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What Chatbots Mean for Brands

Tech companies and the media that follows them have gone crazy for chatbots in the last few months. Since there have been quite a few changes since we published our take on conversational interfaces in January, it’s time to review and help brands understand what all the buzz is about.

Why chatbots and why now?

Apple and Google currently have a stranglehold on the part of consumer media time that’s growing — mobile — due to their ownership of smartphone operating systems and app distribution. The fight to control the next phase is reaching a fever pitch for both other tech titans Facebook and Microsoft and an array of startups.

There are good reasons to believe that messaging apps could be the platform of the future as everyone studies and attempts to replicate the success of WeChat in China as it branched from messaging to customer service, online and offline commerce, and more. They already have the scale: the four biggest messaging apps are both bigger and still growing faster than the four biggest social networks and, except for WeChat, their ability to directly connect consumers and businesses is almost entirely untapped. There is a lot of focus on that combination of reach, engagement, and potential monetization.

via Business Insider

Branded apps can come with a much higher upfront cost than bots and then a lot of work and paid media to get users to download them. Chatbots avoid that hurdle of convincing users to install your app. Your customers just need to find you in an app they already open everyday and already know exactly how to use.

While a voice interface (e.g., phone call or through Amazon’s Alexa) requires an immediate response, text allows for delays measured in seconds or even hours, just as when you text a friend. This allows us to mix automated answers with human-powered responses, and incrementally increase automation over time.

How do chatbots work?

We think about it similarly to the way a web user accesses a website. The user has to use a web browser, software running on their local device, to access a site that is put together in content and style with software running on a server anywhere on the internet. While any web browser (we’ll refrain from Internet Explorer jokes) can access any website, bots take just a little setup to work with different messaging platforms.

Once developed, the “hard part” (the logic, server-side backend, or brain) of a bot’s functionality is portable to Facebook Messenger, Kik, SMS, and elsewhere, and it might make sense to promote your chatbot on different platforms for different markets or audiences even if the functionality is the same. In most cases, brands should start with Facebook Messenger and expand from there. Most functionality can also be extended to voice platforms like Amazon Alexa.

Brand bots can reach consumers on a variety of platforms

While all of the messaging platforms that have opened to bots allow software services to connect with users and usually with groups, they each have their own quirks that go beyond text. Facebook Messenger allows a carousel that’s a great fit to show a few product suggestions. Telegram can replace the keyboard making multiple choice responses dead simple. And WeChat, of course, has integrated HTML5 widgets that effectively give the functionality of a website right within the chat app.

Lots of service providers are popping up to make bot development easier and to deal with all of those messaging platform differences, so the ecosystem is expanding and changing rapidly. There are new chatbot startups almost everyday, all specializing in a specific combination of functionality and complexity. We are constantly meeting with and vetting these providers so that we know where to turn for your unique brand needs.

What can chatbots do?

While the media hype the last few months might have implied otherwise, bots can be a great solution for only a few domains. One of the best is customer service: a bot could replace many or most call center functions, dramatically decreasing that cost center. Customer service tools like Zendesk and Wise.io can now integrate with messaging apps as well as email, automating replies to common questions and requests and reducing the load on customer service teams.

Bots can also be great at performing tasks like placing an order and delivering specific information like a shipping status or appointment time that a customer specifically asks for. There’s also a lot to gain in consumer insights: unprompted with an empty chat box and a blinking cursor, what do your customers ask for?

Chatbots are also good for curated product discovery if it is focused on one to three options; personalized, 1-on-1 conversation with customers that’s hard to replicate in other ways; and adding or extending personality to a brand or product. Another benefit is that the software can seamlessly hand off complex requests to humans. Chatbots have that flexibility because, just like text or email, we don’t expect a response in milliseconds whereas on a phone call or with a voice interface we expect a response immediately.

What can’t chatbots do?

Focusing on those areas where bots can be great is your best bet but there are some appealing areas that we avoid. Browsing is the most important. Ten blue links or a grid of product photos simply do not work on this kind of interface. Also, a broad scope is trouble. The best chatbots guide users to questions that the bots can answer. Last, we can’t cold call. All messaging platforms currently restrict access such that customers must make the first contact, so we’ll need to walk through all the ways to make sure customers know about your bot and get them to say hi first.

How we can help

The IPG Media Lab has experience with chatbots for a range of functionality and complexity as well as relationships with most companies in the ecosystem. Please contact IPG Media Lab Client Services Director Samantha Holland to get started building chatbots for your brand or client.

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The media futures agency of IPG Mediabrands

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