Amex's aggressive, hands-on strategy for Facebook Messenger bots

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After a year on the platform, American Express is more involved than ever in mining Facebook Messenger’s benefits as a tool for payments and financial services.

Amex is working in close partnership with Facebook, and was one of the few brands to announce an upgraded Messenger bot at this year’s F8 event, signaling the growing acceptance of financial services in social media, where it used to be taboo.

The chatbot “is the starting point for a lot of the payment partnerships we’ve developed, allowing these brands to bring financial services and payments moments to life where they already are,” said Kahina Van Dyke, director of financial services partnerships for Facebook.

Amex was Facebook Messenger's first financial services bot and continues to evolve into a more robust tool. But like all evolution, Amex's development is slow and steady, with changes taking careful note of customer feedback.

A simple reminder

Amex began working on its Messenger bot shortly after Facebook, a little more than a year ago, opened up its chatbot developer platform, enabling third parties to build their own.

Amex’s chatbot debuted at the 2016 Cannes Lion International Festival of Creativity, featuring transaction notifications and benefit reminders. Every time a purchase is made, the chatbot sends a notification outlining the transaction. Benefit reminders, depending on the shopping habits of the user, can also be sent via the chatbot.

“A variety of customers like the ability to get notifications every time their card is used,” said Matt Sueoka, head of mobile payments and partnership at Amex. “Customers get a feeling of security and control because they know when spending is happening.”

Not only do customers feel more secure, they actually are more secure.

According to Sueoka, people report fraud faster because of the Messenger notifications. The real-time alert arrives in a channel most people are on regularly anyway. Within Messenger, users are able to click on the notification and get a more detailed explanation of any charge. If the charge is fraudulent, the bot directs the user to an Amex channel to notify the company.

According to Sueoka, benefit reminders have been a big hit, since the Messenger platform allows for a rich conversational experience.

That experience is seen in platinum card member’s benefit reminders. For instance, when a customer books a flight at an airport that has an Amex Centurion lounge, Amex sends a Messenger notification with a map of the airport. Amex’s chatbot also sends dining guides with photos from restaurants from the food blog Dimmi.

This added contextual layer of information is what makes Messenger a unique platform for reaching customers, said Sueoka.

Social payments

Launched last fall, version two of the chatbot allows users to add a card when linking an Amex account to Facebook Messenger.

Payment card credentials are then stored with Facebook so users can transact on the social network to pay Facebook directly for digital games or goods, buy items from Facebook's Marketplace or advertisers, or donate to charity.

“When you’re on the go, which you typically are with Facebook since it’s as mobile as it is, you don’t have to be stopped to get your card out and enter those credentials,” said Sueoka.

While Amex has seen significant uptake of the “add a card” feature, Sueoka said, that doesn’t mean Amex customers are using the stored credential to transact via Facebook.

Payments are becoming more common on social media, with a number of companies adding messaging features (think Venmo) to their apps. This mix has caused some embarrassing snafus — particularly when platform providers don't set boundaries for users — but is particularly popular with younger consumers.

However, Amex’s target is more diverse.

“The younger cohorts definitely have a preference for online, self-service or messaging and chat-based interactions with brands,” said Sueoka. “That being said, though, we focus on what we call that modern consumer, which cuts across generations and groups.”

Amex wouldn’t disclose how much it’s invested or how many people within the company are working on the project, but Sueoka said it was a multi-functional effort, where business, product, engineering and compliance folks worked together.

Mr. Robot

The third version of the chatbot released a couple months ago not only revised past functionality but added more robust features.

Users now have the ability to turn on and off the purchase and benefits notifications, and can also ask the bot a wider range of questions. Customers can ask the chatbot what their account balance is, when a bill is due, what the minimum payment on their credit card is and what the top benefits are, for example. Plus, the bot can provide instructions for applying for a new Amex card.

“For some things that customers ask us more frequently, we wanted to play on the convenience of already being in Messenger, instead of having to sit down and login at a computer,” said Sueoka.

These frequently asked questions not only came from Amex’s traditional customer service channels, but also from the bot's own interactions with customers. Users can always free-type questions and messages (which Amex can review for research purposes) even if the bot isn't equipped to provide an answer.

Amex has seen significant adoption of the updated bot. Sueoka noted the choice to turn on and off notifications has broadened the appeal for Amex customers to link to Messenger.

Another source of increased adoption is the growing acceptance of chatbots across the Internet. According to Sueoka, Facebook has done a lot to make sure consumers know how to interact and what to expect from chatbots, while also improving discoverability of brands on its platform.

The perks of partnership

Facebook has made more key partnerships over the past year. Amex considers Facebook to be one of its premier strategic partners, and for Facebook, the feeling is mutual.

Several years ago, Facebook was struggling to get adoption of its payments capabilities. But it has seen more success after entering partnerships with financial services incumbents like Amex, PayPal, Western Union and MoneyGram.

“My perspective on what’s happening — and it points to what’s continuing to happen — is enabling meaningful contextual experiences for users, needs that make sense to do on a messaging platform” said Sueoka. “And part of that requires experimentation and testing, and part of that is about customers being open to trying new features.”

For instance, consumers might be more welcoming of a payments bot delivered by Amex instead of Facebook.

While Sueoka said there’s not a one-size-fits-all strategy, it is comforting for consumers to see Amex’s brand on the Facebook Messenger bot.

“If customers know Amex is part of this … that means we think it’s good for our customers and we're going to keep security front and center,” he said. “It gives a little vote of confidence for customers to trial and experience these new types of things.”

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