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What You Should Know About Chatbots in 2017

When it comes to bots and artificial intelligence, it’s hard for me to shake the dystopian Sci-Fi worlds depicted in The Matrix. But at SXSW 2017, after attending the panel entitled Facebook Messenger and the Rise of the Chatbot, I had a change of heart. It seems as though the bots don’t quite want to enslave humanity (yet), and just want to be helpful. I can get behind that.

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The ground is fertile for brands to implement chatbots as a clever way to interact with customers. Here are some of the tips that I picked up from the session—along with building a couple of bots on my own—that could help your company explore this new territory.

Facebook Messenger Is King

If you’re going to make a chatbot, you should go where all the people are. And the biggest party in town is on Facebook. The company took a big gamble in 2014 when it stripped out the messaging piece from the core Facebook platform to become a standalone app called Messenger. But in fact, it was a shrewd move that enabled interactions with brands alongside interactions with friends. With a massive user base, this is the logical choice of where to start your chatbot.

While SMS may be seen as a platform similar to Messenger, panelist Thomas Smyth, co-founder of Trim (an app that leverages chatbots to save consumers money on services), said that it pales in comparison to Messenger:

We see 3x better engagement on Messenger than we do on SMS.

Natural Language Processing Isn’t There Yet…

One of the sexiest things about making a chatbot is trying to create an experience where the end user can’t tell the difference between the bot and a person. Many take it as a personal challenge to recreate the virtual entity from movie Her for their chatbot. But the fact of the matter is that Natural Language Processing (NLP) just isn’t there yet.

We have hundreds of thousands of bots in our platform, and we see within the first minute that if we don’t do it right, people try to pressure the bot,

said Andrew Yaroshevsky, COO of bot building platform Chatfuel.

Until the NLP technology progresses, it can just feel contrived or fishy. This will leave the users with a less-than-exceptional experience. Fortunately, there’s a way to work around this. 

…So Take Advantage of Menus and Buttons

Fortunately, a chatbot doesn’t have to be a human clone; it simply needs to answer a person’s question or help them get more information.

Until the NLP is there, you just need to do the job of mixing the guided approach with a free-form [text] approach,

Yaroshevsky explained.

Mikhail Larionov, engineer at Facebook on the Messenger platform, validated this method and said that menus and buttons have streamlined the approach for many of the brands building chatbots. For example, Larionov looked at ordering a pizza in Messenger, and it turned out that a user who approaches the task through conversation versus buttons results in 10 times as many steps.

“For us, it’s really more about shortening the time between the user intent and successful action,” Larionov told the audience. “It’s really about the use case, the tool set that you have, and [the] multiple ways you can solve the case.”

Messenger as a Paid Marketing Chanel

While not explicitly stated in the talk, it seems that Facebook is looking at Messenger to be the de facto inbox between you and your friends. And with more eyeballs on the platform, it’s only natural for Facebook to find a way to monetize it.

Facebook Messenger has 1.2 billion monthly users as of April 2017.

Some marketers may have noticed the ability to launch a Sponsored Message campaign inside Messenger with those individuals who have interacted with your page. This is an interesting way to be able to reach out to potential customers one-to-one with a persistent message; as opposed to Sponsored Posts, the message will be persistent in an individual’s Messenger history (assuming they don’t delete/block you).

The prospect of interacting with a person who has already demonstrated interest in your brand is tremendous. It’s also new territory that marketers haven’t “ruined” quite yet, so it can be highly effective at getting your message across because people haven’t learned to tune out the noise. The only trick is that you have to get folks to interact with your brand over Messenger before you can market to them.

The Bots Are Coming

Just as Paul Revere warned of the British, I’m here to tell you that the chatbots are coming! The chatbots are coming! As our digital interactions continue to evolve, it’s important for digital marketers to stay abreast of the latest trends.

As social media evolves from being a channel to share everything globally to one where you interact directly with your friends, Messenger presents unique opportunities in the current digital landscape.

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Garrett Heath

Garrett Heath works as a social marketer for Rackspace, the #1 managed cloud company. He has previous experience as a content marketer and a technical project manager, maintains a blog on the food and culture of San Antonio and is an inventor of the Pi Pie Pan . You can find him on Twitter at @pinojo

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