After Facebook’s F8 developer conference, the technology everyone is talking about is the chatbot. These are interfaces inside of a messaging app, and some are projecting that they could be the new way people will interact with businesses and brands. Done correctly, chatbots let you interact with a business inside of a messaging app to send text messages that will order things, get information, or enhance the brand experience.
The chatbot is an alluring prospect to marketers looking at the difficulty of getting users to spend time with branded apps. The reality of the smartphone is that while people may download plenty of apps, they generally spend most their time in a few apps—one of which is almost always a messaging app of some kind. If people aren’t likely to hang around in your branded app, why not find a way to engage with them in the apps where they do hang out? Enter the chatbot. The technology is being eagerly pursued by Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and other tech companies.
“Every brand that you can think of will have to have a bot to engage with their users, to enable them to communicate with them and find them,” said Beerud Sheth, CEO of Gupshup. “It is going to affect every brand and every business. It is going to happen very quickly. I expect a bot explosion by the end of this year.”
Of course, it’s not always easy to create a chatbot, and creating a chatbot that not only works well but has the desired effect on the audience is far from a trivial effort. With platforms like Facebook Messenger opening up to development, the floodgates are being opened, though, and many companies are undertaking the effort to create a chatbot.
“In a world where messenger apps have surpassed social networks, companies need to expand their digital presence to these greenfield pastures,” said Ivar Chan, Kik’s developer evangelist. “Products have yet to fully realize how messenger bots can rocket their engagement rates, community and build strong distribution channels.”
Where messaging apps have been even more firmly established than in the U.S. is China, and you can see the rise of the chatbots for marketing use there. Many brands already have chatbots in WeChat, and that shouldn’t be a surprise when mobile devices are the standard way people use the Internet in China. “I’m hopeful that messaging will create the next-generation platform for mobile app distribution,” said Uber’s Andrew Chen.
Privacy Is An Issue
The chatbot is performing in a messaging app, and users expect some degree of privacy when they are messaging with their friends. By extension, users may well find it a bit disturbing if a chatbot knows too much about them—or reveals too much about them to others. Marketers will need to be aware of how users might be feeling while messaging, and make sure that chatbots don’t become creepy or inadvertently obnoxious (as we’ve seen in a recent chatbot test where the AI chatbot was led astray by malicious intent from some users).
Efficiency Is A Chatbot Driver
One of the main reasons that chatbots have become a trend is that they are vastly more efficient for users than wading through a mobile website (or worse, a website designed for a desktop viewed on a mobile screen). Searching for just the right menu item or FAQ can be a painful experience—who among us hasn’t spent far too long trying to find something on a mobile device, only to give up and make a phone call or head to a website on a PC?
For marketers, the message is simple: make sure your chatbot helps a user, hopefully in a substantial way. A chatbot that’s just cute or funny will quickly lose its charm if it’s not enormously useful. Chatbots can be optimized for low engagement time and high repeat use, or for the opposite case where you heighten the narrative content and don’t expect a great deal of repeat use. Of course, you would like to think you could create a chatbot that’s got high engagement and has users coming back again and again, but that’s going to be a difficult goal to reach.
Brands Are Embracing Chatbots
Some iconic brands are already hopping onto the chatbot bandwagon. Mattel has worked with San Francisco company ToyTalk to create a chatbot version of Barbie, which can interact with fans. Uber and Facebook announced a partnership last fall to let users order up an Uber ride through Facebook Messenger. An interesting use of a chatbot on Kik was built for the release of a horror movie, Insidious: Chapter 3, using one of the characters in the movie, Quinn Brenner. “When you’d text Quinn Brenner, she would give you some hints of what’s happening, but after a while, the conversation would taper off just like a normal text conversation,” said Chan. “You wouldn’t have the full experience in one sitting, rather over the course of a few days. Teenagers loved it.”
Kik has been working with many different brands to build chatbots and generate brand engagement, and the results have been good. Comedy website Funny or Die used Kik to build engagement through a chatbot, letting users share in-app GIFs. That led to users following Funny or Die directly. “It took about three months to get to 1.5 million chatters,” said Funny or Die VP of marketing and distribution Patrick Starzan, “compared to the two or three years it took to get the same number of people on social networks.”
What The Future Holds For Chatbots
With Facebook getting behind the chatbot revolution in a big way, we can expect to see the technology being adopted much more widely. Some are predicting chatbots could be the next app revolution, spawning a new wave of user engagement on mobile. The technology isn’t limited to a particular platform or types of purpose, and we could see chatbots used for virtually everything. The technology is particularly well suited to mobile, though, and to voice interaction. We’re going to see plenty of work being done with chatbots to make it easier than ever to order goods and services, and to engage with brands in a variety of ways. This is one tool every marketer needs to study in order to add it to future strategies. The future of the chatbot is wide open right now, and those that lead the way may reap outsized benefits for their brands.