Chatbots, the latest innovative add-on for instant messaging apps, are the current darlings of commerce.

By integrating artificial intelligence with instant message conversations, there is no longer a need to switch to a retail app to buy a product, request a service, or order lunch. Consumers can now order a pizza, a bouquet of flowers, or reserve a movie ticket through instant messaging, and many new brands are jumping on board every day.

Rise of the chatbot

According to eMarketer’s latest statistics, 95 million Americans aged 14 and older, or 51 percent of digital buyers, will make at least one purchase via a smartphone in 2017. Facebook Messenger is leading the charge by evolving their adapting interfaces to ecosystems and enabling enterprises to create the next generation of brand touchpoints via chatbots.

Retailers are ultimately able to transform conversations into commerce by bringing the familiar and personal context of customer care to messaging apps. Messaging will become the primary interface for customer interaction over the coming years, likely displacing call centers and augmenting mobile apps as we currently know them.

As popular messaging apps like Facebook Messenger expand their capabilities, they will grow to become channels that enable a more seamless customer experience from product discovery, to payments, to tracking the status of orders, to customer service. Companies like Netflix and Walmart are following suit and have begun using bots to fulfill customer inquiries through the platform. Bot-driven commerce seems to be rolling out in full force.

The future or a Band-Aid?

Yet much of the hype around bots has been limited by a sense of disillusionment with what Messenger bots are currently capable of and whether they can eventually live up to our expectations.

For many, the recent interest has led to what may be a bubble — e.g., a surge of bots programmed by developers to auto-respond to queries. These come off as essentially nothing more than a pumped-up FAQ or a telephonic menu system prompting the customer to choose from several options.

Chatbot developers are sprouting up everywhere and retailers are welcoming them with open arms, hoping to align their services with the latest technology and ensure the ordering of products in a simpler and more efficient manner.

However, unless bots are designed to do more than replicate existing experiences, they will be fundamentally incapable of delivering on their original promise of humanizing digital commerce.

Currently, bots are unable to replace the human interaction that gives brick and mortar shopping its edge. Ask a bot a basic question — such as what hours a store location is open — and you’ll get a great preset response. Try to engage with a bot to ask a detailed question about a product, and the result will be far less helpful. Today’s bots don’t possess any real A.I. Accordingly, they can’t possibly deliver the type of real engagement that customers are seeking, leading to the somewhat disappointing reality that bots are just bandages meant to hold us over until something better comes along.

What’s next: A.I.-driven conversational commerce

Bot interactions are constantly at risk of misinterpretation, and therefore are plagued with inaccuracies when attempting to understand a customer’s request. They still tend to make errors when following instructions from speech or recorded voice messages (or from text messages). Yet the bot demand is clearly here, and for this bubble to truly burst, a better solution must be implemented to expedite these consumer-driven processes.

In this case, the demise of the bot will likely be led by the more powerful rise of conversational commerce and the technologies that underpin it. Conversational commerce is the next evolution of Natural Language Processing (NLP), which teaches a computer to not only recognize language, but to understand the ways that humans actually speak. This way, not only does Google not make us dumb, but it could actually enable us to be more articulate than ever. With A.I.-powered conversational commerce solutions, we won’t just be engaging with yet a higher level automated calling system, but rather with tools that will help us find the things we want while using our intuitive language, instead of contorting to the language we think will help the search engine do its job.

The truly game changing component of this advance is that it will render the entire bot interface essentially irrelevant. Conversational commerce is so powerful that the most fundamental engagement channel — the search engine — could become an interactive tool that works with us to achieve optimal results. Why bother opening up a new chat or tab, when the initial search is going to take us exactly where we want to go?

The bot bubble is alive and well, but new technologies like conversational commerce are about to take center stage. These new tools will make removing the bot Band-Aid simple, creating a new and improved retail experience and popping the bot bubble once and for all.


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