As the importance of authentic, two-way conversation with customers stepped up a gear with the advent of social media, brands eagerly took up the challenge to ‘go where their customers go’. More recently, marketers have realised the importance of ever-more personal communication channels.

One particular piece of tech that’s having a monumental impact on marketers’ desire to interact with their customers in a more personal way, is the ‘Chatbot’.

Chatbots, describe artificial intelligence (AI) computer programs that can interact with customers in real-time by simulating authentic two-way conversation. In theory, a game-changer for e-commerce. Truly intelligent automated systems moving into the traditionally labour intensive functions of customer service, support and sales, could offer untold efficiencies and innovations. In terms of their ability to communicate on a truly human level, The Guardian in May this year suggested that “The chatbot, developed by a Chinese team, is seen as a significant step towards the goal of developing emotionally sophisticated robots’, (5th May 2017).

On the other hand, the jury is out on just how capable chatbots are of creating authentic ‘human’ conversation. And more widely, a question remains as to whether chatbots even fill a significant gap and need.

So, are chatbots the revolutionary customer-facing marketing and support tool some claim? Or has their popularity been driven by marketers’ weakness for the ‘next big thing’?

In this piece, I take a closer look at the pros and cons of chatbots, consider whether their time is truly now, and what their wider adoption could mean for marketers.

The pros of chatbots

Consumer autonomy

In the digital economy, customers increasingly wish to be in complete control of their purchasing experience. Further to this, our culture has become increasingly insistent on instant gratification - and chatbots enable this need to be met - by allowing for a computerised instant customer service response, even if only in the form of an acknowledgement.

Ever ahead of the curve, Uber is a good example of a brand giving more control to their customers, by now enabling users to request rides from Facebook Messenger, by starting a conversation with the Uber chatbot, which will also provide status updates.

More cost-efficient and scalable customer support

Chatbots have forced a reimagination of what customer support could be. Though it seems unimaginable right now to consider a completely computerised customer service centre, more and more companies are testing just how far chatbots can be utilised in a drive for more efficient, cost-effective customer services. Chatbots could also prove to be a great leveller, enabling smaller companies to incorporate call centres with the aide of chatbots, making them feel like more feasible, scalable systems.

Data collection and personalisation

Another high-value role that chatbots can play is in their potential to collect and analyse data that can be used to optimise the customer experience, and offer personalised solutions. For instance, chatbots could track and analyse a customer’s purchasing decisions, frequency of enquiry topics, or their navigational behaviours, in order to determine the most relevant information and deliver personalised product recommendations.

A new model for search and navigation

Some suggest that AI could even eventually replace the existing default model for web navigation. That is, instead of finding information via a search tab or menu items and icons, chatbots may open the door for a completely alternative conversation-based interface.

Well-known AI-driven ‘assistants’ such as Siri on iOS and Cortina for Windows are examples of this in action — helping device users to find what they need and perform tasks based on context-based queries, rather than clicking around icons and screens. It could be a matter of time before similar conversational-led interfaces become the norm across websites and apps.

The cons

Intelligent — but not intelligent enough

Though the AI tech behind chatbots is impressive, let’s not get too carried away. Specifically, in relation to their ability to carry out two-way customer support communications, chatbots still seem far from the finished article.

But even with further advancements, some experts believe that the buzz around chatbots as a customer support tool, is somewhat of a red herring. Rather, it’s actually in the field of personalised product discovery where chatbots are set to add the greatest value. Although, that brings us to the next mooted downside of chatbots...

Security and privacy concerns

At their most elementary design, chatbots represent another system for collection of high-volumes of personal data. No matter how authentic the AI personas and conversational skills become, there’s the obvious risk that bots may come to be viewed as invasive, slightly creepy ‘brand pests’ deployed to poke around into what customers are up to, and how that can be manipulated for commercial gain. Confidence in bots will be something that brands will rightly have to earn, rather than expect.

Questionable evidence of consumer demand

Chatbots could facilitate greater customer autonomy, if they don’t become an overbearing presence. Before hatching pie-in-the-sky ideas of super intelligent automated conversationalists, brands should ask themselves: is that actually what our customers want?

Perhaps the strongest case against chatbots is that there’s little compelling evidence of user demand for them. Rather than filling an obvious need, chatbots may yet prove to be the over-engineered plaything of marketing product developers, rather than a compelling solution to consumer demands.

Final thoughts

Although emergent chatbot tech is full of potential for business and consumers, they’re unlikely to be a marketing and customer relations panacea.

Customers today, crave authentic, personalised interactions with brands, as they always have. Yet, there’s little evidence to suggest that large swathes of consumers are desperate for that communication to happen through means of artificial intelligence.

For most of us it seems unlikely that if we’re given the choice, we’d choose to interact with computerised mimicry of human behaviour, rather than the real thing.

We predict a continued experimentation with bots amongst marketers in the coming months and years, and their establishment in specific niches spanning content navigation, discovery and basic customer support.

But more widely, we’re always going to be drawn to communication with real-life human beings. As far as marketers are concerned, for the time being at least, bots can’t compete with or displace the influence of human-to-human interaction and engagement.

  

By Andy Cockburn, CEO at Mention Me


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