Facebook today is expected to announce a new developer platform to make it easier for businesses to create chatbots — an exclamation point on what has become one of the hottest stories in tech this year.
There are so many angles to what’s happening around chatbots — ranging from the perils of Microsoft Tay’s AI gone wild to how Barbie became a conversationalist. But what matters most to us here at ArcTouch is what the rise of chatbots means for the brands and startups we serve.
First, a little history. The idea of a chatbot isn’t really a new concept. Helpful chatbots inside of a messaging application date back to the early 2000s with SmarterChild (called a “chatterbot” at the time), which lived inside AOL Instant Messenger. SmarterChild allowed you to use natural language as an interface to ask things about the weather forecast, stock quotes, nearby movie times — and get a response. Forward thinking brands like Intel and Keebler joined in and added specific marketing-oriented responses. At its height, SmarterChild had 10 million active users.
Fast forward 15 years, with the improvement of machine learning and the overwhelming popularity of messaging apps reaching billions of active users, creating custom chatbots are a perfect way for brands to engage and connect with customers in a comfortable place where they already are having conversations.
But before jumping in and building an arsenal of chatbots, here are six things any company should consider:
1. Chatbots can make great personal assistants
Google Now on Tap and Apple’s Siri are basically chatbots that live on your mobile phone at the operating system level — and offer up crucial information in the moment you need it, across your applications. But there’s also potential for brands to have chatbots built into popular messaging applications (like Facebook Messenger) and respond to requests like, “Get me tickets to the nearest theater playing Zootopia in 1 hour” or “Order pizza from the nearest Papa John’s” and automatically be connected. Many of the leading messaging platforms now support ecommerce transactions and accept payments. So, as a consumer you could get the exact information you need to make an educated buying decision and complete a purchase without leaving your favorite messaging app.
2. Chatbots can help when your customers need it urgently
We’ve all had the experience of waiting in customer support phone purgatory for 20 minutes, only to get directed to the billing department when we really needed tech support. For many consumer companies, providing chatbots within messaging apps will give its customers immediate access to support or answers they need. Done well, these support chatbots could solve many problems without human intervention. And if not, you can at least more precisely guide your customers down the right path to get the exact human help they need. Score one for customer satisfaction — and satisfied customers are loyal customers.
3. Chatbots can help businesses get discovered
By advertising with a chatbot in a community that’s filled with target customers, brands can potentially begin a relationship with those potential customers. This is an area of great potential, but also one that’s still a big unknown. It might seem creepy to some to know that branded chatbots are lurking in your messaging applications, but when done right from a brand point of view, using bots to have an engaging dialog with potential customers sure beats the one-way communication provided by traditional advertising.
4. Chatbots should not pretend to be human
This should go without saying, but companies shouldn’t create chatbots that masquerade as real people. The relative anonymity of the Internet has created many issues over the years — and inevitably, there will be blurred lines when we may not know if we’re dealing with a person or a chatbot. Brands and companies have a responsibility to make that clear. If they don’t, a charming misunderstanding by a clearly labeled chatbot would instead be an aggravating revelation that you’ve been duped.
5. Chatbots could be the new face of the corporate Intranet
While there’s tremendous potential for brands to use chatbots to reach consumers, we also see massive upside in enterprise chatbots for companies to reach their employees. Many big companies have disparate systems that house different information — and as an employee, knowing where to look for key information you need to do your job can be stifling. A well designed chatbot could be connected to different databases and usher answers and reference material in an instant. For example, asking “@SalesBot: for Product ACME, what were last year’s sales in China?” Or asking “@HRBot: how many vacation days do I have left this year?”
6. Chatbots don’t replace the web or mobile apps. They work together
Every time there’s a new technology, we as technologists have a bad habit of thinking it’s going to replace something else. It makes for a sexy headline to say apps are dead because chatbots will replace them, but the reality is they serve very different and complementary purposes. Chatbots are great for “micro-interactions” — getting and acting on snippets of information to the people who need them in the moment. The web is great for searching for and discovering new content and products. And apps are perfect for creating the most engaging, rich and focused experiences you can for your loyal customers.
I’ll admit it — I personally think chatbots are going to be huge. I expect major brands are all going to experiment with them in 2016 and 2017. The rise is in part due to the growing acceptance we have as consumers in communicating with bots. The opportunity is also being paved by the creation of platforms (in addition to Facebook’s expected news today):
- Kik, a messaging platform popular among youth, recently launched a bot platform
- Slack, a popular enterprise messaging platform, has a bot framework and an $80M venture fund to foster development for their platform
- WeChat, the pioneer messaging platform in China, already supports chatbots, and ecommerce transactions
- Microsoft recently introduced its own Windows bot framework at the recent Build conference
- Skype just announced its own bots and a platform for developers to create their own on the Skype service
If you, too, see the potential of chatbots for your business, but you don’t quite know where to start, let’s chat. We’re always happy to help.