What do we mean when we say bots solve the discovery problem?

Much of the early excitement around bots has been predicated not just upon the idea that developers and businesses have a problem reaching new customers via apps, but also that the end user has the problem of finding new apps to download. So enter the dream of bots: a frictionless way to message a service inside an app you’re already using where you can easily install software without really having to do much. Installing new apps becomes trivial and the status-quo preserving gatekeepers of the App Store / Play store are bypassed. Discovery problem solved. Bango.

There’s a pretty obvious problem here: outside of the tech early adopter community (and honestly, even within it), users don’t have the “problem” of not being able to find new apps and easily install them. They might have the problem of finding accurate weather info in a new city and search the app store, but that presupposes a high level of intent and awareness. It requires that the user has some idea that there’s a solution to this problem in an app store.

Launching a new social app, marketplace or even niche productivity tool is hard not simply because the person has to download an app, install it and enter their iTunes password. It’s hard because you need to get people to care about problems for which they don’t know there is a solution, or even problems that they may not know they have. You need to find a way to get to them, whether it’s through word of mouth, paid search or social. The app store is simply not enough because categories that the user knows to search for on the app store have already been well served by existing players.

We’ve all heard it, and sometimes it can sting for people in the startup world to be reminded of this but: users simply don’t need another app. The “problem” here for users is basically nonexistent, and the problem for developers is less app discovery than it is awareness and creating a relationship with the customer that doesn’t start with the Top 150 list on the App Store.

So bots are screwed, right? Most of the bots out there are pretty dumb and unpolished, and their stumbles have been roundly ridiculed in screenshots on social media. All this hype from techies, VCs and Facebook is predictably misplaced shiny object chasing, and it’s another example of Silicon Valley trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist with cool technology. The doubters may very well turn out to be right, and I do think that bots are decently overhyped (which is not a very original view, and I don’t pat myself on the back for holding it 🐸☕️). But there are the seeds of new, novel and powerful use cases in the ashes of this narrative, and I actually think the biggest impact of chatbots in consumer will stem from bringing services and intelligent agents into users’ conversations with their friends. This looks to be missing from Facebook’s current Messenger Platform iteration, but I have no doubt that we will someday soon see gain the ability to add a bot to a Messenger chat of any size and interact with it together.

If the bot store migrated into the share sheet, users could explicitly share services for their friends to interact with on a demo basis and potentially add to their own Facebook contact book. Most successful new apps (and especially ones that need to build a graph and achieve network-effect critical mass) are very much spread at the beginning by a core evangelist in each group of friends who loves the product (or the idea of the product), and who persuades their friends to join them in using it. The potential to remove those barriers for that kind of user, by arming them with a proposition to their friends to try something without having to download or sign up for anything, shouldn’t be overlooked.

Services delivered via bots could actually indirectly solve for “discovery” in this sense. Supercharging word of mouth and helping power users convert their friends might prove to be very powerful advantages for services delivered via bots. But an even more exciting implication of mixed chats between friends and bots is the potential for truly multiplayer experiences inside of Messenger et al. You could imagine a digital bartender bot could take a group’s order for the night and fulfill it with a delivery service. Or maybe a group gift shopping tool that let users view a carousel of potential outfits to discuss, vote on and ultimately purchase. Perhaps none of these “going out” apps haven’t taken off because they actually just belonged inside of a rich conversation between friends and a robot ticket agent.

Much of our economic lives are social, and our social lives have a huge economic component to it. We constantly make group decisions on what to do, where to go, what to buy. Don’t be surprised if conversational commerce turns out to be as much about commerce weaved into our existing conversations as it is about texting a computer.