Around this time last year, chatbots weren’t on our radar, generally speaking. Sure, AI-powered conversations with brands, a la Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, have been around for some time. But it was Facebook’s rollout of its chatbot API platform for Messenger in April of this year that catalyzed the creation of 30,000 chatbots (and counting) over the past six months. And on apps like Telegram and Kik, there are thousands more.

Each bot is made by a specific creator for a specific purpose. The mission of each chatbot varies from satirizing political candidates to ordering food.

But one way in which they don’t differ much from each other is in their design, which, at least for now, is rudimentary. Chatbots for the most part all do the same thing — give and receive information to users via messages. The experience across different chatbots is pretty similar. So what makes them special? Or, more practically, how does one create a distinctive chatbot?

Chatbot proliferation

The question is an important one, because in reality, 30,000 bots is just a handful — at least compared to the number of bots that will be created in the coming years. It’s impossible to speculate how many bots will be created exactly, but given that the number has increased by about 20,000 since four months ago, it’s reasonable to assume that chatbots will supersede the growth of apps in the years after Apple’s App Store launched in 2008. Before long, the familiar refrain “there’s an app for that” will give way to “there’s a chatbot for that.”

Open Facebook Messenger on Friday night. Scroll down to your chat with Uber. “We’d like an Uber.” While in the Uber, you find the chat with your favorite restaurant. “We’d like to put our names on the list for a table … Patio area, please … three people.” Over dinner, your friends sell you on one of the latest fall fashions at Burberry, so you open a chat and use Burberry’s chatbot to browse their new jackets and impulsively buy one.

Chatbots enable these kinds of rapid-fire interactions without the user ever having to leave the Facebook Messenger app. Because messaging platforms have become so ubiquitous, they pose an opportunity for brands to have one-on-one interactions with their customers on massive scale.

But for this to come to fruition, consumers need to have a much richer experience with chatbots than what they’re having right now, which is menu-based and non-conversational. And this brings us back to the issue of chatbots’ design and rudimentary functionality. For the most part, answers are structured; users usually don’t have the option to type original responses and have an open conversation. Rather, they’re prompted to select, within the chat window, one of several responses to send.

What this means is that interaction experiences from brand to brand are very much alike. Much of this is due to the medium. A chat in WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Telegram, etc. offers no unique visual experience and no unique interaction experience like what a native app would offer. So for brands, whose goal is to differentiate themselves through unique consumer experiences, this poses a challenge.

The missing piece: Real conversation

But let’s take a step back for a minute and make an important clarification: The problem isn’t the interface. It’s the brands.

The fundamental flaw of today’s chatbots isn’t their limited functionality in terms of visual design and flashy interactions. It’s the fact that brands are squandering the opportunity to engage their consumer base in highly personalized, one-on-one interactions, and instead are offering chatbots interactions that are as memorable as a touch-tone, menu-based phone call into the customer service department of your credit card company.

By stripping away the pretty visuals and slick interactions, chatbots force brands to focus on the thing that really matters: the content of the conversations they have with their audience.

The idea is to do more than just sell stuff. Brands should be aiming to create affinity between themselves and their consumer base and invest in relationship capital — because when a relationship is already in place, consumers will be better primed to purchase products or services from your brand, as opposed to someone else’s. Humans’ affinity for brands is built the same way that we build affinity toward each other: through conversations and personal interactions.

The fundamental ingredient, of course, is conversation — real conversation. Not structured, menu-based “chats.” And content is critical to an effective chatbot.

Companies like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon understand this. That’s why they’re hiring a variety of writers, including novelists and comics, to help develop their respective AI conversational bots, so that each one is infused with voice and personality. That’s what makes it compelling and a good ambassador of the brand. These AI personas work both ways. They carry the brand personality, but, thanks to the work of the creative teams writing their scripts, they also put more personality back into the brand than what was there to start with, which is exciting for brands with bland personalities and voices.

Chatbots are the next frontier in consumer engagement and brand marketing. A huge opportunity is in front of us to forge lasting bonds with customers. But it all starts with designing a truly compelling experience. Chatbots have thus far been able to get away with their “fundamental flaw” of offering boring interactions and not giving consumers their own platform to speak and be heard. But now it’s time for them to evolve.

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