At the recently concluded Facebook conference, Mark Zuckerberg announced that the social media giant is opening up its Messenger platform to allow brands to build chatbots into it. For now, this will be a Beta release, though it signals Facebook’s intent to provide more opportunities for advertisers to interact with consumers on what is becoming one of the biggest networks in the world. Chatbots could not have asked for a bigger advocate.
Consider another story; last month, another tech heavyweight, Microsoft released Tay (@tayandyou), a Twitter chatbot, which the company said was an experiment in “conversational understanding”. The idea was that people would tweet to it and carry out conversations with Tay, which would learn and become “smarter” the more it conversed. What happened though was that it took less than 24 hours for the Twitterverse to corrupt the bot and turn it into a racist, misogynist entity. An embarrassment for Microsoft and useful lesson in depending too much on artificial intelligence (AI).
The two examples serve to highlight the extreme variances that chatbots currently find themselves between. The potential for the technology is immense, and brands have already started adopting it for consumer interactions, but the potential for a disaster is also present.
The rise in interest in chatbots is primarily driven by a need by brands to personalize communications, speed up the process and increase productivity.
Take the case of FitCircle, a health and nutrition start-up, which recently created a chatbot on their App, Slack, WhatsApp and Facebook. Aarti Gill, Co-founder of FitCircle, informed us that the company has already carried out 20,000 consultations through the chatbot and has seen queries resolved increase from 40-50 to 80-100 by using a combination of experts and chatbots. The potential for this number, she says, is as high as 200.
“People are downloading apps but not keeping them for a long time. However, the apps being used the most are messaging apps so brands can take advantage of them. In a connected world what is lacking is the human touch, which chatbots provide. Though it is a powerful tool, it needs to learn,” she said.
Gupshup, a Silicon Valley-based tech company launched its own bot building platform in India earlier this month. “Bots are the new apps. Bots will transform virtually every aspect of our lives, making it simpler and easier to engage with businesses and brands just by chatting with them,” said Beerud Sheth, founder and CEO of Gupshup. He added, “Every business and brand will have to develop a bot strategy quickly. Gupshup.io offers the most advanced tools globally for developers preparing to meet the explosive demand for messaging bots and services.”
According to one research, by 2018 nearly 3.6 billion people will have at least one messaging app on their smartphone. Even in India, as seen across the globe, companies from BFSI, tech start-ups, travel, etc. are all jumping on the bandwagon of chatbots. China has already proved that a digital ecosystem that works almost entirely via messaging apps is not just feasible but actually thrives. In China, the entire purchase funnel actually takes place via the popular messaging apps. According to an eMarketer study done last year, m-commerce accounts for 49.7 per cent of all e-commerce transactions in China. India has still to reach that level of maturity but it might not be far away.
“Messaging is more engaging than even mobile games. It is the most natural way to talk on mobiles so chatbots are inevitable. They are far more consumer-led than e-mails. It is really high in the hype cycle right now but I do see it becoming one of the primary modes of communication in the next 2-3 years,” opined Mihir Karkare, VP at Mirum India.
The hype surrounding chatbots is for good reason, said Gautamm Mehra, VP (Social Media) at iProspect India. Explaining the attraction that marketers have for chatbots, he said, “In the early days we had telephone operators who we sacrificed to get scale and speed by moving things online. Now, a brand can carry out communication faster and with a personal touch through chatbots.”
When asked about whether he sees technologies like chatbots as a primary mode of communication in the future, Mehra opined that the world is definitely moving towards unstructured communications that are not interface-led. This means that technologies like virtual reality, augmented reality and chatbots are going to be increasingly used, and preferred, by both marketers and consumers.
“It has a mix of scalability and the personal touch so it will definitely be one of the main communication modes but not the only one. Brands also have to understand that they need to promote and maintain the bot. This takes money. Also, what is the scope of the bot? Which questions can it answer? It is best to start this channel (chatbot) with a limited scope as the platform itself is at a very early stage,” he added.