As an aficionado of marketing jargon, I have added ‘chatbot’ to my list of commonly used words – which also includes synergy, stakeholder, and ‘ladder up.’ Some question the staying power of ‘chatbots,’ claiming it will go the way of words like ‘beacons’ or ‘hyperlocal.’ On the other hand, we never seem to hear the end of the idea that chatbots are the future of artificial intelligence and will herald a new dawn for brands.

Chatbots are a double-edged sword. They can be genuinely helpful but also have the potential to damage the relationship brands have built with consumers. We therefore have to be careful about jumping on the robotic bandwagon and first consider whether or not a bot is the best fit for a brand.

Often new tech becomes a brief PR flash in the pan, rather than something enduring.

The practical concerns of consumers always trump the visions of companies like Facebook and Google. Statements like “It makes me look ridiculous,” or “It’s too complex” often override new technology.

Yet chatbots can add a lot of value. In their current form they are far from true ‘artificial intelligence;’ they are, in fact, simple pre-determined menus. But they do help solve a really annoying consumer gripe: being put on hold or waiting three days for an email reply. (Is there ever not a long queue when you call your phone provider or credit card company?)

Bots can help consumers get simple stuff done fast. Pizza ordering? No problem. Bank statement? Easy-peasy. They also lack the visual clutter you get from an app or a website. It’s stripped back and functional: you say where you’re going and your price range, and you get some options on a scrolling carousel.

But for many brands, bots are hard to get right. 

For starters, companies reduce the consumer experience to a filtered, simplified, point-and-click process. This might be good for big players like Amazon, but might not help other players. Does a luxury brand, for example, want to go down this path? If I fancy ordering a pair of luxury sneakers for a small fortune, surely part of the pleasure is everything that surrounds the product? What about the store, the website experience, and the human interaction?

Attempts to make bots responsive, or more human, can also be a problem. Poncho, for example, is the Facebook weather bot. A simple ask (‘what’s the weather doing?’) leads me into a five-minute conversation with a software program. It’s fun for a while, but wrongly assumes I want a conversation about the weather with a software program.

We also need to make sure we are not flying too close to the sun. As attention merchants, we don’t want to complicate an audience interaction with technology they didn’t ask for or don’t know how to use. The number one ask for bots has apparently become ‘are you a bot?’

So let’s be careful not to forget… humans. Chatbots can help with simple transactions, but they’re not relevant for many brands. The best customer service is often still face-to-face interactions. We’ve not yet figured out how to code empathy.  

Originally published on Little Black Book

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