Blame Facebook. The social networking giant's Messenger application has been touted by many as the holy grail of customer communication and many large companies have looked to leverage the app to connect with its user base in increasingly inventive ways. Mastercard Inc, for example, launched Kai, a bot for banks that makes it possible for Facebook Messenger users to check activity on their credit, debit and loan accounts and set up financial-management tools, the Wall Street Journal reported recently. Another Mastercard bot for merchants lets customers make purchases by sending a Facebook message and paying with Mastercard’s digital wallet.
The meteoric rise of Facebook Messenger bots
Given that Facebook Messenger had zero bots in February 2016 and over 18,000 by July, according to Katy Keim, CMO at Lithium Technologies, the power of Facebook in this space is difficult to ignore. “It took WhatsApp seven years to reach a billion users, but Facebook Messenger achieved this in less than five. So it’s definitely growing, but the technology is still rough, however, with a lot of incorrect information being shared and disappointed end-users. It shows a lot of promise, but there’s still a long way to go,” she says.
Toby Barnes, Group Product Strategy Director at AKQA, says that what makes Facebook’s foray into chatbots so interesting is that it not only launched a bot infrastructure but recently opened up its development tools to the public, making it incredibly easy to build simple bots, without any experience or coding skills.
“Many startups are building on these tools to help consumers engage with brands through their mobile devices in interesting and creative ways,” he says, citing examples such as the Domino’s chatbot, which enables customers to order a pizza through Facebook Messenger, and Everlane, one of the first brands to partner with Facebook after it launched Messenger Bots in beta in 2015, which incorporated Facebook’s services into its checkout page to allow consumers to opt-in to receive updates after making a purchase.
Activision created a bot on in partnership with AKQA. The bot played one of the lead characters from the latest Call of Duty games giving fans a first peek at the game in a unique way to interact with the story. The potential to integrate chatbots into unique models seems endless.
Tom McDonnell, CEO of Monterosa, says that while chat bots have potential for both entertainment and utilitarian uses, neither have yet found a 'killer app' that puts bots on the map. He believes, though, that 2017 will see major TV shows adopt bots on Messenger, Telegram and other platforms as a way of allowing audiences to interact, vote and play-along with shows. “Sports will refine its approach and provide better access to content through messaging. It only takes one big hit to drive awareness and introduce bots to a wider audience,” he says.
Chatbots hold tremendous promise to reduce the friction of serving more customers with lightweight, service-oriented interactions, according to Nigel Arthur, Managing Director (EMEA) at Urban Airship. He adds that the biggest realisation is that chatbots serve consumer-sparked interactions.
The vast potential for bots beyond Facebook
“With Facebook Messenger, a chatbot cannot proactively message someone unless they’ve engaged with that particular chatbot within the last 24 hours,” he says. “Chatbot experiences are also taking place within a very personal environment as Facebook Messenger’s core purpose is messaging between Facebook contacts. So there’s a naturally high bar for user value and utility that invites business interaction without being invasive.”
For Barnes, Facebook Messenger is not the killer app for chatbots. He says that, although Facebook has 1.79 billion monthly active users, it is still only appropriate for some audiences. “Younger audiences are continuing to stay away from Facebook, so if your brand is focused on younger generation Z customers it may be cautious to think about how your audience interacts with you via Facebook,” he says, adding that the key to developing useful and functional services through chat bots is to focus on the service itself not the delivery front end.
Most experts agree that Slack, Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Amazon Echo are also important options to explore, and, Kik, which has been adopted by H&M and Sephora among others should be in the consideration set.
For Dr. Rutu Mulkar-Mehta, CEO of Ticary Solutions and Professor at Northeastern University, Seattle, the push towards chatbots is part of a new wave of Artificial Intelligence, which enables end users to communicate directly with machines that are programmed to converse with humans. It is not a case of a one-hit wonder, either. Mulkar-Mehta says that several message interfaces such as Facebook Messenger are perfect avenues for deploying chatbots on already existing chat frameworks.
Mulkar-Mehta says that chatbots offer a huge advantage over live communication channels, as they provide instant feedback to an end user without requiring human resources; they are also more powerful than search engines, as they can potentially perform various Question Answering (QA) based functions that traditional Information Retrieval (IR) based systems such as search engines are unable to do.
She explains that chatbots - like the general space of Natural Language Processing (NLP) – face the issue of requiring a lot of domain dependent modelling in order to be smart and effective.
For instance, she explains, Kai, a Mastercard chatbot, can answer questions about your recent financial transactions, and aggregate that information to the user in a usable and useful manner. “This chatbot needs to know about arithmetic, searching user logs, answering generic questions about MasterCard and also how to identify critical vs regular questions. This is an assimilation of quite a few areas of NLP research such as - Question Answering, Keyword Identification, Information Retrieval, Sentiment Analysis, among others,” she says.
Mulkar-Mehta adds that each chatbot needs to be carefully developed to address questions regarding the domain that it needs to be an expert in. A weather bot, for example, needs to be aware of all keywords related the weather, resources about how to find weather instantaneously, and the current colloquial language talking about weather. “It is inconceivable to use a weather bot for another purpose – like making it into a shopping bot. Additionally, the strategy behind building a bot should be well conceived and thought out,” she says, citing the example of Home Depot, which has a service on its website that helps people find the exact location of the object they are looking for - with the aisle and bay number.
“Macy’s – along with IBM Watson – has tried to implement a similar service using a chatbot, but it is hard to imagine people using this location based service in a store where identifying markers are unstructured and relative,” she says.
Dave Campbell, Vice President of Customer Engagement & Support at LogMeIn, the company behind BoldChat, a live chat and customer engagement, says that one of the biggest appeals of chatbots is that they are a low cost option for helping customers get answers to their questions efficiently. “However, it is worth remembering that chatbots are powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and, in their current form, perform best with narrow and tightly defined instructions,” he says, adding that while they are wonderful and cost-effective, they are not for every brand or every situation.
“Low-touch questions like resetting a password, for example, can be handled through AI. For more complex issues, human-to-human engagement is likely a better and more efficient choice,” he adds.
The new era of Conversational Commerce
Gordon Hui, VP of Strategy for Smart Design, explains that Messenger-enabled experiences are part of a larger evolution known as Conversational Commerce, where chatbots, text, and natural language interfaces are fundamentally changing how brands communicate and engage with their customers. “As mobile transactions continue to grow and artificial intelligence tools like IBM Watson become more commonplace, Conversational Commerce provides a different and potentially more engaging way to interact with users,” he says. “Equally important, Conversational Commerce integrations eliminate the user friction associated with downloading and installing native apps.”
Sebastian Reeve, director of product management at Nuance Communications, believes that chatbots could come at a heavy price when security and privacy are concerned. “Nuance believe that organisations should offer automated capabilities, like answering questions about products and services in channels such as messaging, but think carefully whether these channels are the best fit for secure transactions or for offering specific advice requiring deep customer knowledge and context,” he says, adding that, in these cases, organisations should perhaps hand the conversation seamlessly to a more secure, established channel to ensure customer privacy and security needs are being properly met.
Craig Besnoy, digital transformation specialist at Mindtree, emphasises that chatbots are ideal for straightforward applications such as processing orders, getting product information or finding stores. “But they don’t do anything and everything. For organisations with long queues, busy call centres or seasonal online peaks in traffic, chatbots offer an excellent way to deliver better customer service by answering questions quickly and accurately. But, there will still be the need for them to have ‘human colleagues’ to deal with more complex queries,” he says.
For Besnoy, chatbots have demonstrated success in three areas: customer service and tech support, aiding purchase decisions and delivering workplace and personal assistance.
“Even simple interactions could have an impact on businesses. Instead of waiting in a long phone queue to tell someone you’re moving house, for example, it could all be done in a few minutes by tapping a message on WhatsApp,” he says.
Jeremy Belcher, a freelance UX consultant who has worked with brands like Google, YouTube, DirecTV, Emirates, Hartz, and more, launched his new bot consultancy called X-Machine recently. He warns, though, that brands must avoid jumping into the bot frenzy without a solidly defined plan for what the bot should do or why they should build one in the first place.
“Many brands made this mistake with apps when they first appeared, in that every brand approached their agency to build an app because the common refrain was that everyone ‘needed’ one,” he says. “Most of them ended up as basically useless, and in most cases were pulled from the app stores shortly thereafter, amounting to not much more than an expensive mistake.”
Belcher adds that, if a brand is interested in creating a bot, they should follow a clear process.
Keim of Lithium Technologies says that using chatbots can be hazardous if they are not properly deployed. “They can seem inhuman, cold and artificial. On the other hand, if done right, chatbots can increase response times and lead to faster resolutions of customer enquiries, allowing resources to be deployed on more complex customer service opportunities,” she says.
She concludes that the trick is picking the right, simple scenarios that bots are capable of handling.
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