Ever find yourself in an endless game of being put on hold and pushing numbers to try to reach a certain department on a customer service call? Ever find yourself throwing your hands up in frustration and shouting, “WHY CAN’T I JUST TALK TO A REAL PERSON?!”
This sentiment is coloring the way we use the internet. As messaging apps make their way onto more mobile devices and brands follow marketing trends with their own tools like Facebook Messenger for Business, searching for terms and clicking through multiple menus to find what we’re looking for feels increasingly passé every day. It’s hard to know which came first—advanced chatbot technology or the mounting use of chat-based apps—but it’s clear that we’re at an inflection point.
What role will chatbots have in serving consumers, and how does their adoption affect brands’ current methods of reaching people?
The explosive popularity of WhatsApp, WeChat, Kik, Facebook Messenger, and Slack has shown that we’re chat-crazy. Two years ago, Facebook made headlines when it bought WhatsApp for $14 billion—a price that now (almost) looks like a bargain. Innovations in browser and mobile messaging have brought a much friendlier, more conversational element to everything from quotidian chats among friends to collaborative professional discussions. Email has always felt a little stiff and formal for quick back-and-forths, and emailing a business usually entails finding some super-generic contact email and hoping the person who reads it is prompt and helpful.
Chat brings queries into real-time, so you can sit down and get an answer without being put on hold or having to listen to awful music while you pull all your hair out. One of the latest marketing trends, chatbots, goes a step further to meet customers where they already are—on Kik, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger—minimizing the need for one-off apps for various services. It used to be cool for airlines to have apps that let you check your flight status and bring up a digital boarding pass. Now, Royal Dutch Airlines KLM has upped the ante by letting you manage your trip and receive a boarding pass through Facebook Messenger. In so doing, KLM has eliminated two traditional pain points for airline customers—the dreaded call to their customer service line and the question of what to do with the boarding pass, especially in the digital age.
I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve downloaded and deleted random airlines’ apps for one-off trips, nor can I explain how grateful (and mostly surprised) I am when I actually have a pleasant customer service experience when I need an airline’s help with something. The appeal of having consistently great interactions on an app I already use daily is high, and bots promise consistency and the ability to easily meet customers on whatever platform they prefer. Not only can bots easily converse on multiple messaging platforms, but messaging platforms have already done the heavy lifting of accommodating different operating systems, which means that brands no longer have to fret over app compatibility.
The top four messaging apps alone boast over 3 billion users, which is a staggering amount of the world that can be reached through the modern version of a one-on-one conversation. Just as social media platforms are seeking to absorb the internet, several chat apps are trying to absorb major marketers’ business into their own apps. Instead of needing an individual airline app, users can now chat to change their seats, check on flight statuses, and receive boarding passes. Conversations are inherently opt-in experiences, which allow brands to create more human bonds with their customers while allowing sales to feel more like a choice and less like the increasingly-outdated outbound marketing that emails are known for.
While retail shopping has been suffering at the hands of online sites for a long time, there are a few things that we simply can’t get from clicking through brands’ websites. One, the physical experience of ‘space’ and touching the items for sale, is difficult to replicate digitally. But, with bots, we’re increasingly seeing brands’ ability to offer the free, value-added service of advice without having hundreds of humans online 24/7 to field questions individually. Whether you’re looking for a t-shirt or makeup or trying to schedule a complicated series of flights, it often helps to have the input of someone who’s familiar with the brand’s full scope of options instead of hopelessly clicking through endless tabs of various complexity. And now, that personalized help doesn’t require glitchy, one-off brand apps or daunting amounts of manpower.
Facebook is betting big on bots because its famously visionary CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, sees the global shift away from apps and toward chat. The United States is actually lagging behind China’s WeChat in that regard, but all major markets are doubling down on the trend. It’s clear that the future is mobile, but it’s not app-driven—at least, not in the way many originally thought. Nobody wants to have an app on their phone for every brand they shop or every airline they’ve ever flown. Everybody wants better, more personalized customer experience.
Even though chatbots aren’t actually people, as they continue to improve, they’ll offer an even more human experience while providing consistency and a branded voice that go beyond what human customer service representatives can provide. And they’ll deliver more information in a more favorable format, which will lead to better branding, customer service, and e-commerce opportunities across industries. As automated conversation keeps getting better, finding the things or information we need will get even better. It’s much nicer to ask for help and receive it immediately than to click all over the internet or wait on hold for what can feel like (and sometimes is) hours on end.
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