The Marketer’s Guide To Bots: Everything You Need To Know

Your guide to the bot land­scape: every­thing you need to know, includ­ing what are bots, how do they work, and why are they so hot now?

Lisa Lacy By Lisa Lacy. Join the discussion » 1 comment

Are we on the verge of anoth­er major shift where apps are replaced by bots? We could be. Many mar­ket­ing experts say con­sumer behav­ior is forc­ing brands to think about how to pro­vide bet­ter user expe­ri­ences by adding bots to the mar­ket­ing mix.

Just like the web and app par­a­digm shifts before, every busi­ness and brand will have to build bots,” said Beerud Sheth, CEO of smart mes­sag­ing plat­form Gup­shup. “The risk of not doing bots out­weighs the risk of get­ting start­ed. Of course, there’s a lot of learn­ing and iter­a­tion involved, along with speed bumps along the way. But the time to get start­ed is yes­ter­day.” Here’s a clos­er look at what bots are, how con­sumers use them and what’s dri­ving this alleged sea change.

What Are Bots?

Bots are soft­ware pro­grams that can send and receive mes­sages – and rep­re­sent the fourth major par­a­digm shift in con­sumer tech­nol­o­gy after desk­top clients, web­sites, and apps, Sheth explained. But bots are noth­ing new to the tech scene. In fact, Richard Smullen, CEO of mobile mes­sag­ing app Pypestream, said an ear­ly ver­sion of bots was an inter­ac­tive voice response line in which con­sumers dialed in to a call cen­ter and chose from a menu of options.

The response you’re get­ting – that in essence is a bot,” Smullen said. “It’s just a very broad term. There’s a lot of jar­gon now and a lot of hype – I’d say we’re at the top of the bot hype curve, which hap­pened overnight. “There’s a mis­con­cep­tion about AI, machine learn­ing and nat­ur­al lan­guage pro­cess­ing bots and that this analy­sis is like sen­ti­ment analy­sis,” he said. “Bots are not a new con­cept at all. If you’ve called a call cen­ter and got­ten a robot­ic response or emailed a busi­ness and got­ten an autore­sponse – those are forms of bots.” For his part, Ben Kosin­s­ki, head of the Col­lab­o­ra­to­ry, the inno­va­tion unit at mar­ket­ing agency iCross­ing, defined bots as “AI that can com­ple­ment or mim­ic human inter­ac­tions with brands” and not­ed the main pur­pose is “to pro­vide one-on-one yet scal­able con­ver­sa­tions.”

The bonus, he not­ed, is that bots elim­i­nate the need for con­sumers to wait on hold for cus­tomer ser­vice reps or to search a brand’s FAQs. “These tasks are con­stant­ly repeat­ed and there are only a set num­ber of out­comes,” Kosin­s­ki said. “AI and bots can now replace fric­tion and inef­fi­cien­cy by help­ing to con­nect [brands and con­sumers] more effi­cient­ly.” Fur­ther, Chris Teso, CEO of social media mar­ket­ing firm Chirpi­fy, said bots fit with­in the cat­e­go­ry of “con­ver­sa­tion­al com­merce,” which he defined as “any short- or long-form dia­log between a con­sumer and a brand or ser­vice provider” that can be “con­duct­ed by a bot or a per­son.” Con­sumers like­ly inter­act with bots more than they real­ize on a day-to-day basis, accord­ing to Eddie Fran­cis, research direc­tor at mar­ket research agency Alter Agents. This can take the form of ask­ing Siri, “Who won the Dodgers game?” or telling Alexa, “Order more paper tow­els.” These bots should also not to be con­fused with fraud­u­lent tech­nolo­gies that dri­ve non-human traf­fic, added Adam Cohen-Aslatei, senior direc­tor of mar­ket­ing at adver­tis­ing com­pa­ny Jun Group.

How Do Bots Work?

Con­sumers can access bots in one of three ways:

1. Via Chat

The aver­age con­sumer is most like­ly to encounter a bot via a chat app like Face­book Mes­sen­ger, WeChat, Slack or Kik, or even a text mes­sage, accord­ing to Sheth. “Chat­ting with bots is almost the same as chat­ting with friends on any mes­sag­ing app. To chat with a human friend, you search a name, which appears from the local con­tact book, and start a con­ver­sa­tion. To chat with a bot, you search a name, which appears from the glob­al address book, and start con­ver­sa­tion,” he said. “The expe­ri­ence in both these cas­es is iden­ti­cal and in many cas­es you will not know, nor care, whether the enti­ty on the oth­er side is a per­son or a pro­gram.” This lat­ter inter­ac­tion is applic­a­ble to a range of brand sce­nar­ios, from tex­ting a menu bot from a restau­rant for dai­ly spe­cials to chat­ting with an air­line bot to make a change to an upcom­ing flight.

2. Via Bot Shops

Bots have user names on var­i­ous plat­forms, which they are active­ly pro­mot­ing via social chan­nels, said Paul Gray, direc­tor of plat­form ser­vices at chat net­work Kik. Those plat­forms include Kik, which just launched a Bot Shop, or what it called “a place to find bots to chat with in Kik.” In fact, Rod McLeod, PR Guy at Kik, said con­sumers can go direct­ly to the Kik Bot Shop and search for a desired bot in order to begin chat­ting, not­ing “all bots are opt-in, mean­ing that a bot can nev­er start a con­ver­sa­tion with you – a user has to ini­ti­ate the con­ver­sa­tion.” Face­book recent­ly opened up Mes­sen­ger to allow brands to cre­ate bots to inter­act with con­sumers via its chat plat­form and was report­ed­ly on the verge of launch­ing its own bot store – with Digi­day even call­ing bot stores the new app stores.

3. Via Codes

Con­sumers can also use codes like Kik Codes, which are sim­i­lar to QR codes in that con­sumers can scan them to ini­ti­ate con­ver­sa­tions, Gray said. Face­book Mes­sen­ger also uses these scannable codes, which Kosinksi said allows con­sumers to eas­i­ly add brands to their address books. So, for instance, an air­line could dis­play this code through­out its ter­mi­nals and in-flight mag­a­zines to make it easy for pas­sen­gers to find and com­mu­ni­cate with the airline’s bot. “It def­i­nite­ly is a way to bridge online and offline and could poten­tial­ly rep­re­sent unique oppor­tu­ni­ties for CPG brands to increase their pres­ence,” he added.

Why Are Bots So Hot Now?

There are sev­er­al rea­sons 2016 may be the per­fect time for bots to rise. Here are the four biggest dri­vers.

1. Chat Proliferation

Mass adop­tion of mes­sag­ing, as well as a shift in con­sumer pref­er­ence toward texts over phone calls, is one main rea­son bots are poised to dom­i­nate, Smullen said. But even though con­sumers are over­whelm­ing­ly opt­ing for mes­sag­ing over talk­ing, this pre­ferred form of inter­ac­tion has yet to infil­trate the busi­ness world, he added. Gray agreed con­sumers nat­u­ral­ly chat with fam­i­ly, friends, and col­leagues, so bots enable brands and mar­keters to extend this behav­ior to their own ser­vices. “I think the fact that chat is so increas­ing­ly the fun­da­men­tal appli­ca­tion that most peo­ple use is a big dri­ver,” Gray said. Plus, Smullen not­ed, while con­sumers don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly want to talk to a bot, they don’t mind chat­ting with one. “The first real imple­men­ta­tions of bots failed dis­mal­ly in the voice category…but peo­ple don’t want to speak to a robot­ic voice,” Smullen said. “Enter mes­sag­ing. For the bot on the back­end of that, you have some­thing that con­sumers want.” Fur­ther, Sheth not­ed, bots don’t ask con­sumers to make any kind of behav­ior change. “You sim­ply con­tin­ue to do what you’ve always done – text and chat in your favorite chat apps,” he said.

2. App Fatigue

Gray agreed chat is a nat­ur­al con­sumer behav­ior and inter­act­ing with a bot is much eas­i­er than find­ing an app, down­load­ing it, authen­ti­cat­ing it, and fig­ur­ing out the UI. “Dif­fer­ent brands have dif­fer­ent apps and there’s a learn­ing expe­ri­ence each time,” Gray said. “We see in brand apps there are low install rat­ings because there’s a lot of fric­tion.” Or, sim­ply put, con­sumers have app fatigue. “Apps have been around for close to 10 years now and peo­ple sim­ply are not down­load­ing them as much as the past,” Gray said. Think about it: Con­sumers already have many apps they hard­ly use and are reluc­tant to down­load yet anoth­er one to car­ry out a sin­gle func­tion like, say, to order flow­ers. And that’s pre­cise­ly where bots come in handy – they allow con­sumers to per­form tasks eas­i­ly with­in the plat­forms they already use, with­out hav­ing to down­load anoth­er app, Gray added. (And, indeed, 1–800-Flowers recent­ly announced the abil­i­ty to order flow­ers via bots in Mes­sen­ger.) Fur­ther, it’s a lot eas­i­er to build a bot than an app, Gray not­ed. “I think it’s an excit­ing ear­ly stage. I feel like it’s the same as when web­sites first came out, and then mobile sites and then apps – they were step changes dri­ven by what con­sumers were doing,” Gray said. “They were get­ting iPhones, so we had to devel­op apps, which was great for proac­tive, inno­v­a­tive brands.” Indeed, per Oliv­er Guy, glob­al retail indus­try direc­tor at soft­ware com­pa­ny Soft­ware AG, Face­book Mes­sen­ger – or anoth­er mes­sag­ing plat­form – has an oppor­tu­ni­ty here to act as an inter­me­di­ary between con­sumers and brands so the for­mer only need a sin­gle app.

3. Support From Big Players

Per­haps most impor­tant­ly, heavy hit­ters like Face­book and Microsoft are dri­ving forces as well. Face­book CEO Mark Zucker­berg announced bots for Mes­sen­ger at F8 in April. In the release, the social net­work said these bots pro­vide auto­mat­ed sub­scrip­tion con­tent like weath­er and traf­fic, along with cus­tomized com­mu­ni­ca­tions like receipts, ship­ping noti­fi­ca­tions and live auto­mat­ed mes­sages. And in addi­tion to allow­ing busi­ness­es to build bots for Mes­sen­ger, Face­book also launched bot dis­cov­ery tools and Mes­sen­ger Codes to make bots eas­i­er for con­sumers to find. Facebook’s inter­est in bots report­ed­ly lies in part as an effort to posi­tion itself as a dri­ver of Mes­sen­ger-based com­merce, but also, Ad Age said, as a means of har­ness­ing con­trol of mobile expe­ri­ences away from the likes of Apple and Google. Fur­ther, Kosin­s­ki not­ed, Face­book is more than hap­py for brands to pay for spon­sored posts to encour­age con­sumers to add them as con­tacts on Mes­sen­ger. “Face­book, WeChat, and oth­er pop­u­lar social and mes­sen­ger apps want to keep users in their apps for as long as pos­si­ble and chat­bots can help these devel­op­ers reach this goal,” Cohen-Aslatei added.

4. Consumer Demand

Fur­ther­more, always-on bots sat­is­fy mod­ern con­sumers’ demand for instant grat­i­fi­ca­tion. That’s because bot mes­sag­ing is avail­able 24 hours a day, which gives con­sumers the impres­sion com­pa­nies are real­ly on the ball and care about them. “Hold times and delays are the rea­sons why [con­sumers] leave a com­pa­ny. No one leaves because the expe­ri­ence is amaz­ing and they are tak­en care of,” Smullen said. “You can have bots mas­querad­ing as peo­ple, respond­ing with empa­thy that is per­ceived to be from a human and they can even be very intel­li­gent and inter­pret an inter­ac­tion such that they know if a response should come from a human because it requires the next lev­el of empa­thy or care and will for­ward the mes­sage to a human.”

Lisa Lacy

Written by Lisa Lacy

Lisa is a senior features writer for Inked. She also previously covered digital marketing for Incisive Media. Her background includes editorial positions at Dow Jones, the Financial Times, the Huffington Post, AOL, Amazon, Hearst, Martha Stewart Living and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

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