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AI and bots are changing the consumer conversation, brand marketers claim

Talk to the Brand: AI, Bots and Conversational Marketing panelists at SXSW / Kyle O'Brien

Artificial intelligence and bots are still in the early stages, but for a group of brand representatives, utilizing these emerging technologies is simply about being where their customers are – and more and more, that involves being in their homes and on their phones.

In a panel at SXSW, Talk to the Brand: AI, Bots and Conversational Marketing, the discussion centered around pushing forward their new bots and gauging the response to the technologies by their consumers.

Moderator Fred Schonenberg, founder of VentureFuel, first asked if we really needed bots in our lives, and the response from the panel was decidedly ‘yes’.

“There’s absolutely a purpose for a bot in our lives. A good bot does one thing really well, and that’s it. If it can crush it, that’s key,” said Sam Olstein, global director of innovation for GE Corporation.

“Bots and AI can make our lives easier,” said Chris McCann, CEO of 1-800-Flowers.com. “Consumers change, and we have to be there.” He added that they need to look where people are spending their times, and often that’s on message boards, and social media. Having a bot lets his company interact with consumers at a more personal level.

All see bots as a great new opportunity to reach consumers and have a more one-on-one experience with them, and all touted Amazon’s Alexa as a worthy platform to launch their bots.

For Stephanie Hay, head of conversation design for Capital One, being where the customer is makes for a more frictionless experience. To that end, they recently launched Eno, a chatbot for Capital One designed to reach the on-the-go bank customer.

“If you want to continue to be a part of the change and make things easier, you need to be where people are,” she said.

1-800-Flowers.com also has a bot, Gwyn, powered by IBM, which they use to make the gift and flower buying experience easier than ever. The bot is a gift concierge that learns how customers are interacting and builds a relationship with the consumer so Gwyn can serve up the gifts appropriate to that consumer.

“We’re an innovation company that happens to be in the gifting business,” said McCann.

GE is experimenting with bots as well, and used its own Labracadabra as a successful example. It helps kids do their own scientific experiments at home, using AI voice directions to guide them through the process.

The challenges of AI technologies

New technology always has limitations and inherent challenges, and all three panelists noted them. Language was one of the biggest hurdles to overcome.

Hay discussed voice modulations and tone affecting the experience. She said that Alexa can sound friendly at times, but other times can sound ‘judgy’, which doesn’t reflect their brand. She noted that they have to be conscious of intonation and balance in everything they create on that front, and that it has to mesh with the Alexa brand so it doesn’t sound different to consumers.

“We have to look at what language and words we use,” added McCann, who talked about making the experience one that the 1-800-Flowers.com consumer recognizes and feels comfortable using. But he expects Gwyn to be its brand representative for many platforms moving forward.

For Labracadabra, GE saw challenges in what to do while the kids mixed their concoctions (play music, Alexa), or telling learning jokes to lighten the mood for the children.

A big challenge for everyone is privacy, and finding the right balance of what people are willing to give up for their technological experiences.

For Capital One, they are in a highly regulated industry that first and foremost must protect consumers’ private information. They worked with Amazon to add an optional layer of security through voice recognition and stepping up authentication for higher-risk transactions.

For McCann: “Privacy is about personal information. Our customers want us to use their personal information to make the best personal experience. They’re not willing to give up privacy, but they are willing to give up information,” he said, adding that they always need to make sure that information can only be accessed by the consumer and the company, and that their company has a great responsibility to protect the data.

“The benefits of sharing information for the most part helps deliver a better experience,” said Olstein. GE had to deal privacy issues around children with Labracadabra, but he added that kids embraced it because they love talking to Alexa. Still, they had to go through many lawyers, plus third party testing of the materials they used in their mail-able Labracadabra ecommerce kit.

AI moving forward

AI and bots are still a long way from being perfect technologies, but these three companies are willing to keep moving forward, even with the difficulties and trial and error it takes to achieve success. They just have to pay attention to what they learn from the data and utilize it properly.

“I’ll be interested to see how some of this stuff plays together. These technologies are enabling more human interaction and behavior,” said Olstein, adding that he wants to see how the various platforms co-exist and weave together experiences.

“We’re early in conversational commerce,” said McCann. “We’re learning and iterating, and enhancing as we move forward.”

Hay sees opportunity in the context and the ethics. “How are we going to use the data from this conversation, and use previous conversations to make experience better? How can we tie into additional platforms and behaviors?” she asked, saying it will grow as bots track movements. She also wondered what we will be willing to give up in the future to have a more frictionless experience. “There’s a on of potential to make things easier,” she said.

All three companies want to get smarter faster, and they know if they invest in learning, the other engagement metrics can fall into place.

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Kyle O'Brien

I am a reporter for The Drum covering a wide array of topics but always trying to tell the best stories possible. I am a former west coaster from California and Portland, Oregon, now living in Pennsylvania — with time spent in NYC each week.

I also play saxophone professionally.

All by Kyle