At its F8 conference this year, Facebook made it clear it’s betting big on Messenger chatbots. With 1.71 billion monthly active users and more than 18,000 bots reported to date, Messenger could turn into a goldmine for Facebook if monetization enters the mix. Indeed, chat apps look set to be the next big thing in marketing due to their 1:1 conversational model, mobile-first design and potential for handling the bulk of customer interactions – but we’re not there just yet.
Bots may be the next big thing, but being a first-mover comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. As a customer-facing technology, the risks of alienating audiences are high. Nevertheless, there are already some success stories that we can mention. Boarding passes from KLM, weather reports from Poncho and updates from Business Insider are already available in Messenger. I for one receive my daily dose of tech news from the TechCrunch chatbot every morning at 5:43 AM.
The pitfalls of trail-blazing
The early days of Snapchat and Instagram demonstrated how difficult it can be for early adopters to find the right strategy with untested new channels. Nevertheless, being among the first to find the right mix can lead to significant traction and high rewards. It’s up to each brand to choose whether to risk being among the first-movers, or wait to learn their lessons.
The good news with bots is that marketers already have Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa as examples of how to integrate them into the customer journey. These virtual assistants were the first to mainstream the use of artificial intelligence to create conversational experiences between people and machines. Marketers need look no further for some solid inspiration.
To bot or not to bot, and how much?
With sparkly new channels there is always the temptation to ply audiences with as much content as possible. However, with Facebook Messenger this mistake could prove not only costly, it could seriously damage the brand-consumer relationship. Direct messaging has traditionally been a more intimate line of communication between friends and acquaintances – chatbot overkill would directly contravene this convention/point of etiquette.
Can you imagine your Siri telling you it might be time to upgrade your software? Or Alexa asking you out of the blue whether you would like to buy a book from Amazon? If brands become a chatty nuisance they’ll be quickly blocked or unfollowed.
Alexa is a good example of a bot with real user value. Consumers enjoy and use it for a host of applications such as playing music, asking for news updates and managing devices.
Brands need to establish a clear chatbot value for their customers, then ease into sending messages with fingers poised over the ‘stop’ button. Facebook appears to be doing this right by making sure that the user is in control. In a recent blog post, Product Manager Seth Rosenberg wrote: “All conversations between businesses and people must be initiated by the person receiving the messages (unless otherwise subscribed to), who can then mute or block the business at any time.”
This may beg the question, how do we get people to initiate conversations with us? But this has been the social marketer’s challenge from the beginning. After all, bots are simply yet another new form of engagement. The big difference being that we can no longer just hope for virality and reach, it’s now on us to inspire fans to start the conversation. The main motivator to do this is still the same as ever: clear value delivered at the right time and place in the customer journey.
Now here comes the kick with Facebook Messenger – say you succeed in convincing users to initiate contact, Facebook has made it clear that its new Messenger API will only allow businesses to send messages to these users for a 24-hour period, and once more after that. This is to ensure enquiries can still get a reply or re-engagement.
Facebook’s move reinforces the key value of chatbots, at least for the moment, as social customer service and support tools rather than ads and content pushers. They represent the ideal solution for brands handling a high volume of repetitive or basic enquiries.
The human touch
Brands may not need to create chatbots on the level of the Scarlett Johansson-voiced ‘Samantha’ in the film ‘Her’ – in which Joaquin Phoenix’s character falls in love with his virtual assistant – but a human element is much more than a nice-to-have.
Siri, Cortana and Alexa can all answer a multitude of questions that have nothing to do with their core service. Have you ever asked Siri what the meaning of life is? Try it, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Funny interactions foster personal relationships with a brand and also demonstrate that bots can go beyond functionality to be interactive experiences as well.
If a bot’s main response to questions is, “Sorry, I didn’t understand that”, the experience becomes a lot less sticky. A few basic questions can be a start and brands can measure whether they resonate with users. Who knows, maybe your followers actually will fall in love with your bot someday.
I wonder how many people will have fallen in love with an AI chatbot by 2026.
— Sam Altman (@sama) March 9, 2016
The next evolution in one-to-one engagement
With bots, marketers have the opportunity to shape the future rules of interaction and customer expectations. Facebook may still keep a watchful eye, but brands are essentially free to set the tone and pace of the conversation.
In time artificial intelligence may help drive best practice and ensure brands send customers only relevant updates at the right times. But we’re not there yet. Until then it’s largely a question of judgement mixed with the willingness to experiment.
One thing is certain though, chatbots are not only here to stay, their role in customer engagement is set to explode over the next few years. The machines really are taking over. How will your brand fare in bot-world? Whether you want to be a first-mover or follower, the time to lay the groundwork is now.