Merchants may find it hard to attract customers to their websites to order food. But they know their customers are active on Facebook.

Subway, Fresh Direct and The Cheesecake Factory are among the first to use Masterpass-enabled bots on Facebook Messenger to sell their wares over social media.

"Our strategy with Masterpass is to make the wallet available wherever consumers are interacting with merchants and brands," said Raj Dhamodharan, senior vice president of operating systems and social networks for Mastercard.

The Facebook Messenger icon
The Facebook Messenger icon Bloomberg News

The bots use artificial intelligence to engage customers and accept payments without leaving the Messenger platform. The bots will also support Masterpass-enabled wallets from banks such as Citigroup and Capital One, according to the Purchase, N.Y.-based card network.

The partners are taking advantage of a new level of sophistication enabled in chatbots, Dhamodharan said. Initially, bots provided basic information, then moved to more personalized information. Now, the technology is becoming interactive, he said.

"If you want to check out nearby Subways, or want to see a menu and make an order for pickup…that's the 'third level,'" Dhamodharan said.

FreshDirect, an online grocer in the I-95 corridor, will enable consumers to browse, shop and purchase directly within Messenger; Subway will use a bot that enables consumers to order a sandwich with a range of toppings and side orders; and The Cheesecake Factory will offer personalized gift cards via CashStar's real-time gifting capability.

"Instead of having to attract customers to their own sites, merchants can start interacting with their customers where it’s convenient for them," said said Zil Bareisis, a senior analyst at Celent. "This turns simple advertising into a conversation, and potentially a transaction, so it’s no surprise that forward-looking merchants are starting to deploy these technologies."

While Mastercard anticipates adding other merchants, the early adopters are among the most committed to digital payments. For example, FreshDirect was also one of the first grocers to support Mastercard's partnership with Samsung's connected refrigerator technology, using the new refrigerators to execute orders and customize options for specific consumers.

Subway has consolidated payments and marketing activities for the chain to enable offers, shopping and payments through the same mobile experience. And The Cheesecake Factory already has its own branded "pay" mobile app.

"Through bots, the merchants can interact with consumers in a new way," Dhamodharan said, adding some merchants will be more predisposed to using bots. "Subway, for example, already has an interactive experience where the consumer engages with the [staff] to build the sandwich."

The card brand is trying to reach the expanding bot user base. There are more than 34,000 chatbots on Facebook Messenger, with billions of potential users.

Mastercard's first deployments follow the card brand's introduction of an application programming interface to enable merchants and developers to develop chatbot features. By enabling Masterpass, Mastercard hopes to bring a familiar app to a social channel, minimizing the adjustment for merchants and consumers.

"The consumer may have already used the Masterpass wallet for an in-app purchase," Dhamodharan said. "Now you can use the same wallet in a similar situation when it comes to chatbots."

Run by former PayPal President David Marcus, Facebook's Messenger has made several upgrades to improve its ability as a commerce portal by embedding payments inside of experiences such as shopping, travel and entertainment.

And the concept is advancing elsewhere. The Chinese messaging service WeChat is entering new markets, and the Slack messaging app has integrated with PayPal.

"Pairing bots with wallets allows providers to expose them to a user who is definitionally open to new offerings and better ways of doing things," said Thad Peterson, a senior analyst at Aite Group.

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