What People Talk About When They Talk About Chatbots

Last month, VentureBeat hosted the 10th annual MobileBeat conference in San Francisco. The topics of choice: artificial intelligence, machine learning, and, of course, chat bots. We could spend days discussing the variety of ways in which companies big and small are leveraging machine learning to create digital experiences that delight customers, and we will in other posts. However, with this post, I want to focus on chat bots.

Chat bots, you may have heard of them

Several months ago, the NFL invited me to chat on Facebook Messenger. I didn’t accept until last week. Since then, it’s been radio silence. Normally, I’d be offended. However, this particular circumstance wasn’t surprising since the NFL’s original purpose for engaging football fans through Messenger was to inform them about updates during the draft.

This example underscores a common activity among organizations that have entered the chat bot game. For good reason, more and more companies are building conversational user interfaces into their customer communication repertoire. Flurry Analytics showed tremendous growth among messaging and social media apps last year. Punchkick’s own qualitative insights indicate customer are open to hearing from the brands they already trust. And, the most digitally savvy brands have been wise to adapt by experimenting with freely available technology to develop experiences with limited scope and massive ROI.

Your best content, on-call

Like the NFL during draft season, many brands see chatbots as an exercise in timeliness. During the NBA playoffs, fans of the Golden State Warriors, for instance, may have interacted with a Facebook Messenger bot that sent users team updates, including extremely high-value video highlights. Where users were once required to open a standalone app or navigate to a website, then laboriously search for the video they want to see, a conversational UI positions relevant content directly inside the interface a user is already interacting with.

Exposing only the content that’s of the highest value to a user signals a paradigm shift in our thinking about how we develop consumer-facing mobile applications and websites. Historically, websites have been viewed as all-or-nothing destinations where every piece of content about a brand is available for consumption. The vast majority of mobile apps have inherited this way of thinking. When you communicate with a user via chat bot, that robust store of digital content must be significantly simplified, often to a few lines of text.

Additionally, due to the available screen real estate provided by a mobile user interface, content consumption online is generally passive. Users have a variety of visual cues to aid them in their search for relevancy. Within a conversational UI however, there is a heavy burden on the brand to suggest immediate relevancy, regularly, or risk losing customers to competing brands or platforms. Facebook Messenger bots like Greatist or Epytom Stylist chat users with daily recommendations about health or personal fashion based on what the bots learn about you during your conversations. Rather than wait for you to check in, they proactively reach out to you in an expected, relevant manner.

Bots: Not your average marketing platform

Even the earliest experiments in chat bot development show us that these bots can provide brands with a new channel for successfully engaging the always-on mobile consumer. But, just like email marketing, once every brand has a bot, consumers will stop caring. That’s because the largest challenge faced by businesses who want to explore new technology is not, will customers ever adopt the new platform, but rather will my customers value what I bring to the new platform.

With chat bots, your business is required to listen as much as it talks. This is an important distinction between the way most brands market today and how consumers expect to interact via chat. For instance, you would give up on a conversation pretty quickly if the person you were talking to spoke 80 percent of the time and asked you to repeat yourself the other 20. Sadly, that’s the way most bots work right now.

Just like the transition from web to mobile, where brands assumed the only way to do mobile right was to pack the entire contents of their website into a smaller app UI, the biggest mistake brands can make with bots is to repurpose an existing marketing content strategy inside of a conversational UI. Instead, brands need to demonstrate they can listen to their customers first. Then, brands will be capable of developing customer-first conversational UIs that generate real brand satisfaction and ROI.