Chatbots and communications – is AI all that it’s cracked up to be?

Alison Brown | Group Account Director Social Media, Technology

Image of chatbots

Technology is helping brands connect with customers better than ever before. Through chatbots and social media, brands can engage with customers at levels that drive the desire to purchase.

Brands that are seen to prioritise online customer engagement and respond quickly to enquiries are generally well regarded. Facebook has made it even easier for customers to measure and compare the responsiveness of brands by reporting on Message Response times.

The expectation that customers have to be digitally connected to brands has seen a wave of interest in chatbots. 

What are chatbots?

Essentially, a chatbot is a computer program that responds to a person’s questions online with a level of intelligence. For example, a chatbot operated by a travel company through Facebook Messenger can answer your travel-related questions and potentially even help you book a tour or flight.

In July 2016, there were more than 11,000 chatbots built around Facebook Messenger and more than 23,000 developers had signed up for the platform’s bot engine. In announcing the figures, Facebook’s VP of messaging products David Marcus said the social media giant was “looking forward to building a future of amazing Messenger experiences powered by the community of developers, businesses and people who use Messenger every day.”

More than a year on, large, smart companies the world over are using chatbots to connect their goods and services with customers. This is particularly true of companies targeting young people who spend a lot of time on messaging apps, like Facebook Messenger, Snapchat and WhatsApp. It should come as no surprise that fast food retailers like Taco Bell in the US are using chatbots to help people order food. In the UK, online ticketing agency TickX has developed a chatbot that people can engage with to find and purchase the event tickets within a certain price range. Clothing retailer H&M also has a chatbot which learns about your personal style through your photos then recommends outfits.

Chatbots seem to be enjoying an extended honeymoon period because as with most new concepts, people will open messages delivered through bot technology and click through to explore and test their capabilities. As a result, the message open and click-through rates in chatbots are relatively high at around 80% – great if you’re a brand trying to reach your target consumer.

But it won’t last and the chatbot novelty will wear off.

As more brands have jumped on the chatbot bandwagon, tools have emerged, like Manychat, that make it easy for non-developers to create a Facebook messenger chatbot. Naturally, this appeals to many companies who may not have the budget for a developer. It’s conceivable that these companies will create something that won’t be particularly engaging or useful. Other companies will launch a bot but won’t maintain it. In both cases, the user will have a bad chatbot experience and their interest in chatbots will decline.

Artificial vs Human Intelligence

Facebook remains at the cutting edge of artificial conversational intelligence, investing in research to offer brands more sophisticated ways to enhance the consumer experience in the chatbot space. But they don’t always get it right.

This month, Facebook was forced to shut down a chatbot experiment that resulted in two chatbots developing their own language to communicate.

They experimented with teaching two chatbots, Alice and Bob, how to imitate human speech and negotiate with one another to broker a deal. But the experiment failed when AI researchers discovered that the bots, when left to their own devices, developed their own ‘machine language’. While the bots could communicate effectively with each other using this new language, the phrasing no longer resembled typical human speech or online interaction.

One day, Facebook may succeed in its endeavour to develop AI that can independently think and respond just like a human. But in 2017, for the brands and companies that Blink PR works with, it’s authenticity that connects them with their target audience.

It’s the expression of fears, desires and humour that are the hallmarks of being human that strengthen those connections. Whether you’re in the B2B or B2C space, it’s the H2H (Human to Human) approach that gets the most cut-through.