If tech industry predictions come true, some of our most important interactions with brands will soon occur via chatbots.
Facebook recently opened up its Messenger service to branded chatbots, meaning companies can now create bots to converse with the platform’s 900 million users. As the technology develops, users could ultimately purchase items via chatbots, ask customer service questions, check into flights, or get advice about what to wear for today’s weather. Social media marketing, one of the key ways brands currently engage with fans, could take on a whole new meaning.
If chatbots explode—as many experts seem to think they will—brand interaction won’t be the only big change. Search marketing, too, could look profoundly different, as users spend more time interacting with chatbots and less time reviewing search engine results. Branded apps may also become obsolete, since users will interact with brands via the messaging apps they already favor. On the upside, searching for information and discovering content could get a lot more efficient. Instead of sifting through an airline’s cumbersome website, for example, a user could message a chatbot to get an immediate answer. Moreover, chatbots offer personalized, one-to-one user interaction—a coveted marketing tactic.
It all hinges on one key thing, however: bots better get better at acting human.
Content discovery expanded beyond simple search a long time ago, but intelligent chatbots could put a few more nails in the search coffin.
Mobile users already spend significantly more time in apps versus mobile web browsers, or about 3 hours and 15 minutes per day in apps versus 51 minutes in browsers, eMarketer reported.
In addition, messaging apps have now surpassed social media apps when it comes to attracting more active users, according to Business Insider. Chatbots could allow users to discover content from the comfort of their favorite messaging apps, further marginalizing mobile browsers and other, less popular apps.
In addition to the convenience factor, intelligent chatbots could make search more efficient. Instead of scrolling through reams of content to find desired information, users can ask a chatbot their question and get an answer immediately. If bots get really good at delivering personalized, learned content recommendations, that will further increase their value compared to traditional search. The more people rely on chatbots for things like business reviews or product information, the less time they’ll spend on Google with search queries.
Uber’s Chris Messina dubbed the trend “conversational commerce.” With users increasingly using messaging apps, it makes sense that people will eventually utilize chat or messaging to interact with brands, services, and bots as well. In addition to disrupting search, conversational commerce could supplant social media as a touchpoint between users and brands; one-to-one conversations trump one-to-many.
“The net result is that you and I will be talking to brands and companies over Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram, Slack, and elsewhere before year’s end, and will find it normal,” Messina wrote.
Brands are already developing chatbots with decent conversational capabilities. Taco Bell’s TacoBot, currently being tested on the messaging platform Slack, can help users navigate the chain’s menu or answer questions about its favorite movie, in addition to placing orders. Sephora’s chatbot on messaging app Kik can deliver beauty product recommendations and tutorials, Forbes reported. Facebook Messenger users can already request an Uber ride via the messaging app, without the need to download the Uber app or leave the conversation.
The chatbots, while nifty, still feel obviously computerized at present. Users have already lambasted the early Facebook chatbots for being “frustrating and useless.” When users deviate from the script or attempt more human-like conversational interactions, the bots quickly get confused. “I spent more time trying to guess what these little bots wanted to hear then actually talking to them,” Gizmodo’s Darren Orf recounted.
These early bot iterations seem to have more in common with automated phone systems: They are able to recognize a few key words or phrases for simple customer service interactions, but horrible at basically anything else.
Still, it’s not that hard to imagine chatbots taking the reigns from customer service representatives one day. Customer service phone calls with actual human beings are already highly scripted—so scripted, in fact, that call centers need tips on how to sound like real people instead of robots. Live customer service chats are similarly stilted, and a lot of social media marketing isn’t far behind. Instead of teaching the humans to be less robotic, maybe it’s easier to teach the robots to be more human.
Messina certainly thinks its possible. “Computer-driven bots will become more human-feeling, to the point where the user can’t detect the difference, and will interact with either human agent or computer bot in roughly the same interaction paradigm,” he wrote.
If the technology allows it, chatbots could allow a personal, two-way conversation between brands and consumers—and do it at scale. Only time will tell if these new conversations will have users screaming the online equivalent of “operator!” to try and get a human on the case.