Chatbots, an emerging home for the money conversation, come under Just Eat’s gaze

Chatbots, an emerging home for the money conversation, comes under Just Eat’s gaze.

After so many false dawns, the much-vaunted prospect of social commerce is fast-becoming a reality for Just Eat due to its refusal to let the sales potential of chatbots be misguided by the novelty of owning one.

More than 15,000 people have used the takeaway service’s Facebook Messenger chatbot since it launched last September and four in ten then go on to make a purchase. Not a bad conversion rate for a product that managed to thrive where 70% of those have floundered. Much of this early success can be attributed to an insistence on creating a real purpose for the chatbot, something that’s arguably been missing from the majority.

“The chatbot is very much a forward-thinking project for Just Eat that looks at what the future of engaging customers could look like,” said Alex Miller, a founding partner at Byte London, the agency responsible for the chatbot’s strategy. “This isn’t purely for innovation’s sake, it’s not there to look good. It’s there to drive orders and frequency.”

For a business so reliant on spontaneous, low value purchases, coming up with ways to make them more frequent across 28,000 restaurants is paramount. It meant the tone of voice, responses and other conversational aspects of the bot – the things that generate the hype – were just as important as the less showy design aspects that etched a role for it in the company’s customer journey. Having a clear idea of the latter has meant there’s more to the chatbot than a quirky story that could pave the way for a true artificial intelligence from Just Eat.

For the first nine months, the chatbot revolved around “coach” and “inspire” mechanics that encourage customers to use it to order from their favourite restaurant or try something new. Furthermore, it responds to simple commands, tracks orders and offers refunds with the intent to resolving issues quicker than a human can. For the rest of the year, the chatbot will tighten contextual searches and learn more natural language as well as explore CRM and targeted ads.

The latter two could be aided by the order information coursing through the chatbot after it recently allowed customers to synchronise their Facebook ID with their Just Eat one, becoming one of the first brands in the UK to allow purchases to happen from the bot.

Aside from growing the number of people who order more, the feature is expected to help reduce the average cost per order. Already, the cost per order on the chatbot is comparable with some of the company’s best performing direct response activity, according to Miller, who for commercial reasons couldn’t reveal specifics.

“These are the topline commercial results that have it [chatbots] an area worthwhile investing in,” he continued.

“We’re looking at how we can do smarter things with the chatbot and are watching thousands and thousands of conversations to understand how people talk to it. We’re trying to really fine tune the way in which someone can filter the answers they receive.”

The success of which may determine how far Just Eat brings AI to its digital strategy. Reams of natural language are being passed from the chatbot to the company’s 300-strong army of developers, who are working on a real AI that could replace the current version of the chatbot. For all its technological wizardy, Just Eat’s chatbot is still infantile in terms of its ability to parse anything that someone types at it. And while the chatbot has become capable of delivering information, it along with others like it aren’t much for more realistic conversations.

Facebook admitted as much earlier this week with the launch of what is effectively a training ground for smarter chatbots. When the social network scaled back its chatbot plans on Messenger last year, it all but confirmed a Forrester Report that revealed most bots aren’t ready to handle the complexities of conversation and still depend on human intervention to succeed.

Not to be undone by overambition, Just Eat introduced a feature that seamlessly switches between the bot and a human, using part of the algorithm to detect when a person is angry or trying to reach customer services. Automated responses are stopped and a customer service rep takes over the conversation, a feature Miller admitted is “working really well at the moment”.

Do chatbots belong in your marketing mix?

“There’s a pretty low barrier to entry for chatbots and that’s meant that there have been a lot of failures,” said Tom Ollerton, innovation director at We Are Social. “Because it’s so easy to build a chatbot, what tends to happen is the development department tends to build it when really the beauty and the success of it comes down to the copy not the code.”

Mindful of that distinction, Domino’s made sure that its aptly named ‘Dom’ chatbot is as irreverent as it is helpful. A fun interview with Comedy Central on everything from Pokemon Go to existential philosophy suggest ‘Dom’ is no ordinary chatbot when it comes to the art of conversation. However, this novelty is tempered by the “small percentage” of those from its customer who have placed an order since it launched last August. Domino’s attributes this to the lack of marketing behind Dom to date, though is encouraged by the 50% of those who have linked its Easy Order service to the chatbot that went on to convert and place an order.

“That’s huge and although that has dipped slightly since launch, people are repeat purchasing via the bot,” said Hayley Tillson, senior digital marketing manager at Domino’s at a We Are Social event. “We wanted to make it [the experience] a conversational order but at the end of the day it’s all about shopping and placing your order. We didn’t want to create a barrier to that. It’s a chabot with a real purpose, operating in a space where we know our audience is but where they wouldn’t expect to be able to place an order.”

Whereas the transactional nature of Just Eat and Domino’s makes a chatbot somewhat easier to fit into a sales strategy, for the likes of L’Oreal and British Gas the route to social commerce is more complicated. Both are keen on the idea of having a chatbot, yet wary of concocting something that is closer to the creepy sales assistant that follows customers round a store than a helpful one.

Enter the cosmetics giant’s Beauty Gifter, a Facebook Messenger app that helps a user find the perfect gift for a beauty product lover by quizzing both them and the intended recipient for pertinent information. It launched in Canada earlier this month and could extend to other markets including the UK. Moreover, the company’s chief marketing officer for the UK and Ireland Hugh Pile said its “first ever chatbot” would sit at the “top of the funnel” with “real customer engagement”. It will be “tapping into a big data knowledge that we’ve ever had at L’Oreal to give the correct answers,” continued the marketer. “Imagine the scale we could deliver if we’re engaging people up the funnel with AI.

Recapping the chatbot story so far

Marketers have been talking up social commerce for a nearly a decade and yet have labored to turn much of that promise into reality. As the buzz around chatbots gives way to pragmatism, brands like Just Eat are weighing up whether they can finally cash in on social commerce in a way that doesn’t feel like a cheap stunt.

“I think we’ll see a lot more focus on how to measure a chatbot, whether that’s the length of conversation or how many people actually activated something like a coupon or went on to download a piece of content, opined Jason Forbes, chief digital and media officer at Coty. “The good news is it’s possible to track those conversations all the way down to sale and I think the more successful brands are going to think more holistically about why its not just the number of chatbot interactions you had, it’s what it translated into in terms of business value sales or where the impact can be delivered.”

The conditions are ripe for chatbots; Facebook Messenger has over 1.2 billion active users per month, while Gartner predicts the average person will have more conversations with bots than with their spouse by 2020. But, like the ‘Buy it now’ button before it, social commerce on chatbots will only thrive if a brand can strike the right balance between it and the conversational aspect.

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Seb Joseph

Hi, I'm the news editor at The Drum. Give me a shout if you have any questions about our news coverage or would like to pitch in a story.

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