At some point in 2014, Mark Zuckerberg was disliked by many. Forcing all Facebook app users to migrate to a separate chatting app (Messenger) was unpleasant. But still, the standalone app succeeded to become the second ranked messaging app after Whatsapp, reaching 1.2 billion users this year.
In 2016, Messenger announced the release of its chatbot technology, which introduced a new and efficient model for businesses to interact with their customers who can scroll through menus or products and place their orders without having to download an additional app or describe their preferences over regular messaging with an actual person.
Although the chatbot industry is still young in the MENA region, its market size as a whole is destined to almost quadruple growing from $703 million in 2016 to $3 billion by 2021, at a compound annual growth rate of of 35 percent.
Many entrepreneurs in the region, including Jordan-based Samer Tarazi and Odeh Semreen, are hoping to seize that opportunity.
Last January, Tarazi and Semreen established Eila, a chatbot that can automate sales process through conversational commerce. This helps F&B businesses sell their products on Facebook Messenger through a live chatbot that takes the order from the customer and sends it to the cashier through Slack. The company monetizes through charging its clients (restaurants) subscription fees starting from $50 per month.
“People would rather not go through the hassle of downloading new apps. They’re already on Facebook and Messenger every single day, and businesses need to seek their customers where they already are,” Tarazi explained in an interview with Wamda.
With Eila, customers can open up a chat room with a restaurant on Facebook and start messaging the bot as if it was a human being. The interface is the same. The bot then displays the menu and the customers place their order. As soon as the order is finalized, the cafe or the restaurant gets notified through Slack, and receives the customer’s phone number to arrange the delivery. Customers can either order food to their homes or for a car pick up.
Suleiman Jadoun, the owner of Mindhub cafe, Eila’s first client, expressed that bot-as-a-service allows them to attract customers who are in a hurry and would rather get their order delivered to their car. “It’s like we have our own virtual drive thru,” he said.
In addition to that, incorporating Eila into the business is adding tech-savviness to the brand Jadoun said, which he considers as a great marketing advantage.
Future plans and scaling
Currently, any changes to the menus need to be done manually by Eila’s developers. A new version will soon be released to give clients the ability to alter their menus on customized dashboards, and most importantly, track analytics.
Elia has now 12 clients mostly in Jordan and a couple in the UAE. Five of them have already started using it, while the rest are still setting it up. Typical clients are cafes and restaurants, but the new version, will be catering to any business that is seeking commerce facilitation, and not necessarily F&B. “Two of our clients sell only over Facebook, and we are seeing the best results with them. However, anyone who is looking for conversational commerce on Messenger is also a potential customer,” he said.
Tarazi is hopeful about expanding in the UAE where he intends to introduce credit card payment as an alternative to the current cash on delivery system. He’s less keen about introducing digital payment in Jordan due to the low credit card penetration there, where only 1.5 million debit and credit cards were circulating in 2014 compared to 5.9 million in the UAE.
Two months ago, Eila was a runner up at the Middle East and Africa Bots for Messenger Challenge, winning a prize of $10,000 in addition to mentorship hours with Facebook.
F&B is not the only application for Messenger chatbots. Other startups, including Masterminds Games Bot and Mathhook from Eygpt, and Trivoxx from Morocco - who were also nominated as winners and runner ups in the Middle East and Africa Bots for Messenger Challenge, are experimenting with other fields, and mostly games.