Back in 2004, before YouTube existed, I was advocating the use of video content to improve the online customer journey. In 2009, I was telling brands that ‘Where to Buy‘ buttons would be a customer expectation. This happened. So are bots going to have the same ‘Must have‘ status in a few years? It’s starting to look likely.
You have probably come across bots before, even if you haven’t been aware of them. Bots are simply automated scripts that can perform simple, repetitive tasks at a much faster rate than would be humanly possible. The most well-known bots are the ones that spider the web indexing the millions of websites that are listed in Google and the other major search engines. For humans to analyse and file the information from all these websites would be incredibly labour-intensive but a bot can do this quickly and efficiently.
The recent surge of interest in bots has been triggered by the announcement at the Facebook F8 developer conference that tools will be made available for developers to create bots inside Facebook Messenger. The tools announced by Mark Zuckerberg include an API which developers can use to create chatbots for Messenger as well as chat widgets for the web.
Facebook is far from the first company to experiment with bots. Both Telegram and Kik already have bot stores, while Microsoft recently announced a bot platform of their own. The reason that the Facebook announcement has captured peoples imagination is down to the number of users Facebook Messenger has.
Facebook hope that Messenger can be developed as a primary channel for businesses to connect with their customers. They believe that combining AI with human intervention can allow Messenger to almost act as a direct replacement for 1-800 numbers. If bot technology is eventually this widely accepted by the public we could see bots in areas as diverse as customer support, commerce, and media.
At F8 Zuckerberg demonstrated a bot which allowed someone to order flowers using natural conversational language. He also unveiled a bot from CNN that delivered news stories that became more personalised over time. Zuckerberg sees an e-commerce future where brands have their own bots which interact with customers through the Facebook Messenger interface. Is he right?
Many retailers and brands are going to be sceptical. Back in 1996 e-commerce companies were struggling to design a high ranking website to accommodate changes in customer behaviour. In 2006 these same businesses found themselves under pressure to create apps that for smartphones. Now in 2016, the trend is to develop bot technology. Why should they bother? Many retailers went to the expense of creating mobile apps which garnered only a lacklustre response from their customers. I believe that there are solid reasons why traffic from apps has frequently been underwhelming, and why bots offer a better opportunity.
Many of the problems with apps can be traced to their being stand-alone items. Brands must first persuade customers to download them, and then expect the customer to learn an entirely new interface when they want to engage with them. Who wants to struggle with an unfamiliar interface just to register a new product or ask a simple question?
This is where bots really have the edge. Bots run on platforms which customers are already using. Individuals are already familiar with the interfaces for Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger, so the learning curve is entirely eliminated and brands can interact with their customers immediately.
If bots are going to be successfully integrated into company marketing then I believe it is essential for brands and retailers to own their own bots. There is no value in creating task specific bots, ie. a bot for support, a bot for content etc. It will be more effective for brands to own their own bots on all platforms, not just Facebook, but every chat platform they operate on. Once businesses have a bot in place they will be able to establish access agreements with other partners to supply the information they need to allow the bot to operate. This might include, content syndication, PIM, offers, and deals.
How does AI play into this? In an ideal world, bots would have awesome intelligence and be able to successfully answer any questions the customer may have. However, in my opinion this possibility is still a while off and this disconnect between customer expectations and reality could lead to customers getting frustrated. Progress is however being made in the right direction. Here in Dubai, simple commands like ‘nearest ATM’ and ‘statement’ are already being used by some forward-thinking banks.
So what is the potential for brands and e-commerce retailers to work together with bots? It is possible that chatbots could become our new ‘best friends‘. Some brands have already begun to embrace bot technology. In the last year more than 80 advertisers worked with Kik to establish chatbots on its network of 275 million users.
This is just the tip of what could be a very large iceberg, the potential scenarios are almost limitless. Just think about these 5 options for a start.
- Bots making offers – The customer makes an inquiry about a service and the bot responds by providing the customer with a time sensitive offer. The whole process would be fully trackable, allowing the success of the offer to be analysed, and improved over time.
- Bots acting as a ‘knowledgeable friend’ – Online stores are useful but often customers want to know more information than can be conveniently displayed. A bot would be an ideal way for a customer to find out more about the product. They could talk about product specifications, the terms of the warranty etc.
- A bot to locate your nearest store – There are some products you want to see before you buy, and others which are just not suitable for delivery. A bot could be used to tell you where your nearest store is, and potentially offer you directions to the store.
- A bot to upsell products – When a customer makes a purchase there are often complementary items which customers may like to purchase alongside the product. Having a bot bring these items to the attention of the customer can help customers find products they need, and improve the bottom line of the business.
- A bot to follow up with customers – The greater the understanding a business has of their customers habits and behaviour the more effective a bot can be. Imagine having a bot that was able to reach out to customers and ask: “How are you getting on looking for your new TV? Let me know if I can help”.
Bots are only just starting to make their presence felt. We have yet to see what the future holds, and how the development of AI will lead to a full bot-revolution.