Silicon Valley’s all-consuming obsession with chatbots makes sense, considering millennials’ love of both chat and A.I. What’s confusing, though, is that while A.I. continues to garner its share of hype, innovation, and interest, messaging never really had its heyday. Despite the fact that half (49 percent) of smartphone owners ages 18 to 29 use messaging apps, according to Pew Research, and messaging apps have surpassed social sites in terms of MAUs, businesses have been slow to adopt messaging as a way to communicate with their customers.
The chatbot hype has resulted in businesses leaping into a collective golden goose chase without first developing a plan for raising the bird once it’s caught. In plain words, they’re going after chatbots without incorporating chat.
Chat is having a moment, and businesses need to act
There are nearly 4 billion global active users of messaging apps, the most popular of which are WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Kik, and WeChat. In fact, the top five most frequently used apps in the world are all messaging apps. Messaging has even surpassed texting, with over 30 billion daily messages sent on WhatsApp alone, compared with 20 billion daily SMS messages.
As David Marcus, a former president of PayPal and current head of Facebook’s messaging division said, “The messaging era is definitely now. It’s the one thing people do more than anything else on their phone. Some people were surprised when I joined Facebook, but it’s because I believe that messaging is the next big platform. In terms of time spent, attention, retention — this is where it’s happening. And it’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build it.”
That said, try to remember the last time you messaged with a business. We may be messaging more than we call, text, Instagram, or email, but when it comes to communicating with businesses, messaging is hardly ever used. As in most areas, enterprise is woefully behind the consumer when it comes to communication.
And those that are making the effort are using third-party messaging apps instead of integrating messaging into their own apps. Social media behemoth Tencent, for instance, is one of the few companies that has really taken advantage of messaging, allowing 600 million people each month to book taxis, check in for flights, play games, buy movie tickets, manage banking, and schedule doctors’ appointments within Weixin, the Chinese version of its WeChat app.
Third-party messaging integration is precisely what Facebook has proposed with its enormously promoted chatbot platform. The problem is, in using a messaging service solely for chatbots, businesses are missing the primary purpose of messaging: to communicate rapidly and easily with their customers. They’ve put the cart before the horse.
We need to take a look at messaging as messaging and use it that way to benefit business. This could mean a third-party messaging integration, an in-app service, or simply webchat — whatever best suits your business. But what will no longer fly is SMS, email, and phone communication. Before businesses can move to chatbots, they need chat.
Chatbots will have a moment, and businesses need to be ready
The flurry of excitement over chatbots is not wholly unwarranted; it is just premature. A.I. needs to be more sophisticated before chatbots can become a true communication tool. As they are, they are generally limited to serving as intelligent search tools. After all, think about how you use Siri: Nobody uses her for anything other than search, and even then, she is often woefully inaccurate and has difficulty understanding requests. By personifying her, we are positing a level of human-like intelligence, but it is a misnomer. “She” is just a cute, vocal search bar.
The future of chatbot development is promising, however. KLM is now giving passengers the option to receive flight updates and boarding passes through Facebook Messenger. If you don’t want to download a KLM app, this is a nice alternative. Chatbots can also serve as an interim communication channel in customer service. For instance, if you want to ask what time an agent will be available or have a question about an app crash, a chatbot can access your device data and give you information that you might not otherwise have. In a few years, chatbots may even move past heuristics into deep learning (though after Microsoft’s disaster, in which its bot turned into a homophobic, racist, nazi within 24 hours, this might be a bit further off than we’d thought).
Chatbots will be a reality, and they will probably help automate many of the communication processes that humans currently engage in. But before they can truly assist businesses in communicating with their customers, messaging must first infiltrate the corporate infrastructure. The cart is great, but really we need that horse.