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Chatbots are the future... Or are they?

If you still haven’t heard anything about chatbots, then you must be living under a rock or something, because the rest of the world is getting ready for a chatbot revolution. People try to hide from omnipresent ads in social networks and migrate to messengers (though spam can get you everywhere) and this opens a territory for bots to become a helper. Like with new apps in the App Store back in the day, nowadays almost any decent chatbot gets media attention and thus can bring potential profit to its developer. This topic has become so hot that Facebook has recently announced the opening of a store for chatbots during its F8 conference.

We all know that media can be extremely persuasive. So persuasive that you may start thinking that pretty soon you’ll need to leave all those eye-pleasing widescreen sites in favour of a text environment provided by chatbots. Arguably, it will be easier there to make an appointment, to buy something, or complete some other operations with the help of bots. But will it be more comfortable to do all things you got used to doing on a website or in an app (like choosing menu, scrolling through a gallery of images) with text commands?

Here’s where marketing chimes in. Sometimes you don’t have to persuade users to change their habits (and browsing quality sites can be called a habit). It’s clear that, if needed, some graphic elements can be added to bots, but they won’t kill either websites or apps (we’ve been in this situation before).

Chatbots: Genesis

In fact, chatbots are not something absolutely new. One of the first chatbots ever developed was A.L.I.C.E., created in 1995. But up until recently, they were interesting for a relatively small group of people. Until messengers started utilising them.

The first messenger to use chatbots to their maximum potential was Chinese messenger WeChat. It’s the most popular platform in China, and it's come to a point where you can do almost anything within the app, like paying for your groceries, making appointments with your doctors, paying for public transport, etc., all with the help of chatbots. Isn’t it proof that bots are the next big thing? Actually, no.

Dan Grover, WeChat product manager, states that bots won’t replace apps. Better apps will replace apps (full article here). The main point is this: while bots are really a very useful and quick tool in some situations, they are not a universal tool and they will occupy their own niche, but not replace apps. And I can’t help but agree.

Let’s take a look at the declared advantages of chatbots.

Huge user base

I think this is the very first point provided in favour of bots. And you can’t really argue with it – numbers don’t lie. But what's often left behind the scene is the fact that these numbers show messenger audience but not the audience of your bot. While it’s true that these people are your potential audience, the fact is that most of these people use messengers purely for communication with friends and relatives. And that means your bot can be easily overlooked by the majority of users. At the same time, you can find your target audience who will use your bot actively, but don’t tell me about world domination.

You don’t need to install a new app

Indeed, it’s far easier to start a new conversation with a bot than to install a new application. But another thing is interesting here: pretty often you have so many apps that they just get lost within your smartphone and you forget about them right after installation.

But that's only half the truth. If users start using bots, actively they’ll encounter the same problem. You’ll have to look for the necessary bot among the different conversations with your friends and other bots, so the whole process won’t become easier.

And then, there’s user retention, which means that once in a while (more often, once in a day or a week, than in a while) the company behind the chatbot needs to remind you about its existence. Bots will push your conversations down the list to be in front of your eyes and use push notifications (depends on the developer’s impudence). Imagined the picture? I‘m sure I won’t be the only one to mute/ignore/block these bots.

Bots are cross-platform and cheap

Okay, so this is where you can’t argue. You don’t need designers or developers for different mobile platforms. Just pure back-end which can be done within a day or two. Nothing to add here.

But if we speak about bots we can’t omit the topic of their monetisation. And right now the best way to make money with bots will be by creating them. Bots are the hottest topic today and everyone needs them (even those who can’t tell why they need them) so give it to those who need them!

If we are serious, though, bots are a great means to reduce costs, but not to generate considerable profit. For example, technical support is one area where bots would be a perfect fit by providing immediate answers to the most typical questions. What bots can do best is to bring additional value to your main site or app. Just don’t forget to compare it to your existing means of communication with users. You won’t need the same thing on your site, in the app, and in the bot.

But do consider...

  • Don’t develop a chatbot just because everyone has their own chatbot
  • Don’t change your existing app/product into a chatbot just because everyone has turned their apps into bots
  • Don’t give up on the idea to create your own bot just because of what you’ve read above
  • You need to understand where a bot can be placed in your business process and what improvement it can bring

Eugene Rudenko, senior marketing specialist at Oxagile, a software development company.

Image Credit: Palto / Shutterstock