If you listen to chatter lately, you’d be led to believe that casual dining chain restaurants are about to go the way of the dinosaur — a relic of an age when couples, families, and even young singles would go out for drinks and dinner served by friendly staff. Consumers are moving on to better, faster, more shiny offerings for their time and dollars. The fact is, consumers have moved on — but they still need to eat.

But beyond the fight for restaurant share, the new battleground we face is for mindshare. Consumers are spending ever-increasing time on a digital device: sharing, talking, listening. The premise of the old retail adage “Location is everything” still holds true. Today, when we’re not talking about a physical site for any restaurant, we’re talking about being in the right digital real estate. Should I be talking to consumers on Amazon Echo or Kik — or both? Is Facebook enough? How about Twitter? Or, realistically, do I need to be everywhere?

Where the customers are

Clearly the answer is different for every brand, but luckily the continued advancements in automated and learning technologies have created the opportunity for brands to create individual engagement opportunities with consumers where they want to be, not where we think they should be.

This all starts with engaging consumers where they “live” today. GlobalWebIndex surveys show that the average consumer spends over 6 hours a day online, approximately two hours of that on a social platform. The typical consumer today frankly likes to talk and share in the digital space more than in their own physical environment. A great Friday night now entails hours of messaging with friends on what to wear, where to go, who to invite, followed by the actual event of going out and then again back to the digital world to share the experiences, and photos across their extended network of friends.

A few restaurants and chains have responded to the challenge of finding people where they live — in the digital domain. Pizza Hut has a bot that can help you place an order, as does Wingstop.

How does a brand create the relevancy to be considered? How can we ensure that we are a consideration when someone is thinking about a great time out with friends or family?

That’s why TGI Friday’s decided to launch a bot.

Every brand needs have to be part of the conversation even before there is a trigger in a consumer’s mind that they’re hungry or thirsty or looking for a place to hang out with friends. This is where it’s important to focus on digital.

Bot technology will continue to evolve as well to support even greater interactions between brands and consumers. We need to be able to create authentic and individual conversations to support customer feedback, transactions, and personalized messages in an automated fashion. The ability for bot technology to learn is also a critical path we need to understand as we move forward — not to supplant the human interaction, but to support it by ensuring we can quickly divert resources to those conversations that require direct intervention.

We envision bot technology becoming a natural extension of any brand’s customer service and engagement team, utilizing data and analytics to create and deliver specific dialogue relevant to each individual customer. Practically, this takes many forms, but as an example, you could have the capability to offer a specific suggested drink at a bar based upon each customer preference and past purchase behavior before he or she even enter the front door — all messaged through our bot.

Where brands need to be

The roadmap is clear: Creating opportunities for more individual, personalized conversations and engagement is a key first step. A brand’s ability to engage consumers across the digital space is critical and will only grow in relevance over time. But it is only a first step. Remaining relevant and using technology like chatbots will only prove valuable if we use that information to provide value back to the consumer. It’s important to tailor messages and utilize the insights gathered to create a more convenient, fun, and valuable experience for customers.

Bots will help customers move beyond simply asking for menu items, making reservations, and ordering food toward a higher level of engagement: interactive content, social interaction, and problem resolution.

This technology will apply both inside and outside the restaurant. Imagine sitting at the bar, snapping a picture of drink you see next to you and then having a bot respond back with its ingredients, the recipe, some fun facts, or even the latest social media posts mentioning that drink — and if you’re single, maybe even offering a way to buy someone across the bar that drink — all from the device in your hand.

We will also be able to use the bot technology to support social interaction by becoming part of group discussions. Envision our bot being part of the online discussion with some friends as they plan a night out, the brand interacting in real time on the same messaging platform, providing insight on the best table on the patio to enjoy the weather this evening and helping pick out the first round of drinks based upon the discussion occurring among the group online.

There is also the ability to envision a future where traditional call centers and help desks are relics of the past.  The bot technology can become the focal point to engage guests to resolve problems, direct the resolution process, and even provide compensation when/where appropriate.

Given the expected advances in both digital platforms and the growth of learning or A.I. capabilities into the bot realm, the opportunities for bot technology are truly endless. In a not-too-distant world, consumers will be speaking to everything around them — their homes, their cars, and everywhere in between. We’ll be in that world that moves from speaking with our fingers back to speaking with our voices but in a digital medium, having conversations with things versus people. It’s in this world that bot technology will become a greater force and method to engage consumers whenever and wherever they may be.

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