Written by: Elena Locket
Chatbots – computer programs that mimic conversations with users by using artificial intelligence (AI) – are the latest technology trend to hit the webchat world. There are two types: a chatbot that functions based on certain rules, meaning it will only respond to specific commands, and a chatbot that functions by machine learning (AI). The second is smarter than the first due to its artificial brain which allows it to get continually smarter. This means it will remember previous conversations with you, helping the bot to really understand what you want.
Now, these chatbots weren’t just created so we could have more ‘people’ to talk to – they have a purpose. This can range from anything between helping you purchase a belt on Topshop to answering a customer service query regarding the location of a parcel.
Before the chatbot, if we wanted to check the weather online, for example, we could go to our browser and search using our postcode or check one of the many apps out there that fulfil the same purpose. But, now we are using chatbots – like Kik’s Weather Channel bot and Facebook’s chatbot.
How long have Chatbots been around?
Chatbots aren’t a new creation; they were used in the digital world in 2006 as part of a marketing campaign for the horror flick When a Stranger Calls. This revolved around a chatbot playing the part of Jill Johnson in an AOL Instant Messenger conversation. They were even used as far back as the 1960’s when ELIZA, an early bot, was created to psychoanalyse people. But, it’s over the last few years that they’ve really exploded on the marketplace.
But, why were chatbots created?
We all know that it’s not that much harder to physically type out a search query into Google or go on to a store’s website to make a purchase, so why have developers invested so much time in creating chatbots? It’s because smartphone users have proved that they are only willing to spend their daily screen time on just a handful of their favourite apps, usually including a browser, a couple of messaging and social applications and perhaps a game. So, companies needed to start thinking of clever and unique ways of getting and keeping people’s attention. With so many dwindling opportunities for new mobile apps, developers have had to come up with another path of making mobile software people actually use and may eventually pay for. Not to mention that chatbots provide greater convenience than apps and website searches because they can learn to understand your own natural typing patterns, providing the personal touch websites can sometimes falter on.
How are these being used in the real world?
Chatbots are very smart applications, there’s no two ways around it.
Fashion retailer H&M adds a sales associate into your shopping experience through the use of their own bot. The chatbot will request more information about your personal style through a series of questions so it can begin to recommend outfits to your taste. And, although it’s not an, all-singing, all-dancing, fully-functioning sales maker (because you can’t buy things directly from it), it can give people an idea of where to go on the website to buy the items it suggests to you. But, you can certainly imagine that one day you’ll be able to type “charge it to my debit card and ship on next day delivery to my work address” and the instruction will be carried out. Neat, huh?
So, you can shop using them, but what else?
The world doesn’t revolve around shopping, so chatbots actually do a lot more than offer personal styling advice. One of the principles of chatbots is to replace apps, so, for example, rather than closing Facebook Messenger to open up Uber, you can simply message Uber from inside Facebook and let them know you require a car. It was also created to replace webpages like FAQ’s (Frequently Asked Questions) and reduce the need for human staff to answer customer questions.
A great example of this is San Francisco-based start-up, Assist, who created a chatbot that deals with a whole range of services, including hailing a taxi, ordering a takeaway, buying concert tickets, booking in a haircut or sending a gift – all from one singular chat contact. So, rather than crowding your smartphone with five different apps to complete all these tasks, you can do it with ease by sending a chat to Assist from your preferred chat platform (like Facebook messenger or Slack) and you’ll be sent back a menu of options including ones listed above.
What benefits can chatbots bring to businesses?
It is uncertain when chatbots will transform business communications, but it’s certain they will bring many-a-positive transformation. They could bring fully-scalable customer service where only the more complex queries would need human operators. This could be particularly beneficial for smaller businesses who cannot afford to fill their customer service hours with a human advisor, don’t have the knowledge to provide a good level of customer service or have the ability to access huge audiences previously not available to them. This is especially important with 900 million people using Facebook Messenger, meaning businesses could be missing out on a large portion of their target audience.
What other benefits do chatbots bring? We all know customer data is like gold dust to all businesses but can be tricky to acquire, especially if all your communications are over the phone. But, chatbots can log and store key data points, allowing businesses to personalise customers’ experiences and also improve their own consumer research. Experience-based engagement by a chatbot can also create a feeling of being connected and improve brand image. Both marketing and sales can capitalise on the data collected by using it in highly effective campaigns that improve customer loyalty and give them the upper edge on the competition.
There is no doubt that chatbots are here to stay, with tens of thousands of chatbots expected to be released in 2016. They are going to spread a lot faster now that we have the technology, knowledge and understanding of them, which can allow businesses to rapidly emerge. And, who wouldn’t prefer one application on their smartphone over thirty? One day, we may even wonder what we did without them…
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