Time Inc., Sky News and Nikkei Asian Review have become the latest publishers to launch a chatbot in order to gain “intimate” access to their readers as traditional media companies continually look to diversify their content, unlock new revenue streams and reach readers on the platforms they inhabit.
The latest chatbot has been produced by tech company Outbrain, which first launched the CNN chatbot six months ago. Since then the Guardian, Channel 4, Washington Post and New York Times have launched their own chatbots to promote content, give live election updates and surface stories relevant to an individual reader. Meanwhile brands such as KLM, Uber and Pizza Hut have been testing the AI feature to give audiences new ways of requesting products.
Now Time Inc's People, Variety and NME, Sky News and Nikkei Asian Review want to try their hand at reaching audiences in the same environment they chat with friends and family.
The reality is chatbots are expensive to produce, and while still in testing mode don’t guarantee tangible results or ROI. Outbrain provides media companies without bottomless pockets a template chatbot to personalise with minimal engineering investment on their part.
At launch the bot will already be equipped with each company’s audience data from the Outbrain code that sits on most publisher’s sites and recommends stories to readers, giving the tech company a “strong advantage” in simplifying the tech against other vendors, explains Colin Doody, GM of strategic initiatives at Outbrain. The bot will understand what is interesting and relevant to readers in a specific location or at a global scale, while publisher-specific requests such as lifestyle content, music recommendations or breaking news will be taught.
Learnings from the CNN experiment
Since launching the CNN bot six months ago, Outbrain has been updating and iterating its chat bot functionalities and creating an open framework to allow publishers to take control of the experience. This benefits readers looking for a unique experience too, Doody says. The publisher chooses from a menu of different interactions the end user can take, including trending topics, the ability to save stories for later, and request article summaries for the first time.
Outbrain hopes to give the user a “frictionless experience” by filtering recommendations through smart replies, and allowing users to search through a lot of content very quickly to find what is relevant to them. The bot gets smarter the more it learns. The bot can also link out so users can access an entire article on site instead of attempting to replicate that experience, giving publishers the opportunity to generate traffic from their owned properties.
What’s more, Facebook is “evolving a lot” to enable greater experimentation with chat bots, Doody says. While Facebook builds the architecture and design of the bots, he said they are flexible with allowing partners to experiment within that existing framework, and can change things on the fly.
Chat bots are the next realm in the evolution from publishers and media companies to look outside their sites and build content on third party platforms. The “big leap” with Messenger is it becomes a much more intimate experience, Doody said, with the ability for those publishers to “take control” of the experience where they might sacrifice this control on the likes of Instant Articles or Google AMP.
“There is a shared appetite from all of these publishers to be quick to these platforms,” Doody says. “It’s not just replicating their homepage but thinking about a new experience, a utility for the user that is unique so that it becomes additive.”
Time Inc's People Magazine said: "As a publisher of digital content, we are interested in reaching our audiences wherever they are. As users are increasingly using messaging apps, we see this as an opportunity to engage them in a more personalized, intimate manner, and Facebook Messenger gives us a unique opportunity to do that at scale."
Monetising the customer journey
The next step and the question on everyone’s mind is how to monetise that stream. KLM first teased a monetisation model earlier this year when it announced plans to turn the conversation threads into a customer journey, where relevant third parties would be introduced at specific points in the chat, provide brands with a space to push their services.
“There isn’t going to be a shortage of opportunities on the monetisation side,” Doody says. “There is a good amount of experimenting going on now. Right now we are focused on getting the end user experience right. Once we have that content experience trending in the right direction, we can bring brand voices into the content experience - just like the discovery we have on publisher’s sites.”
“It is important this is done right since Messenger is incredibly intimate environment,” he adds.
The chat bot gold rush
Yet while chat bots are the buzzword right now, they do not suit every brand. Facebook’s director of agency partnerships Ed Couchman believes there is a “gold rush” towards bots and urged advertisers and brands to “think carefully about why they are building a bot in the first place” rather than doing it “for the sake of it”, since the experience can be “quite buggy”.
It’s why Outbrain has taken a “slower, more managed approach” to launching the bots, starting out with just one partner in CNN, and now introducing five publishers with “relevant content” to create a valued experience for the reader.
As more publishers jump on the bandwagon, Facebook will have a discovery problem. Recognising this, Facebook is taking a “longterm view” and is looking at ways to help users discover the best bots on the market when it becomes too bloated, according to Doody.