pounds a month for an artist with more than 1m Likes is a good ballpark figure, which starts to make commercial sense if, like Axwell /\ Ingrosso, within a few months of launch you’re able to make £5k a month from merch sales.
For now, The Bot Platform is focusing on Facebook Messenger rather than other messaging apps that support bots, like WeChat and Kik.
“It’s about the numbers. There’s over a billion users on Messenger. The only one that’s bigger is WhatsApp. If WhatsApp launch a [bot] platform, who knows? Most people are hoping they will,” said Lawrence.
“But the problem with doing this across multiple platforms is that the way I might use bots on Kik might be different to on Line or WeChat, and different to on Messenger. If you try to do the same thing across all of them, you may end up having a shit experience.”
The Bot Platform is also actively looking for investment. At NY:LON Connect, Lawrence said that the company has already raised 30% of its target for its first round. When Music Ally interviewed him, he also said that crowdfunding via a platform like Seedrs or CrowdCube may also be a possibility.
But in every conversation with potential investors, Lawrence has been stressing that bots are about business value, not hype.
“They’re NOT sexy. They’re not even meant to be sexy!” he said. “That isn’t the conversation we should be having…”