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Chatbots have changed the game… but only a little

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Brands are pinning their hopes on bots to drive their mobile retail and e-commerce strategies. But are they at risk of putting all their eggs in one basket?

This year has seen the rise of chatbots and the notion of ‘conversational commerce’. As with any new technology, it has been greeted by the usual fanfare as well as smatterings of healthy scepticism. It would be fair to say that we are tending towards the peak of inflated expectations (see ‘Gartner Hype Cycle’). However, when behemoths of the tech world like Facebook, and more recently Google with their Allo app, throw weight behind bots, you can be forgiven for thinking “hold on, there is something in this”. What cannot be disputed is that bots and conversational commerce done right holds huge promise. Whilst brands salivate over this new mobile touch point, it is worth remembering that the impending arrival of the new kid on the block does not necessarily invalidate other mobile touch points. In fact, it makes them more important than ever.

In the world envisioned by Mark Zuckerberg, you will “be able to message a business in the same way you would message a friend”. Brand chatbots will now be competing to be at the top of your Facebook Messenger list, or to be the bot of choice for a particular product or service. What will determine which brands make the cut?

Google first coined the term ‘Zero Moment of Truth’ (ZMOT) or “the moment when you grab your laptop, mobile phone or some other wired device and start learning about a product or service you’re thinking about trying or buying”. The ZMOT originates from consumers’ micro-moments. These are those “I want to do”, “I want to buy” and “I want to eat” moments that we all have. What we can all attest to is that the device of choice for conducting this research in 2016 is overwhelmingly the smartphone and that looks to be the case for the foreseeable future. Research from Ipsos Mori in 2015 shows that 51% of consumers say information they found online influenced their purchasing decision and 50% of consumers say they have bought a brand they wouldn’t usually consider because of relevant information online.

This behaviour is unlikely to change regardless of whether bots are the next big thing or not. The first port of call for consumers researching a product or a service will continue to be touch points like mobile sites, online reviews, social media and apps. Bots are not ready to take up this mantle as their current functionality revolves around transaction rather than research. In fact, will a brand’s bot ever be able to provide this research functionality? Probably not. For example, you can rule out a scenario where a brand’s bot will suggest you go chat with a rival bot because they offer a better product, at half the price, with a 4-star rating and rave reviews from social media influencers.

Consumers will continue to exercise due diligence in their purchasing decisions because a brand’s bot won’t be programmed to shoot itself in the foot, however useful that might be for consumers. Before companies even start thinking about chatbots, brands need to win the ZMOT by being present when micro-moments arise; that means the consumer’s first interactions with the brand through the aforementioned mobile touch points need to be up to the mark. Only once a brand has fostered consideration does conversational commerce really come into its own. It makes sense that a consumer will only entertain discussing sizes and similar styles, click-and-collect options and ultimately transact within the comfort of a chat app once a brand has won preference

For example, a user searching for a product they have little knowledge about may turn to Google or YouTube videos to get a crash course on the nuances of the product. They may then turn their attention to Twitter hashtags related to the product, as a form of social proofing, to gauge what others are saying about the different offerings on the market. Brands need to ensure they put their best foot forward at these crucial junctures and, in a similar vein to the ‘buy’ buttons that Facebook and Twitter have been experimenting with, encourage frictionless engagement with their bots through 1-click buttons. This is an example of how touch points can work together, ensuring that bots become a natural extension of a consumer’s online purchasing journey.

The same mobile touch points are equally important in a retail setting as consumers regularly engage in ‘showrooming’, which is the practice of researching products on smartphones whilst perusing products in-store and ‘local searching’, which is searching for products, product prices and stock availability in their locality. Researching and honing in on a product will most likely continue to be done through mobile search. Where bots will be useful in a retail context is in providing pricing and local stock availability once a consumer has narrowed down their options. Once again, the brands who will be the winners are those that are best placed to win this ZMOT and drive consumers to their bots in order to complete a transaction, whether that be through the bot itself or in a brick and mortar store a few blocks down.

Conversational commerce will provide a new level of convenience in the e-commerce world and has the potential to improve the retail shopping experience, however it is not the be-all and end-all by any means. Chatbots should be seen as one of many touch points in a coherent mobile strategy. If bots are truly the next big battleground for brands, they will do well to ensure that the rest of their online mobile estate is firing on all cylinders.

Craig Wills is managing director of Hi Mum! Said Dad.