Machines Of Loving Grace: Messaging, Personalization & AI

On Feb. 1, WhatsApp announced a major milestone: 1 billion active monthly users, sending a total of 42 billion messages per day. Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, also has 800 million active monthly users for its Messenger: people who use the app not just to send messages and emojis, but to wire money and order an Uber.

If you add WeChat and Viber to that list, the top four messaging apps combined have three billion users. Even assuming some duplication across user bases, this is an astoundingly large number. It’s as if, while the media ecosystem wasn’t looking, an entirely new planet appeared on the horizon.

Brands go where the consumers are. This was true of search, social and mobile, and it will be true of messaging. In the U.S., 49% of smartphone owners ages 18 to 29 use messaging apps, and that number is only growing.

For a consumer, the great thing about messaging is that it’s so easy. Conversations are consistently synced and up-to-date, even across devices. Everything is organized and contextualized, and the experience is frictionless and personal. And with mobile commerce built right in to the messaging experience itself (see Uber’s integration with Messenger last year, and WeChat in China), there are fewer reasons to leave.

And that’s the challenge for brands. How do you engage with hundreds or thousands of consumers on a 1:1 basis inside a real-time chat environment, and make the experience feel personal?

The new Quartz app is one approach. It reimagines what journalism in a native smartphone environment should be like, by offering an ongoing, interactive conversation about the news. It’s a fun, light experience (even when the topics are heavy).

But what if you’re not a content publisher, and you’re more focused on integrating with existing platforms? The answer might be bots. Bots are used to automate repetitive, high-volume tasks, freeing up human time to focus on higher-value tasks. The enterprise messaging platform Slack, for example, has had great success with its approach to bots, publishing a list of “brilliant bots”and allowing you to write your own.

Automation is not the same thing as personalization, though, and this is where AI steps in. By giving bots the ability to learn, often through human assistance, we get closer to a tailored, individualized experience. Facebook’s virtual assistant “M” is an example of this, as is Microsoft’s Cortana. And third-party developers have entered the space. Sony Pictures recently used technology from startup Msg.ai to power conversations between users on Facebook Messenger and one of the characters from “Goosebumps.”

Should you believe these to be isolated, rare examples of AI-enabled personalization, this Product Hunt list (curated by Chris Messina, experience lead at Uber), will make you think otherwise.

For a brand, personalization at scale within messaging environments almost requires some kind of AI. Thankfully, the smartphone environment is rich with user-specific data — from sensors, the OS, and apps — making personalization easier.

Soon, having a meaningful conversation with a bot won’t be as weird as it sounds.

  • Written by Josh Engroff, Managing Partner at kbs+ Ventures