Chatbots: Marketing Tools You Can Fit into Your Content Strategy

February 2, 2017 Kyle Harper

Picture of the back of a number of computers

The lives of marketing technology officers, chief marketing technologists, and other martech professionals are often complicated and draining. Whether they’re in control of buying decisions or implementing new marketing tools, the swing between the excitement for a new solution to the drudgery of actually supporting those solutions can take a large toll. From budget burdens to committing their team’s man hours—the payoff for every new implementation has to be worth it.

As a marketer for a large B2B company, imagine you’re presented with a scalable solution that would improve the efficiency of your customer service, reduce overhead, and could operate 24/7. Oh, and it would be entirely in-house—no third-party service or call center that’s likely to muddle your brand image. Sounds like a dream, right?

Only catch: how do you feel about robots? Or rather, bots.

Over the past couple of years, chatbots have become an increasingly popular tool for companies looking to improve their capacity to answer customer questions and requests. Now, thanks to Facebook launching chatbot support for its messenger service back in April 2016, more companies than ever are embracing the automated customer service platform to reduce some of the human burden on the more tedious elements of their content strategy.

Are chatbots the next necessary thing for your marketing mix? Or do they still have a limited use case?

Novelty and the Uncanny Valley

The first important thing to understand about chatbots is what the technology can and cannot do. Ideally, the technology should be able to do three things:

  1. Convincingly mimic pleasant human interaction
  2. Solve problems and provide answers as presented by a user
  3. Improve in its ability to do the above two points over time

In practice today, chatbots are primarily able to do number two.

Chatbots that can hold complex conversations are difficult to produce. Most approaches involve machine learning (number 3), which is a process by which a chatbot’s program is supposed to optimize over time, given enough input from users.

The problem, however, is that people aren’t always pleasant or precise online. And machines are really good at learning. Even the bad stuff.

Microsoft learned this the hard way when they invited Twitter to try and help its chat AI, Tay, learn how to speak. In less than 24 hours, the bot went from being “cool with humans” to spouting racist rhetoric, and was subsequently shut down. This was a natural evolution from a similar problem that IBM’s supercomputer service Watson also faced back in 2013 when it accidentally memorized all of Urban Dictionary and began cursing at users.

So in terms of fully mimicking human interaction, chatbots today have to be far more limited in scope to minimize the chance that they’re ability to optimize goes off the rails and breaks the program as a whole. The result is often a sort of uncanny valley problem, where chatbots are very close to seeming human, but in their few errors they break the illusion in an uncomfortable way.

In response, the most successful brands using chatbots have done two things. First, they’ve embraced the idea of using a bot, publically announcing it and making the novelty of the marketing tool a draw for their content strategy, rather than something they try to hide. Secondly, they narrow the scope of the chatbot’s interactions tightly so that users know pretty much exactly how to interact with it, keeping optimization tighter while also managing user expectations.

Novel Chatbots at Work

Following the novel chatbot model, some B2C brands have seen enormous success.

Uber has embraced Facebook’s messenger platform, making it possible for people to contact a “representative” who can schedule a ride for them.

It’s a service that’s similar to Uber’s regular offering (messenger is primarily used on mobile devices—as is Uber’s app), but the simple pleasure and convenience of allowing a user to engage other friends in the scheduling conversation, while interacting with a “rep,” has proven useful for the brand’s users.

Sephora, by comparison, has fully embraced messenger bots as a primary tool to tell its brand story, producing bots that can do everything from scheduling an appointment for your next visit to picking out makeup that matches your skin tone. The focus shifts from a person being on the other end of the line to a tool that provides the user a space they’re familiar with.

Sephora chatbot

But while the B2C space has been engaging with chatbots for some time now, these marketing tools have been comparatively slower to pickup in the B2B space. Some brands are seeing great successes with the technology, however.

Expensify is a great example. As a platform, Expensify is supposed to automate the process of gathering and organizing expense reports from your company’s employees. To support this, its chatbot “concierge” walks users through the process of submitting expense information, actively troubleshooting potential problems as it goes along, simultaneously making the process easier for the user while protecting the data for the automated platform to use. The result? A reported 75 percent decrease in banking errors.

Expensify Concierge

The potential for bots that can collect data from human users and then drop it into automated data handling is absolutely enormous. It’s one of the many reasons that marketing technology giant Salesforce has announced the launch of its Live Message service, which offers brands the ability to build and scale their own chatbots.

This is perhaps one of the most powerful moves for brands to take note of, because it makes it possible for companies to actually customize a tool for their own B2B experience—experiences which are often more complex or particular than a standard B2C customer service interaction. It’s also a move that has heated up the competition between Salesforce and Microsoft, signaling that brands may have multiple fully developed services to choose from in very short order.

Embracing the Bot

So it brings us back to our tech officer’s original question: are chatbots a useful tool to embrace right now?

If your brand is looking for a large, all-encompassing communication solution, then absolutely not. The technology isn’t there yet for brands to be cutting out the human part of telling a story. However, if your brand has an idea to solve a particular problem for your audience that can be automated, then there might be a fun way to work chatbots into your content strategy.

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About the Author

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