Veronica Marquez
Jul 14, 2016

If a bot hasn't chatted you up yet, one will soon

Tay.ai was a jerk, but future chatbots could make decent helpers and serve brands' needs as well.

If a bot hasn't chatted you up yet, one will soon

Increasingly, brands are looking for more intimate and agile ways to reach their audiences. A recent piece of work conducted by Flamingo’s digital team explored how customer service is becoming more personal thanks to social media. Another, more scalable approach, is the use of chatbots.

Chatbots are programs that use artificial intelligence (AI) to mimic human conversations—think of Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana. What’s special about these bots is that they can be taught to pick up on users’ preferences or speech style and tailor their responses accordingly. This allows companies to showcase their personalities while gaining the efficiency and accuracy of a robot.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

One simple but widespread application of chatbot technology has been WeChat, the most popular messaging app in China. When one of the app’s 700 million monthly users subscribes to an “official” branded account, bots are typically employed to write a welcome message introducing the account and its services.

Canadian app Kik Messenger has amused its 275 million users with a Bot Shop. For example, the Vine bot responds to users’ texts with a Vine clip related to the text or phrase, Sephora’s bots deliver beauty advice and product reviews, and H&M's offers fashion tips and a chance to purchase clothing.

Most recently, Facebook Messenger, which just hit 900 million monthly users, launched a number of bots on its platform. This is a very attractive opportunity for brands, considering that Facebook and Facebook Messenger are, respectively, the first and second most-used apps in the US.

Facebook Messenger users can now access bots from CNN, 1-800-FLOWERS, HiPoncho, Uber and Spring and Sure, with more on the way, all without leaving the app. In just a few quick messages, users could reserve a table at the city’s hottest restaurant, buy a nice outfit and order flowers for their date.

Shopspring: What colour shoes?

Media channels have started to experiment with bots as well. The Quartz news app delivers stories in an instant-message format, even responding with emojis and gifs, allowing users to consume bite-sized pieces of news as if they were having a conversation with a friend.

Quartz presents news in chatty format

Chatbot technology is still in its infancy, and there’s much to be done to avoid mishaps like Microsoft’s Tay.ai, which was supposed to mimic millennial linguistic trends, but instead started spewing bigoted and racist responses after its learning algorithm was fed nasty content by Internet trolls.

Nevertheless, many are betting on the future of chatbots. With consumers spending more of their time in fewer apps and demanding more authentic interactions, brands need to be able to reach them where they reside online and speak a language that truly resonates. Chatbots have the potential to transform the way consumers communicate with brands by creating conversations that are efficient and fun. Perhaps, in the future, people will be interacting with their favourite brands in the same way they talk to their friends.

Veronica Marquez (left) is a senior researcher and Xiomara Bovell is an intern at Flamingo New York.

 

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