5 things businesses need to know about chatbots

A lot has been said about chatbots, the hottest new technology, over the past several weeks. However, while this may be the first time you’re hearing the literal term 'chatbots', the functionality of a bot has actually been around since the mid-20th Century. And in one form or another they’ve been helping businesses find ways to engage with consumers – sometimes successfully, others – not so much.

Before we dive in to exactly how businesses can benefit from this new wave of chatbots – let’s make sure we’re working within a clear and consistent definition. Simply put, a chatbot is an artificial intelligence technology designed to simulate conversations with human users. Chatbots, as we know them today, can take full control of an account or profile on a messenger or social media app, and can automatically respond to direct text commands with customised messages based on questions asked by analysing keywords and processing natural conversational phrases.

Some are more intelligent than others. What we are finding right now is that most chatbots are taking the scripted route. This means there are a defined set of keywords, questions, answers and topics. Over time, that chatbot becomes more intelligent as a result of the input. However many brands are starting off by playing it safe with scripted bots vs. going the route of intelligence-guided bots like Microsoft Tay.

Now the definition’s been covered, let’s move to the five things businesses need to know about chatbots.

Mobile messaging is the place to be

It’s no longer a question as to whether or not messaging apps should be considered a viable channel for brands to reach and engage consumers. User growth and engagement within messaging apps (e.g. WhatsApp, Viber, Kik) has exploded over the past few years, with digital marketing and research firm, Activate, reporting 2.5 billion people using messaging apps across the world at the end of 2015, a number which is estimated to grow steadily throughout the decade to 3.6 billion by 2018, as more and more people will continue to purchase smartphones and access the mobile web.

Facebook Messenger, which is now home to over 900 million monthly active users, recently announced the public availability of the highly highly anticipated Chat SDK. This new platform integration allows developers to build and launch custom chatbots accounts the Messenger platform. Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated the capabilities of the new Chat SDK at the F8 developer’s conference, sharing new and exciting ways for brands, services and even retail businesses to utilise their new chatbot technology. The demonstration included a Poncho, a weather-based chatbot in the form of a quirky cat character that shared customised weather reports with users, as well as a more traditional retail-focused experience through a live demo of purchasing a bouquet of flowers directly from the Facebook Messenger app by sending messages to the 1-800 Flowers branded chatbot.

Expanded customer service

While we may be a bit far off from a truly automated customer service solution, chatbots are definitely bringing us one step closer. Businesses can launch chatbots across various messaging apps to act as a digital FAQ repository. Users can send messages with questions or comments to the chatbots, who can then in turn respond with pre-determined solutions based on keywords. Additionally, if the user would like to elevate their request, the chatbot can place the user’s inquiry in a holding queue and alert a human customer service representative that they received a new task. Furthermore, chatbots can be used to deploy customer feedback surveys at a tremendous scale – through direct, private messaging. This can ensure that your audience base is comfortable answering specific questions about their experience with your business, as it is in a messaging environment in which they are familiar with, and used to interacting on a regular basis.

Turbo-charged recommendation engine, with a personal touch

Visiting an online store or website and knowing exactly what you are looking for is a great feeling. On the other hand – when you’re not entirely looking for something particular, navigating a retail site through a rudimentary search bar or a 'related items' section can be frustrating. Through artificial intelligence and conversational recognition, chatbots can be used by businesses as a smarter, more personal search bar.

Using the example of a chatbot built for a clothing retailer, a potential customer would be able to engage in a one-to-one conversation with a ‘personal shopper’ bot, who would ask them specific questions as to what they may be interested in – and make direct product recommendations based on their responses. Questions can range from the sort of location/climate the customer is planning on visiting, to their clothing color or size preferences. All of this information can be used to build a buyer profile to further curate a tailored experience for the shopper.

Branded bots will become the new ‘Yellow Pages’

In today’s connected world, one of the fastest and easiest ways to get in touch with anyone – friends, family, or colleagues -- is through a simple text message. Why not extend that to businesses? By launching a branded account page across various messaging apps along with virtual receptionists in the form of a chatbot, businesses and expand their reach and digital presence within messaging app environments – allowing their audiences and customers to search for relevant contact information and immediately engage in a conversation with a company.

Drive bottom line sales

At the end of the day, the goal for most, if not all, businesses is to generate demand for their products and grow their customer base to effectively increasing sales revenue/profits - and chatbots are a great way to do so. As demonstrated by the 1-800 Flowers chatbot on Facebook Messenger, retail businesses can set up virtual storefronts utilising the chatbot interface. Chatbots can act as digital sales representatives, equipped with knowledge of product names, descriptions, images and more – all stored within a back-end database of terms and phrases. Because many of today’s largest messaging apps have grown into larger-scale platforms, many app users already have their purchasing credentials already associated with their messaging profiles, making the buying and check-out process feel seamless – where all of the sales operations and financial transactions are conducted on the back-end.

The sophistication of today’s artificial intelligence technology, paired with growth and the increased use of messaging apps, creates a tremendous opportunity for businesses of all shapes and sizes to consider launching their own chatbots and join the mobile messaging revolution.

Evan Wray, co-founder & VP, Swyft Media