One of the biggest emerging technologies of 2016 was artificial intelligence (AI), with chatbots (or just ‘bots’) on the back of it. We saw the release of Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant, quickly followed by Google Home, and Microsoft released its Bot Framework.
It felt like every day some tech giant or bootstrapped startup was announcing something new.
But did the hype of 2016 detract from a larger, more fundamental trend? A trend that started with SMS text messaging and will eventually lead to chat (or the “conversational interface”) being at the heart of how we communicate with businesses in the future?
A warm, personal welcome
Let’s take a look at Match.com (the UK version), so far flying under the radar in terms of innovation in the core chatbot/AI space. Yet the company quietly released an intriguing and strangely compelling innovation recently, a web chatbot. (To test it, you have to visit the main page and wait around a bit.)
This essentially replaces a sign-up form. But, why? In my experience, it just feels more natural. The dating site gave the chatbot some personality, and the process feels far more instinctive than tabbing through form fields. Before you know it, you’ve volunteered all the info Match.com needs to set you up with a profile.
Is this really a trend?
But what evidence do we have that this is a trend, rather than some isolated brilliance on the part of Match.com? Well, other big names are deploying web chatbots, too, such as Thomson Holidays, the UK tour operator. Thompson Holidays is testing a web bot as an entry point into its own site (with arguably less success than Match.com).
Adrian Zumbrunnen, a UX/UI Designer from Zurich, has even used a conversational web bot to replace his site. In an interview with Fast Company, Zumbrunnen said that traffic was up 1,000 percent, and in just 48 hours he got 250 emails from people chatting with the bot.
When we take these developments in the context of the growth of messaging as a communication channel, and across all generations, we can start to see how engaging web visitors by chat may be a clever move.
The growth in messaging
In the 2016 Facebook study More than a Message (based on global Facebook data and a Facebook-commissioned Nielsen study), 63 percent of people said their messaging with businesses had increased over the past two years.
Of those surveyed, 56 percent said they’d rather message than call customer service, and 67 percent said they expect to message businesses even more over the next two years.
Will this trend be the preserve of major brands? This is often the case for emerging technologies. However, this time around, accessible bot platforms are making it easy for any business to create bots that work anywhere (including the web).
Fixing the problems of live chat
You may think this technology has been around for an age in the form of “live chat.” Live chat is the option to “chat to us” or “chat now” via the small pop-up chat window inside websites.
It differs from a web bot in that 100 percent of the conversation is human to human, and an expectation is set for an immediate live response.
This immediacy causes the same kind of human resource and scheduling headaches that call centers face. Businesses need to have people waiting to take each chat, and each rep can only handle maybe 2–3 chats concurrently without the quality of service suffering.
The economics of online retail means that, for ecommerce especially, the investment may produce a return. But for most other types of businesses, live chat simply isn’t economical.
Changing users’ expectation
Web bots may have a live chat capability (or “human takeover”). But modern web bots promote the idea of messaging as an asynchronous communication — a message is sent, and the reply comes back sometime later.
Whilst users may want to know when to expect a reply, they certainly don’t expect it immediately. This, coupled with the fact that a high proportion of requests can be handled by the bot itself, means web bots are a much more economical replacement for traditional live chat.
Take a hint from a wise man
Of course, it’s impossible to predict the future. However, when you’re in business, getting ahead on emerging trends and technologies can bring enormous advantages.
One man who spectacularly predicted the future was Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. His company’s $19 billion WhatsApp acquisition in 2014 should tell you all you need to know about the future of messaging.