Chatbots: Friend or Foe?

Humans talk. We converse, we talk to ourselves, and we move our mouths when we’re concentrating on a task. Our brains are hardwired for speech. It’s natural, then, that our species has always been fascinated by the idea of artificial intelligence with verbal interfaces, though they have traditionally gone by other names. In Jewish folklore, for instance, the Golem is a clay statue that comes to life by magic when given a command. Essentially, it’s a robot with a rudimentary but adaptable artificial intelligence and a natural language interface. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein flirts with the concept, as do L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, with the Tin Woodman (famous from the 1938 film adaptation) and Tik-Tok, a clockwork automaton generally regarded as the earliest example of a mechanical (rather than magical) android. By the 1930s, we had generally accepted the “robot” into science fiction canon, and any child can now mimic a ‘robot voice’.

But the central conceit of the archetype is that robots, while artificial, are intelligent and fully capable of speech. From Metropolis to Lost in Space to Star Trek our stories presume that a robot should be essentially human-form (which turns out to be absurdly inefficient in practice) and should be able to interact with us verbally.

The reality is a little closer to 2001: A Space Odyssey, albeit without the sinister outcome. We have recently made huge strides towards creating talking (and listening) machines. Siri is far from perfect, but remains a marvel of technology; Siri listens to spoken requests, making allowances for regional accents and dialectal variances in syntax, and creates a natural-language response by knitting together speech sounds. We’re quick to point out when she gets something wrong, or fails to understand a request, but we aren’t awestruck that she succeeds even some of the time.

That’s the point. We take language so much for granted that we only ever notice the errors. From that, we can see how deep our use of, and expectation for, language really is, and that’s why it’s so vital that we pay attention to another emerging technology, the humble chatbot. We need to ask serious questions about what they mean for the future of digital marketing because, and make no mistake, the bots are coming.

A Bot by Any Other Name

So, exactly what is a chatbot? To clarify, we’re talking about something different from the traditional “bot”, which has long been the bane of digital marketing. Originally referring to an automated script that performs a simple action or series of actions, bots have not been friends to digital marketers. By masquerading as users, clicking links, opening pages, and throwing off our numbers, bots have invalidated our data, compromised our analytics, and hurt our bottom line. In fact, the Association of National Advertisers and White Ops estimate that bot-fraud will generate a $7.2 billion loss to marketers in 2016 alone.

However, by moving beyond simple automation, and by incorporating adaptability (through machine learning, artificial intelligence, and other burgeoning technologies) bots have serious potential as allies to digital marketers.

Remember SmarterChild? Founded in 2000, and with an ultimate userbase of over thirty million (!), SmarterChild was an unprecedented and wholly unexpected success. Its ability to carry on what felt like a natural conversation was intriguing, despite its limitations, and it was embraced by a market hungry for more of the same.

People latched onto the idea of a chatbot because it felt intuitive, unintrusive, and familiar, despite the fact that nothing quite like it had ever made its way into mainstream circles. People took to it natively. That ease, and instant familiarity, makes chatbots perfect for digital marketers.

The Right Tool for the Job

Just a few years ago, we all went through a phase in which every business wanted to have an app at the center of their digital marketing sphere. Apps seemed like the next new marketing thing, but they didn’t catch on and they were never more than a fad. They weren’t the right tool for the job. Apps are for doing something. If you need to interact with a system they can be very helpful, but they’re rarely more convenient than just opening up a browser — a piece of software one already has — and accessing a webpage directly.

We don’t need to download a hundred different apps for the sites we visit when a browser would be just as effective. We can do more, with less.

As a digital marketing agency based in San Francisco, we’ve learned a lot from Silicon Valley. Above all, we’ve seen that tech innovations only succeed when they’re convenient, and it’s easier to work new behaviors into familiar systems than it is to develop an entirely new architecture. Recognizing that trend, Facebook has unveiled (to conservative fanfare) systems that may eventually shape what will soon become an app-store equivalent for chatbots for its native Messenger app. Messenger, for the record, currently boasts over eight hundred million regular users. On top of that, Facebook owns WhatsApp, which, as of February, had over one billion users. It’s true that some users were probably counted twice, but the breadth of Facebook’s reach is still tremendous.

Here’s the major distinction between an app and a chatbot: an app is expected to justify its existence with versatile functionality, while a chatbot, just another conversation window in a messaging app you already use, is only expected to have a single, simple function: to chat.

By providing a quick and seamless point of contact to a brand, the real-time conversational functionality of a chatbot fills the market niche that Twitter has never quite managed to secure.

Bots and the Marketing Mindset

A sufficiently adaptable chatbot is the perfect brand ambassador. Drawing from a database of real-time analytics about your customers, and with a record of every other point of interaction a particular user has had with your brand, a chatbot can answer questions in such a way as to lead a user through his or her particular stage of the ‘customer journey’. By recognizing a user’s history, and by analyzing cookies, queries, phrasing, previously viewed pages, and so on, a chatbot can be the perfect salesman.

At its heart, (digital) marketing is essentially a conversation. We marketers try to anticipate the questions our customers will have, or the information they’ll be seeking, and we try to provide answers in advance. The science of our business is in more accurate guesses and better-targeted responses. A chatbot, with a sufficiently adaptable algorithm and a sufficiently robust database, can do that, in real time, tailored to each user, in natural language, thereby making the process feel seamless to a potential customer.

Where every other form of marketing has been static, chatbots are dynamic, conversing with each person in a different way. Through machine learning, as those technologies evolve, chatbots will only become more effective.

And people want them to evolve and to become more practical. We complain about Siri’s faults because we expect a more fluid interface.

How Can Chatbots Help Your Business?

First and foremost, as brand ambassadors they would interact, in real time, with your potential customers. Beyond that, though, they open up a whole new kind of data collection, and cross-referencing. For instance, let’s look at what Facebook has been working on.

Facebook has made their API public, so developing a compatible chatbot is something most businesses can do. Further, Facebook is developing dedicated analytics software which will cross-reference chat activity and browser data with the information from a user’s profile, giving a whole new dimension to demographic analyses.

In the years to come, bots could well become the first and only point of contact a potential customer has with a brand. Instant messaging is such an integral part of our online behavior, it won’t be long before a potential customer may soon pass over businesses which don’t offer a chatbot of some some sort, in much the same way that customers might ignore businesses which don’t have a Facebook page, or which don’t post their hours of operation.

What Can Chatbots Actually Do, in Practice?

As the technology stands today, chatbots are limited. It will be some time before a truly seamless, dynamic, natural language interface is ready for full commercial deployment, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get a head start. Just take a look at some of the ways services are using the technology:

Conversational Commerce

Companies like Burger King and 1-800-Flowers are deploying chatbots that place orders, or confirm information, without filling in your data into predefined fields. Instead, the bots extract the relevant information from natural language, and process orders accordingly.

Tailored Sales Pitches

By asking a user questions, and making decisions based on the answers, Spring’s chatbot recommends clothing to a potential customer, and generates a URL to the website’s point of sale. In effect, it escorts a user through the customer journey from start to finish, all automatically.

Imagine what this sort of software could do for real estate marketing, for instance. Picture a chatbot with a database of up-to-the-minute real estate listings and market trends, which would conduct a comprehensive client interview and export the results to a capture sheet, recognizing keywords and putting the client in touch with a Realtor, seamlessly handing the conversation over to a live operator. The real estate marketing opportunities alone are enormous, and it would save incalculable labor-hours.


1-800-Flowers uses a chatbot that places orders for customers, like Burger King’s, and discusses potential options, like Spring’s, but it does a better job of building the customer relationship. It remembers previous orders and conversations, and, as a self-described “gift concierge”, it will offer gift reminders. Any digital marketing agency could think of a dozen uses for chatbot software that would remember important dates or events, and reach out to customers with prompts, reminders, and targeted remarketing.

Remarketing and Recommendations

Quartz is probably the most familiar example of this sort of chatbot service, but the Wall Street Journal is developing something similar. In each case, trending topics and articles are presented conversationally (“Did you hear that…?”) rather than flatly with a simple headline and image. Imagine a blog that analyses user responses on the fly, then offers content that a user is more likely to be receptive to. Imagine a blog that re-writes its content dynamically, into language that a particular user is more likely to find familiar, and which will remember a given user’s preferences.

Creative Marketing Approaches

Zork is a choose-your-own-adventure style bot, in the style of the text-based adventure games from yesteryear, and it’s brilliantly fun. Imagine the marketing potential of literally engaging a customer in a story, educating prospective customers along the way, and leading them to create their own sales conversions. Imagine that this technology learned from experience and improved itself with each new interaction. That’s the kind of technology we’re talking about, here.

And it’s coming.

What’s the Next Step?

Chatbots are still a nascent technology, that’s finding its groove. From a digital marketer’s perspective, that’s very good news. The market isn’t saturated yet, so there’s still time to get in on the ground floor and establish your business as a forerunner in the new landscape. So, ask yourself if this technology can help your business.

  • Do I generally field a lot of similar front-line questions from customers? Would it save me time to automate my responses?
  • Do I need to collect a lot of information from customers?
  • Does my customer demographic typically use instant messaging?
  • Does my business already use a call center or chat-based support system? Would it benefit from one?
  • If I knew, without a doubt, that this technology would work perfectly and seamlessly, how would my business put it to use?

At the end of the day, a chatbot is a dialogue between your business and your customers, just like any other kind of marketing communication. Where apps were an answer looking for a question, that never really found their footing, chatbots are a natural extension of what we marketers have been doing all along — talking to our customers. They’re coming, and they’re coming soon.

Colibri Digital Marketing

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