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Facebook Bots Are a Tough Sell After Microsoft Tay’s Racist Tirade

As more than 2,500 coders and corporate-brand caretakers gather this week to hear what's in store for the future of Facebook Inc., the buzzword of the company's event will be bots. The social networking giant is expected by analysts to unveil ways for businesses to build chat bots for Messenger, allowing some 900 million users of that app to strike up conversations with automated representatives of their favorite stores and products.

Companies are wary. Putting a brand's message in the hands of a robot carries risks—as evidenced by Microsoft Corp.'s Tay bot, which started spewing racist, sexist and offensive commentary on Twitter last month.

The Tay incident should give companies pause, said Matt Johnson, director of invention and strategy at GoKart Labs, which works with Target Corp. and National Geographic. The consequences when a customer has a bad experience with a brand, even if it's a bot, can be severe, he said. "It can bite you back really hard."

Facebook normally uses its f8 conference, which kicks off in San Francisco on Tuesday, to introduce some of the company's top initiatives to the public and convince app developers to support them. Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg has taken to the stage in recent years to reveal an overhaul of the website's...