When the next anniversary or birthday rolls around, you don’t have to visit 1-800 Flowers’ website to make an order. You don’t even have to leave Facebook Messenger.
In April, the company became one of the first brands to take advantage of the fact that Facebook had opened up Messenger to branded bots–software that performs automated tasks. Since then, the bot has been a hit. Chris McCann, president of the flower and gift delivery company, told Digiday that 70% of people who use the bot are new customers. Those customers also skew younger than the brand’s average.
The bot has two basic functions: to take orders and connect consumers with a live company representative. Well, sort of. When this writer tried the bot in July, he was introduced to “Jason.” When asked, “Are you a real person?” the bot replied, “Apologies. There are no agents available at the moment. Try again later.”
Welcome to the early days of AI-fueled marketing. Though clunky now, many believe these bots will transform the way we interact with brands. How exactly remains to be seen. While it’s possible that for some brands bots will be a major portal for e-commerce, they instead might wind up being used mostly to streamline customer service and make it less painful.
Why Bots? Why Now?
Facebook’s $22 billion purchase of messaging app WhatsApp in 2014 might well signal the moment that the social media era gave way to the messaging era. Chalk (another) one up to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who recognized a concurrent trend: Younger users and consumers in foreign marketers were flocking to messaging apps.
Zuckerberg has said he believes that before a product reaches 1 billion users, it’s too soon to monetize it. “Messenger is just now approaching that mark, so that means it’s time to monetize,” said Debra Aho Williamson, principal analyst with eMarketer.
In a 2015 report, eMarketer estimated that some 2 billion consumers across the globe would use messaging apps by 2019. The figure in 2015 was 1.4 billion, which was up 31.6% from the previous year.
“I believe that messaging is the next big platform. In terms of time spent, attention, retention–this is where it's happening,” said David Marcus, VP of messaging products at Facebook, in a 2015 interview with Wired UK. “And it's a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build it.”
Who’s Doing What
In early July, Facebook announced there were 11,000 bots on Messenger two months after opening the platform to developers. Soon after, Apple opened iMessage to developers. At the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference in June, Craig Federighi, Apple’s SVP of software engineering, showed how a group of people could use DoorDash to coordinate a lunch order.
But such activity isn’t new. Well before Facebook’s and Apple’s moves, some brands were experimenting with messaging-based bots. For instance, to promote “Insidious: Chapter 3,” Focus Features launched a bot on messaging platform Kik that purported to be Quinn Brenner, the movie’s main character.
Russell Ward, SVP of marketing and business development at Massively, which worked on that effort, told CMO.com that his agency has done a dozen or more similar campaigns, including one for “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” that employed four chatbots all based on the main characters from the movie.
Such bots are following preordained responses. “It is scripted,” Ward said, “but we have the ability to be very dynamic in how we answer.” For the Ninja Turtles program, for instance, Ninja Turtle Mikey offered such quotes as, “Pizza, like revenge, is a dish best served cold.”
Though that may sound like a novelty, Ward said he has bet his agency’s future on messaging. “We think every business, every brand will have a messaging bot,” he said.
Still, not everyone is convinced that consumers will eventually follow brands on Messenger the way they do on Facebook. Michael Africk, CEO and founder of Inmoji, said he thinks bots will behave like apps in the sense that they’ll be independent of brands. For instance, Inmoji offers a bot that works within messaging platforms that lets users see which movies are playing and then buy a ticket.
“That’s an easy way to do it without having to leave the conversation,” he told CMO.com.
Entertainer Or Facilitator?
In some respects, the development of chatbots is mimicking the early days of iPhone apps, when brands developed limited-function apps just to get attention. There have been some silly bots already, including candy brand Trolli’s egg bot, which offers GIFs and random weirdness designed to entertain millennials.
As Microsoft discovered, that can be a risky approach, especially if consumers can help “train” a bot: In March, the company introduced and recalled its Twitter-based chatbot Tay after users taught it to utter offensive statements.
For categories that provide no services and have limited direct interactions with consumers, such as consumer packaged goods, fitting chatbots into a marketing plan can be a challenge. For example, Oreo’s Twitter feed includes Oreo animations and pitches for other products, but will fans be up for seeing those type of communications on Messenger given Mondelez’s recent deal with Facebook that includes using Messenger bots.
Other segments are a better fit. Chatbots can facilitate quick sales service-oriented categories, including banking, airlines, and pizza delivery. That said, eMarketer’s Aho Williams said she doesn’t think Messenger will become an e-commerce portal the way WeChat is in China. She pointed out that China doesn’t have the legacy of phone- and e-mail-based customer service that’s common in the West.
“Although ecommerce will play a role in Messenger, Facebook is choosing to focus more of its attention on an area that many people dislike: customer service,” Aho Williams said. “It believes bots can perform some of these functions faster and with a more positive experience than traditional ways of doing customer service.”
Bumps On The Road
Indeed, many consumers would welcome the idea of having better access to customer service. A 2015 survey from Corvisa found that 26% of respondents said they canceled a service in the previous year because of a frustrating customer service experience. More than half of the respondents said they would hang up if they were on hold for six to 16 minutes.
According to Peter Sena, chief creative officer and founder of Digital Surgeons, artificial intelligence will be able to answer questions quicker and also route customers to live customer-service reps. “I see bots as being able to get us to humans faster,” he said, recalling a problem he had with his cable bill that took 15 minutes of phone time to address. “If I could just open their app, push a button to say, ‘Speak to a support rep and we’ll call in you in X time,’ or push a button to talk to a person–that to me is so much better than picking up the telephone.”
An app–rather than a bot–might be even more effective, some said. As developer Dan Grover noted in an April blog post, ordering a pizza over Microsoft’s bot framework took a total of 73 taps, while doing so via Pizza Hut’s app took a mere 16. Grover wrote that rather than move on to bots, brands should focus on making better apps.
The problem, however, is that it’s difficult to get consumers to download a branded app. By contrast, consumers probably have at least one messaging app on their phones already.
With the help of Facebook and Apple, brands will be looking to penetrate those apps and conversations. They’ll have a hard time, Inmoji’s Africk said.
“I don’t want to see–next to my mom, my brother, and my wife and kids–Starbucks in those conversations,” he said. “I don’t need to make a lifelong connection with the Starbucks bot.”
Ward disagreed. “We see all kinds of use cases,” he said. “Rather than driving people to download an app, having them chat with a bot makes a lot of sense.”