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.”