The first caveman to show off fire in front of his or her peers must have had it made…in caveman terms, at least.

No doubt worshiped as a genius, if not a god, that cave dweller probably put on a great show, convincing people that he indeed merited the proffered gifts of food, wealth, and anything else he desired.

That scenario — perhaps not as extreme, of course — seems to occur whenever people encounter a new form of technology that can ostensibly make life better. The innovation is hailed as the greatest thing since sliced bread, and its creators and advocates are feted as geniuses, billed as the team that will save the world/nation/environment/industry, etc. It’s only when the technology starts getting used on a regular basis — when it actually meets reality — that people realize it is just a tool, and that although it may solve problems, it comes with a slew of other issues that didn’t exist before and that need to be dealt with now.

Adjustment period

It takes time for that attitude adjustment to take place, and we are in the midst of such an adjustment in the realm of chatbots — a technology that will revolutionize business by allowing companies and brands to engage directly with customers on their own turf — that is, inside the messaging apps they already use to talk to friends. The ubiquitous presence of a chatbot “friend” will allow companies to engage with customers on a whole different plane — talking with them in dialogue, rather than at them, as in a one-way sales or marketing scenario.

The high hopes this space has elicited are largely focused on the insertion of artificial intelligence into chatbots. As stand-ins for humans, chatbots have to be intelligent enough to at least discuss the topic they are designed to engage the customer with (the weather, fashion, travel, etc.). It’s this conversational ability that has given rise to the mystique of the chatbot. And if traditional marketers are enamored of the “mystique” part of the equation, business-oriented techies have been fascinated by the “bot” element. Bots promise a miniaturization of technology that will allow business to eventually reduce programming and administrative costs, providing a 24/7 marketing presence that can engage with customers for the cost of building a chatbot.

Headlines in the tech and general press show that chatbots have indeed been hailed as modern-day marketing Messiahs, especially during the period earlier this year when Facebook unveiled its chatbot platform. The world’s biggest chat network embracing chatbots? And creating a platform that allows developers to build chatbots for any purpose? Surely the Next Big Thing for business has arrived!

As bots have proliferated and people have gotten to know them, though, it has become clear that they need some work before they can pull off miracles. In other words, chatbots are tools — tools that, if used properly, can enhance a brand’s connection with customers, creating new and improved communication, marketing, and sales channels.

State of the art?

With that perspective, it makes sense to examine how chatbots can fit into a business — what they are capable of, what they are good at — and use them for those purposes. A.I.-powered chatbots do indeed have the capability of helping brands better engage with customers and of enhancing a brand’s reputation. One of the ways to do that, I believe, is to treat chatbots as a new form of user interface — a different and effective way for customers to engage with a brand. A.I. already exists to provide a conversational interface, and used in that context — as opposed to as the be-all, end-all for marketing — chatbots can be a great addition to a marketing mix.

The truth is, computers and apps already “talk” to us. Apple’s Siri is a good early example. It can understand basic expressions (Apple keeps upgrading its understanding capabilities), and it provides a framework — a “practice field,” actually, considering how many people use it — that is teaching people how to communicate with machines. Siri’s natural language processing technology, paired with a microphone, loudspeaker, and appropriate programming, provides a perfectly functional verbal conversation UI for users and is capable of understanding 70-80 percent of what it “hears.”

Siri, and (some would say) other NLP machines, show what’s already possible. As time goes on, of course, the technology will improve and the capabilities of chatbots will grow. Brands that want to provide customers with a new, fun way to engage with them should be structuring their chat app strategy today and should focus on choosing the right tools moving forward. Positioning the chatbot as a new way to communicate — in addition to existing channels, and as an enhancement, not a replacement, for them — will provide a positive dialogue experience — the kind that enhances brand reputation among customers.

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