There’s a lot of buzz lately that bots are the new apps, and that they represent the next paradigm shift in marketing technology. While it’s too early to tell signal from noise, it’s clear that the early developments surrounding bots are unleashing a wave of innovation for brands.
I spoke with more than a dozen executives to learn what bot implementations hold the most promise. These executives are at the front lines of bot adoption and, across the board, they pointed to customer service as the starting point and new user experiences as the future.
Here are 10 ways that bots can help brands and marketers better connect with their customers, drawn from what I learned.
1. Improve customer service
Bots can help companies save time and money within call centers, where bots can maintain multiple concurrent conversations – far more than any human, said Beerud Sheth, CEO of smart messaging platform Gupshup.
And, Adam Cohen-Aslatei, senior director of marketing at advertising company Jun Group, said this means high-quality customer service can be standardized with bots.
However, Sheth noted any business that wants to have a bot answer a broad spectrum of questions is going to have to invest time and money in programming it. There’s a lot of complexity in determining the multitude of queries and permutations in a bot-to-human communication.
“Customer service is definitely the low-hanging fruit,” said Ben Kosinski, head of the Collaboratory, the innovation unit at marketing agency iCrossing. “There are only a set number of outcomes and consumers don’t like being on hold or going to an FAQ to try to find the question they want to ask or need help with.”
“They can directly ask a bot on a familiar platform like Messenger, which helps consumers,” said Kosinksi. “[For] “brands, it’s about going to where consumers are.”
However, for his part, Eddie Francis, research director at market research agency Alter Agents, said by the time someone calls or starts an online chat with customer service, they usually have a significant problem. He cautions that having already gone through various channels for help, customers want someone to understand their problem and know the best solution.
“Current bots are improving quickly, but they still lack empathy and a strong command of spoken language, making already poor brand interactions even worse,” Francis said.
2. Facilitate ecommerce
A natural extension of bot-based customer service is ecommerce, within a one-on-one curated experience, according to Collaboratory’s Kosinski.
In other words, consumers asking a bot questions about products can, in theory, go on to complete related transactions via the bot as well.
Indeed, Francis agreed that bots offer brands a significant opportunity to fulfill orders quickly and efficiently.
Paul Gray, director of platform services at chat network Kik, explained that because the interaction with bots is conversational, it makes ecommerce a very easy experience. “There’s nothing to install or learn – it’s just like talking to someone where they want to guide you,” he said.
3. Provide better, more personal engagement
And it’s that conversational element that offers potential for relationship-building via bots as well.
“They allow the brand to be more than a brand and become a best friend,” Kosinski said. “Sephora has done a great job on Kik. It understands what customers want and provides relevant curated information.” The Sephora Kik bot can quickly guide customers to the types of cosmetics they want based on only a few queries.
There’s also the example of text-message-based music retail service ReplyYes’s conversational commerce channel, The Edit, which sends subscribers personalized text messages each day with a vinyl record album recommendation. If subscribers want to purchase it, they text back “Yes.” According to a ReplyYes spokesperson, The Edit generated $1 million in sales in its first eight months.
“We’ve had customers ask us out on dates, get into deep discussions about what some album lyrics really mean, ask for relationship advice, ask if they can come to the offices and hang out, and even invite us to parties,’” said Dave Cotter, CEO of ReplyYes. “It shows how intimate this kind of ecommerce channel is [versus] a traditional website or app. It’s all about the conversation.”
4. Enhance customers’ experience
And, of course, there’s the opportunity to surprise and delight. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recognized this when unveiling the first bots for the Messenger platform at the recent F8 developer conference. He described how bots can eliminate many of the hassles consumers face in calling brands or installing new apps.
Or, as Jonathan James, director of product management at advocate marketing software firm Influitive, put it, bots allow brands to bridge the physical and digital worlds and deliver incomparable experiences.
“Imagine sitting at a baseball game and you want a drink, but the lines are long and there’s no concession person in sight. You could download the stadium app, install it, create an account, enter your seat number, enter your credit card, order and hope your drink shows up, or you could open Facebook Messenger, scan a code on the seat in front of you that already has your seat location in it, order a drink that’s billed to your credit card that Messenger already has and you’re done,” James said. “That’s a magical experience that would be hard to go back from once encountered.”
5. Address customers’ needs in real-time
Bots enable brands to give consumers what they want, when they want it. As Sheth puts it, bots offer brands the opportunity to enable instant, personalized, conversational interactions with customers through the entire customer life cycle. They can be used to generate awareness, motivate interest, enable purchase, support usage and drive engagement and referral.
Richard Smullen, CEO of mobile messaging app Pypestream, concurs. “In order to make messaging work for you so consumers don’t have a bad experience, you should stick a bot on the backend. The bot can take care of the interaction that needs to be enacted with a consumer in real-time, so the bot is there to make the business seem more efficient, informative and reactive to consumers’ questions, queries and issues,” he said.
Further, the limits of bot interaction force, in some ways, very thoughtful design. In “the same way that messaging is concise and direct compared to email’s verbosity, bots tend to be far more direct than apps,” said James. “This is because of the procedural structure of conversations that bots must follow. ‘Do this, then this, then this’ is the structure that a bot must follow with users and if you’re on the right path, it makes for a very quick route to your goal,” he added.
“If it’s designed well, you enter the minimal amount of inputs and achieve your goal as fast as you can read and tap. You don’t have to think about where buttons are, what they do or anything like that. Everything is basic, streamlined and fast without any fluff. Speed wins the day,” James said.
6. Integrate utility into the brand experience
There’s also the potential for brand’s to use @mentions that can be pulled into group chat for value-add. “One basic example is a weather bot. If we’re having a group chat – ‘Should we go hiking this weekend?’ – one of us could say ‘@weather forecast for weekend, let us know what that is,’” said Paul Gray of Kik.
It’s the same with sports scores as well. “If it’s during a game and I want to know how the New York Rangers are doing without having to close chat and open a new app or browser, I can just say ‘@score live score NHL’ and it will say, ‘Here’s the scores,’” Gray said. “It’s a way to blend utility with branding and can work across a lot of brands and provide value to people and group experiences as well.”
7. Have conversation at scale
In a spin on the call center example where a bot can conduct multiple concurrent phone calls, Gray noted that bots allow brands to have conversations with consumers at scale. “You can post a tweet, but it’s up to a human to respond every time. And with big brands with millions of followers, that’s impossible,” he said. “A bot can create personalized experiences down to the individual level with slight variations on each other, like quizzes and makeup and beauty tips, so you start to learn more about the products as you go through these fun games, which is a natural two-way interaction.”
Simply put, messaging platforms have far greater reach than the typical brand app. “Bots, along with messaging apps, offer brands and marketers massive reach, like 5 billion more users, intense usage, 100x per day, and meaningful interactions [like] conversations,” Beerud Sheth of Gupshup said. “When done right, the frequency and intensity of engagement with bots will dwarf anything we’ve seen before.”
8. Talk openly and honestly, even about sensitive topics
Bots enable brands to interact with customers who might be reluctant to talk about confidential or private issues. Smullen pointed to banks in particular and said studies have shown a majority of clients actually prefer to interact with bots because of confidential banking information.
And, for his part, Gray used the example of consumers with a skin problem like acne. “You might follow [a beauty] brand on Twitter, but you don’t want to say, ‘I have a zit problem.’” Instead, “you can chat one-on-one with the bots and a makeup advisor that asks about skin types and gives videos and tutorials,” Gray said. “It’s a really personal way to interact that’s also private.”
9. Create opportunities for services integration
Bots offer brands and marketers unparalleled opportunities for services integration, which, in turn, enhances customer experience.
Oliver Guy, global retail industry director at software company Software AG, pointed to the example of Uber appearing embedded inside airline apps so consumers can request transport to the airport. The difference is that with a chatbot it could all be automatic, he said.
In addition to ride-sharing, Adam Cohen-Aslatei of Jun Group noted there are further integration opportunities in such industries as banking and healthcare. For instance, customers might use digital wallet Venmo to send a friend money from Kik, or book a doctor’s appointment on health site WebMD via the bot from medical care scheduling service ZocDoc.
“Products and services that are regularly consumed are poised to benefit most from in-app bot technology,” Cohen-Aslatei said. “Think retail and e-commerce brands such as Domino’s, Target and Aldo. Imagine being able to order food delivery directly from social, editorial or gaming apps. For example, when you crave Chinese food while watching Netflix, you can instantly chat with a bot and order away.”
10. Improve customer loyalty programs
Chris Teso, CEO of social media marketing firm Chirpify, sees bots as having potential for many loyalty reward programs.
Loyalty members are already typically devoted customers and bots that help them select personalized redemptions would deepen their connections with a brand. Again, this is another area where bots can enhance customer service and build better, more personal relationships with their customers.
Bots are already delivering surprise and delight in new ways. The low-hanging fruit, I found, is customer service. But from there, bots may soon address a wider range of consumer needs — by anticipating them through service integration and personalization. A retailer bot may suggest birthday gifts for your loved ones weeks in advance. A movie bot will find you tickets and also arrange a ride to the theater for you.
Even if low-hanging, customer service is critical and it is the branch from which bots can elevate a brand even higher.