“First there were websites, then there were apps. Now, there are bots.”
The above statement comes from Kik’s Build Your Bot page, which entices brands to build bots on the Kik messaging app’s chat platform and get teenagers to buy stuff or do things. Facebook also just made a big move into chatbot territory with its Messenger service. And so have other messaging apps, including Slack and Telegram.
But is this just marketing hooey? Or will angry bots soon rule the five second window? To find out, I tested two Kik bots and a Facebook Messenger bot. I’ll explain the results in a second. But first, a little bot backstory is in order.
Yes, you’ve already met a bot
Bots are essentially a form of artificial intelligence. So let’s pause for a moment to honor the late great Alan Turing (1912-1954), the British brainiac widely considered to have given birth to AI during WWII. More recently, in 2011, IBM’s AI engine, called Watson, beat the crap out of human contestants on the game show “Jeopardy!”
Virtual assistant bots are in our smartphones and homes today. Have you heard Amazon’s Echo? Hey Siri! What’s up, Cortana? Shut up, Alexa! So already, most of us have some level of familiarity with bots.
When we call some customer service phones, especially at large companies, we’re likely to get a virtual customer service agent bot. Instead of outsourcing to other countries, some brands are outsourcing at least the front lines of their call centers to bots. Though I suspect most people loathe talking to these bots, we’ve at least come to expect them.
The stage is set for a bot revolution, and there are early signs it’s coming. Just this year bots have nabbed major media attention, both positive and unflattering.
Unflattering only begins to describe Microsoft’s Tay fiasco. Tay was a Twitter chatbot, depicted as a pixelated young woman, and released on March 23, 2016. Snarky Twitter users tricked the bot into making outlandishly offensive remarks. The tweets included positive statements about Hitler. Within 16 hours, Microsoft yanked Tay offline, officially apologized and explained the lessons learned from Tay.
On a more positive note, fast forward to mid April. During Facebook’s F8 developer confab, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook would enable brands to build chatbots into its Messenger service. Zuckerberg showed off two bots: a CNN bot that sends personalized news stories, and a 1-800-FLOWERS bot that helps customers place a floral delivery order.
“Now, to order flowers, you never have to call 1-800-FLOWERS again,” Zuckerberg said, clearly appreciating the irony.
Will messaging bots crush mobile apps?
It’s hard to argue with the vision for chatbots populating messaging apps. Customers won’t have to download, say, a 1-800-FLOWERS app, to interact via mobile with the brand. They can just engage with brands on mobile devices through an app they probably already have, such as Facebook Messenger.
“The bot revival is…taking place at a time when people are growing tired of individual apps,” writes Mike Isaac at The New York Times. “While big brands have long promoted easier access to shopping and customer service through their own proprietary smartphone apps, some consumers are fatigued by having to download a different app for each company.”
Americans spend more time staring into their mobile devices than watching television, yet a quarter of the time on mobile is spent in only a handful of social networking and communication apps—particularly, messaging. In 2014, just over 1 billion people were regular mobile messaging app users, according to eMarketer. This figure is expected to grow to more than 1.6 billion people this year and 2 billion by 2018.
After nearly 10 years into the smartphone revolution, I can attest that the novelty of many apps wore off long ago. I don’t have time for lots of apps and consistently use a dozen or less. So if I can get some benefits from a brand without having to download yet another app and log into yet another account, I’m happy.
Which leads me to another advantage to Facebook’s bot plan: When a customer makes a purchase, Messenger will use the credit card stored in the app’s Payments section under Settings. I won’t have to input my credit card again and again in multiple apps.
Of course, this doesn’t mean I want to have a conversation with a bot. Chatbots are just getting started, and I’d say they aren’t ready to replace actual people as customer service agents.
For example, I tested the H&M and Sephora bots in the Kik iOS app. Neither could answer a specific question I threw at them. The H&M bot was intent on pushing an outfit on me when all I wanted to know was if I could buy a no-iron shirt. I never received a straight answer on whether H&M offered such an article of clothing.
As for Sephora, my question about which product they sold that might help fade sun spots fell on deaf bot ears. If I wanted makeup tips or to look up specific products, great! But the bot couldn’t handle my skin care inquiries.
I also tried the 1-800-FLOWERS bot on Facebook’s Messenger service. It seemed to work for a while as I asked for advice on what to buy an elderly person (I didn’t specify gender). I was asked for a delivery date and zip code, for instance. But before going out for an extended coffee break, the bot responded to the zip code information with what looked like gibberish.
Chatbots absolutely have the potential to disrupt how brands engage with their customers on mobile. It just may not be really happening yet.
Bot-bottom line: proceed with caution
So what does this mean for brands? You’ll have to work even harder to get consumers to download your mobile app. There will need to be a clear, ongoing value proposition, such as Starbucks’ mobile ordering and integration with Spotify.
You’ll also need to think strategically about how bots on Facebook Messenger, Kik, or elsewhere can help you win those mobile engagements. Easier said than done, of course. But if it’s not on your mobile to-do list yet, it should be.
On the other hand, chatbots in messaging apps promise a new opportunity for brands to engage with consumers in the apps they actually do use on a regular basis. But those chatbots better be good. An ineffective chatbot can frustrate potential buyers—as I found out—and harm your reputation, at least in the short term. Brands will need to do a lot of bot testing to circumvent a fiasco like Microsoft’s Tay.
Following the Tay disaster, Microsoft offered some advice for brands moving into a chatbot-filled world: “We must enter each one with great caution and ultimately learn and improve, step by step, and to do this without offending people in the process.”
James A. Martin is an award-winning, San Francisco-based journalist. He started covering mobile technology sometime after the Apple Newton bellyflopped but before the PalmPilot went viral. You can reach him at email@example.com.