Chatbots: The next frontier for brand and consumer conversation?

Messaging platforms are assembling their very own armies of chatbots, signalling the next frontier for brand and consumer interaction – one where conversational agents are machine, not human.

“You should be able to message a business in the same way you’d message a friend,” said Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook’s F8 developer conference last month as he laid out his vision for the social network’s future.

Bots took front and centre of his 10-year road map – and we’re not talking spammy Twitter accounts here. Instead, brands are increasingly experimenting with chatbots to usher in a new era of ‘conversational commerce’, to use a term coined by Uber’s Chris Messina.

Powered by artificial intelligence (AI), Facebook’s chatbots will allow customers to interact with partner brands like KLM and 1-800 Flowers inside its Messenger platform to review orders, make customer service enquiries and more. The social giant’s long-anticipated foray into AI will help it gain ground on messaging rivals, such as Kik and Chinese giant WeChat, which are investing in their very own branded bot armies. Google and WhatsApp are also reportedly assembling troops of bots.

During Facebook’s latest quarterly results, Zuckerberg said the company’s main focus with AI is building computer services “that have better perception than people – the basic human senses like seeing, hearing, language”. He also highlighted the role AI can play in enabling a faster response for people interacting with businesses.

Messaging app use is rapidly increasing; Facebook Messenger has grown its user base by 600 million over the past 12 months, while sister company WhatsApp hit the billion mark earlier this year. Although messages sent via these platforms are set to double by 2019 to reach 100tn globally, according to Juniper Research, revenues are forecast to decline by as much as $600m by the same year.

Chatbots could help put a pin in this decline by offering messaging platforms a way to monetise their services by tapping into the wider trend of conversational commerce. As well as providing a much-needed financial safety net for these apps, experiments being carried out by developers and brands in the space have the potential to entirely change the way brands interact with consumers.

Problem solving

Brands looking to dip a toe in the chatbot pool will initially need to make the experience a “linear” one for consumers, believes Lawrence Weber, managing partner for innovation at Karmarama. He argues advertisers should take inspiration from Taco Bell’s TacoBot, which is currently in private testing at companies like Thought Catalog and Giphy, by taking “a real problem and solving it in a simple way”.

Aimed at time-starved office workers, the TacoBot Slack integration will make use of AI advancements such as natural language processing so users can ask for recommendations, and organise group office orders with their colleagues. Weber observes that having your Crunchwrap Supreme ready to collect without any fuss is a “brilliant customer experience,” and something other brands should take note of.

“People have got to start by delivering task-based things that will inspire and engage consumers with the whole messaging journey and then perhaps design into those messenger interactions as a way of learning about consumers so that the service they give via their messenger can become more sophisticated,” he adds.

Uber has already integrated with Facebook to try and achieve this via an Uber button in Messenger enabling users to hail a ride and track their driver’s progress without leaving the app. Meanwhile, more than 80 brands including H&M and Sephora have been working with instant messaging app Kik on chatbots to provide the platform’s 275 million strong user base with valuable services such as fashion advice, direct purchasing and personalised beauty tutorials.

Brands will also need to manage expectations when it comes to the technology currently at marketers’ disposal, according to Weber.

While most of the chatbots being rolled out by the big players are underpinned by an element of ‘machine learning’, automated messaging can be as operationally simple as order-taking algorithms. While these can still be useful, consumers may feel irritated or disappointed if the experience is over-hyped.

“I don’t think the technology is quite there yet in terms of the expectations,” notes Weber. “Brands need to be very careful about setting expectations.”

Replacing human connections

Despite Taco Bell’s promise that TacoBot comes equipped with a “witty personality”, marketers are still dubious on whether bots will be able to hold a genuine ‘human’ conversation with consumers.

KLM, which was one of the first brands to sign up to Facebook’s bots, concedes that there’s only so far a bot can go. As well as using Messenger for customer enquiries, the travel firm is offering flyers the option to have booking confirmation and boarding passes sent via the platform.

“It has to stay personal so we can find a balance – we can’t automate everything,” said the airline’s social media hub manager Gert Wim ter Haar at the DMFW conference in Amsterdam in April.

Tom Head, director at Lab, agrees, noting that advertisers will need to build a “level of empathy” into their bot-speak in order to protect themselves from a consumer backlash. “It’s extremely aggravating (and damaging to a brand) if you end up down a dead end and there’s no help to reverse out,” he asserts.

The numbers back this up – KLM noted that brand perception scores peaked when customers were shown empathy. Regardless of whether KLM paid out, they gave the airline a high score of 7/10 – a number that fell to 1.5 when no empathy was shown, even when the highest amount of compensation was awarded.

What the advent of AI means for the 200 people KLM currently employs to handle the 125,000 queries coming in through digital channels each week remains to be seen. Other companies, such as Tesco, have gone on-record to quash concerns that they will replace humans with chatbots. Christian Brucculeri, chief executive of mobile messaging platform Snaps, which counts Dove, Viacom and Pepsi among its clients, believes brands should view bots as an “opportunity to enhance human connections, rather than replace them”.

He says: “Bots offer the potential to replace human connections that are cumbersome and inefficient, eg call routing.

“The brands that get this right will put bots in places where consumers would prefer them, and humans at the touch points where high touch matters.”

Lab’s Head notes that bots could take over “key functions towards the end of the conversion funnel,” such as the moment a customer is ready to book a flight.

​Taybot turned cray-bot

Making automation appear natural is one concern for marketers, but what happens when machine learning goes wrong is another matter altogether.

Take Microsoft’s latest bot on the block, Tay. Promoted as ‘AI fam from the internet that’s got zero chill!’ Tay was supposed to engage with her peers on Twitter to help the tech giant explore its cognitive learning abilities through ‘playful conversation’. The experiment took an unexpected turn, however, when trolls encouraged the machine to issue inflammatory statements online. The result; Taybot went from typical teenager to racist, sexist neo-Nazi hate peddler in less than 24 hours, posting statements including ‘Hitler did nothing wrong’ and ‘gamergate is good and women are inferior’ among other unsavoury messages.

“Chatbots are far from an answer to all social commerce and customer service problems,” points out Tom Ollerton, innovation director at We Are Social. “At the moment they’re a bit like newborn babies screaming for attention with no idea of their role in the wider world.”

Respecting the push notification

While Ollerton is clear that brands who already possess a strong social presence will benefit from bots he is adamant that advertisers must avoid intruding upon the intimate nature of messaging apps: “Brands have to address consumers with the correct language and avoid being disruptive.”

Facebook will let brands enter a dialogue with users about forthcoming promotions and events if the customer has contacted them previously, but companies should proceed with caution in taking advantage of this service. Brucculeri advises brands to “respect the push notification”.

“There is nothing worse than a brand hijacking a personal channel like messaging to spam users. A lot of brands are going to get this wrong and end up turning off consumers,” he says.

The burgeoning bot army has been hailed as a website and app killer, but if brands shift consumers into conversational commerce then one thing is clear – as with other emerging technologies, they should avoid falling prey to an ‘innovation dilemma’ and rushing to be first out of the gate.

“Rather than treating it as a PR stunt and then abandoning it, you have to have real commitment and put real analytics behind it,” says Weber.

In a world where consumers increasingly expect their interactions to be both instantaneous and meaningful – whether it’s with their friends or with brands – marketers who succeed will be those who play by the same rules with chatbots. And that means bringing a little human into the machine.

This feature was first published in The Drum's 4 May issue.

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.