Chatbots have captivated the tech world. Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and IBM all heavily invest in conversational platforms. Thousands of developers, businesses, and brands build bots to engage users, but one fact is clear: Building bots is easy. Engaging users is not.

According to Botanalytics, 40 percent of a bot’s users disengage after one interaction. With thousands of bots launching every month, what distinguishes successful bots from useless ones?

I spoke with the makers behind top-performing chatbots to find out. Each of these bots has hundreds of thousands of users and thousands of daily active users. These are the best bot practices they use to thrive in an increasingly competitive bot market:

1. Leverage existing customers

Poncho, 1-800-Flowers, and theScore all launched with Facebook’s Messenger bot platform. The media attention kickstarted their usage, but they sustained growth by promoting to existing customers.

If a purchaser on the 1-800-Flowers website is already logged into Facebook, they are automatically opted in for notifications via the 1-800-Flowers Messenger bot. Similarly, the weather bot Poncho has a “core group of fans excited to try something new,” says Sam Mandel, CEO. The company promotes its weather bot via email newsletters and mobile apps. TheScore, a real-time sports media company, has three million fans on social media.

Cross-promoting is much easier than building new audiences. Top-performing chatbots can acquire daily active users in the tens of thousands simply by advertising to existing fans. Fans already understand the underlying value of a brand or business, simplifying the transition to a chat interface.

2. Advertise in unexpected places

What if you don’t already have millions of followers?

Twelve years ago, Steve Worswick built his conversational chatbot, Mitsuku, as a fun add-on to his personal music website. His bot soon became more popular than his songs. Worswick has since grown Mitsuku to more than 5 million users on web alone, plus many more on messaging platforms like Skype and Kik. The bot processes nearly a million interactions every day and has won awards for “the most human-like chatbot.”

“Putting a bot on Facebook is like advertising a blade of grass in the middle of a field,” warns Worswick. His advice is to avoid crowded bot directories and launch in unexpected places.

Mitsuku received around 100 visitors a day on Worswick’s website before the developer launched his bot on Mousebreaker, a popular gaming website featuring sports and arcade games. Mitsuku immediately stood out as a unique and artistic offering and became a hit with the website’s young, largely male demographic. Suddenly the bot saw hundreds of visitors and thousands of interactions every hour.

Launching on Mousebreaker was just the beginning. Users started posting videos of Mitsuku on YouTube. The bot received press attention, won chatbot competitions, and grew steadily to become one of the most popular chatbots on the internet.

3. Educate users about bots

Despite the tech industry’s bot obsession, most people don’t know how to interact with bots. Traditional advertising efforts that push uninitiated users toward bots have often been futile.

Shortly after Messenger opened to chatbots, 1-800-Flowers compared traditional paid Facebook ads that sent users into the company’s Messenger bot with those that directed to the website. The website ads far outperformed the chatbot ads. Customers found the bot confusing and error-prone and so made fewer transactions.

Swelly, a community polling bot, also experimented with paid ads and found them useless. Users assumed the bot had general intelligence and would ask Swelly random questions like, “Are you single?” or “Tell me about the weather.”

Despite problems, Swelly grew from zero to over 800,000 users in three months. Swelly cofounder Peter Buchroithner paid YouTube influencers to make video endorsements of the bot. Buchroithner focused on fashion and beauty niches, since Swelly is particularly useful for those categories.

Working with influencers cost only a few thousand dollars, yet the strategy acquired Swelly’s most engaged users. People who converted to the bot from influencer videos came in educated about Swelly’s functionality and excited to engage.

4. Streamline usage by limiting options

Limiting user options can lead to engagement boosts. 1-800-Flowers initially offered customers three delivery date options: Today, Tomorrow, or Choose A Date. The third option was removed after date input errors were found to be causing the bulk of failed transactions.

TheScore implemented buttons to suggest popular sports teams to users and circumvent the need to type. “We’ve seen that users need to be given more prompts about how to get the information they need,” says Riaz Lalani, VP of product at theScore.

Swelly initially required users to tap a “Next” button to move to the next poll. When the button was removed and polls automatically advanced, the average number of votes per session doubled.

To streamline usage and boost engagement, consider the following:

  • Use buttons instead of free-form user input
  • Replace user actions with automatic transitions
  • Limit options to core use cases

5. Double down on engagement

A user once chatted with Mitsuku for nine hours in one day. Most humans can’t even hold a conversation that long.

Engagement differs depending on bot category. As a general chit-chat bot, Mitsuku is expected to converse on a variety of topics. Users often ask her about recent sporting events, trending movies, or celebrity gossip. Worswick, Mitsuku’s developer, constantly builds in new domain expertise, drawing on pop culture, anime, sports, politics, and other popular topics. The hard work pays off: 80 percent of Mitsuku’s users return for another interaction. Many converse with the bot daily.

Utilitarian bots like Poncho require different engagement tactics. “Our retention is significantly better than a top-tier iOS app,” says Mandel, CEO of Poncho. The bot’s high retention is driven by continuous testing and optimization of language, onboarding, and notifications. Poncho simplified language and minimized slang, which engaged international users. The team also maximized the relevance and trustworthiness of the bot’s communication. “For people to let us turn on notifications, they have to trust that they can turn them off,” Mandel cautions.

6. Continuously adapt to feedback

Throughout Swelly’s development, Buchroithner and his team continuously reached out for feedback to make critical improvements. The result is over 800,000 unique users and 31,000 daily actives in just three months since launch. The average Swelly user uses the bot three times a day and votes over 600 times total.

Facebook noticed these engagement numbers and made Swelly a featured bot in Messenger. Being featured drives thousands of new users per day to Swelly and is by far the biggest engine of growth.

Poncho incorporates user feedback for smarter, personalized notifications. The team has to learn why specific users want to know the weather. For example, a user may wish to know if tomorrow is a good day to go running. Poncho can advise the user if she should run in the morning or afternoon.

7. Share the knowledge

Discovery is a constant challenge for all bots, even successful ones. “We don’t know yet if bot stores are the answer,” admits Mandel of Poncho. “The problem with mobile app stores is that paid acquisition is virtually the only way to acquire users. We hope that doesn’t happen with bots.”

Another industry-wide problem is user onboarding and education. Jon Mandell, VP of multibrand customer marketing at 1-800-Flowers, believes these two major challenges will be solved when more people build bots and share their knowledge.

“We need everybody to jump on bots so customers learn how they work,” says Mandell. “Growth won’t just come from 1-800-Flowers. The community will thrive when bots become mainstream.”

Chatbot growth is challenging, but possible. Companies like 1-800-Flowers, Poncho, and theScore capitalize on existing audiences. Bots like Mitsuku and Swelly employ effective growth strategies like topical awareness, niche advertising, and influencer marketing.

Learn their chatbot growth secrets, and you might find success, as well.


Mariya Yao is the Head of R&D at TOPBOTS, a strategy & research firm for artificial intelligence and bots. 

This story originally appeared on Copyright 2016

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