What are chatbots and how do they work?

A brief introduction to journalism’s latest little helper

Chatbots are computer programs that primarily function as question-and-answer services, allowing users to ask questions and receive answers that are drawn from a series of pre-programmed responses.

Users already engage with chatbots on a surprisingly large scale. Consider the last time you called a bank: a computer program answered and asked you to tell it what you wanted by using the numbers on your phone’s touch tone dial pad or by simply speaking your request into the microphone.

Often, the interactions between users and chatbots occurs in the form of text-based communications; examples include text messaging and Facebook messenger. But many online customer service platforms have been using chatbots for some time to help stem the amount of incoming phone calls, frequently asked questions, and other common customer service concerns.

The user typically types a question and, based on certain keywords and phrases in that question, the chatbot searches its database to find and deliver the appropriate response. In many ways, chatbots are like search engines that deliver one result instead of many (although they can do that, too, if necessary).

How are chatbots being used most effectively?

  • Uber runs a chatbot through which you can order a ride.
  • Restaurant chains like Taco Bell and Dominos have chatbots for ordering food.
  • HelloVote is a chatbot by HeadCount that helps users register to vote.
  • IcelandAir is an airline that lets users search for and book flights.
  • Purple is a chatbot that provides interactive election updates.
  • The new Quartz app lets users interact with the news entirely via chatbot, unlike most other mobile news apps.
  • Twitter bots were active during the recent US presidential election.
  • The Washington Post is building chatbots to deliver news to its readers.
  • The European Journalism Observatory is exploring whether news bots can do public interest journalism.
  • Some companies are even using Slack chatbots to improve the onboarding experience for new employees.

In general, the most effective uses of chatbots seem to be those that are centered around convenience and easy access. Bots that allow users to quickly access the information they desire tend to be the most effective. Therefore, it is important for publications to keep the intent and purpose of their bot in mind when building and implementing it.

What are some best practices when it comes to chatbots?

DO: Build a bot that tells your story
William Mora of ChatbotNews Daily writes about his experience building a personal resume bot. In the post, Mora talks about the importance of building a bot that tells the story of an individual, but it’s easy to see why this lesson can and should be applied when building a bot that will represent an entire publication. Through its interactions with various users, a bot should embody and convey the values, style, and overall personality of the organization.

DON’T: Expect bots to replace your entire user experience
Chatbots are not supposed to completely replace all existing aspects of your publication’s user experience. As bots become more sophisticated and commonplace, however, there will be a temptation to try and have the bots take over as much of the workload as possible. There is a point of diminishing returns to be aware of here.

DO: Use bots for topics with a narrow scope of expertise
Most bots use decision trees to respond to user inputs, and most of their answers are therefore pre-determined and pre-programmed. That means your bots won’t have a sense of “general intelligence” and they likely won’t be able hold an elaborate conversation with a user. Therefore, it’s important to clearly define the scope of expertise for your bot (e.g., weather, restaurant listings, etc.).

DON’T: Be afraid to use bots internally
Pep AI wrote about how companies are using Slack bots to improve the onboarding experience for new employees for Chatbot Daily News. Chances are, there is plenty of institutional knowledge floating around your newsroom. Why not solidify and centralize that knowledge into a convenient FAQ chatbot for new hires to probe and explore? Strategies like this have been shown to not only improve employee knowledge, but they can also cut down on the amount of time and effort required to bring new employees into the fold and get them up to speed.

DO: Review user interactions to improve bot outputs
To keep things fresh, it’s important to review the requests and interactions from customers and enhance the answers to improve their usefulness and relevance. Try to incorporate colloquialisms and other common elements of speech when appropriate. At the same time, it’s important to do this in moderation. Try not to go overboard with the slang, homie.

DON’T: Assume that bots are always the answer
Bots don’t make sense if the number and diversity of the inputs available are too limited. Actions that require very few steps or processes are often better off as simple click actions, instead of requiring users to go through the hassle of asking a bot. Finding the email address for the news desk, for example, doesn’t necessarily require the assistance of a bot. This type of information can just as easily be displayed on a “Contact Us” page, which is the standard for most websites.

What are the potential costs and revenue opportunities for your news organization?

COST: Chatbot development and implementation
Creating a piece of software is a complex process in and of itself. Developing software that will often serve as the face of your entire organization is another story entirely. It will cost money and it will cost time. Many people use services like howmuchtomakeanapp.com to get a sense of how much money it would cost to develop a piece of software. The process is even more expensive because it requires almost constant updating and maintenance.

OPPORTUNITY: Direct customer service and sales capabilities
Chatbots allow a publication to directly communicate with each user at the exact time when they are most interested in your publication. That same chatbot can easily tackle massive sales and order fulfillment functions normally assigned to entire teams.

OPPORTUNITY: Conversational commerce
As we have seen with companies like Dominos and Taco Bell, chatbots allow users, customers, and subscribers to purchase goods and services via simple and intimate conversations. The Chinese app WeChat allows users to “access services to hail a taxi, order food delivery, buy movie tickets, play casual games, check in for a flight, send money to friends, access fitness tracker data, book a doctor appointment, get banking statements, pay the water bill, find geo-targeted coupons, recognize music, search for a book at the local library, meet strangers around you, follow celebrity news, read magazine articles, and even donate to charity … all in a single, integrated app.”

Learn more about chatbots:


Joe Amditis is the associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media. Contact him at amditisj@mail.montclair.edu.

About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. The Center is supported with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Democracy Fund. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.

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