In August, the White House’s chief digital officer announced a new way to catch President Obama’s ear: a Messenger bot, allowing citizens to “speak” directly to the administration through their Facebook accounts. The U.S. government hasn’t historically been an early adopter of new technology, so if it’s embracing bots, you know they’re having a moment.
Earlier this year, I predicted that 2016 would be the year of “conversational commerce,” my name for businesses introducing themselves into what had previously been personal messaging channels. Brands and companies have joined social media in droves, using the platforms as easy ways to broadcast content to their followers. Until recently, it was the rare exception that you could send a company a direct message and expect a useful reply. Now, as the messaging platforms relax their rules and add more business-friendly functions, innovative brands are realizing that messaging offers the kind of convenience that drives engagement—and the kind of intimacy that inspires deep customer loyalty.
But how can a brand support hundreds (better yet, hundreds of thousands) of personal conversations in parallel? One answer: deploy a bot.
It’s a rare moment when it becomes clear that a technological revolution is upon us, and I believe we’re in the midst of one such transition right now. Even if you haven’t realized it yet, bots are everywhere. If you’ve ever talked to Siri, scheduled an appointment over email with someone named Amy Ingram, or set up a team meeting with a curiously helpful assistant in Slack, you’ve already had a close encounter with a bot! Bots have the potential to save us time, hassle, and tedium by automating mundane tasks, like gathering your team’s lunch preferences or building a travel itinerary, which could typically eat up hours of your time. Brands are catching on too, as evidenced by the throngs of businesses developing their mechanized messengers.
Consider how many platforms have launched or opened up to support bots and businesses in the first eight months of 2016 alone:
Even as companies rush to develop their tools, bots are evolving. New experiences, from booking an Uber within Facebook Messenger to listening to tweets with Amazon Echo’s Alexa, are demonstrating early utility from these new computing platforms, opening up a new battlefield for tech companies to compete to attract the best developers.
Recently, usage of messaging apps surpassed feed-based social networks for the first time, according to Business Insider Intelligence:
1. While on the voice call, tap Video call
2. The contact you're voice calling will see a request to switch to a video call and can accept or decline the switch.
Our constant messaging contributes to the popularity of chatbots, which exist in the same context as conversations with friends and colleagues. Still, more than a few of my friends and colleagues are mystified by the trend. Why bots and why now? Most bots are too immature to justify their hype. But to understand the sudden surge of interest, we have to consider two key developments.
The first is the profound shift in how we experience computers, a relationship that’s been over forty years in the making. The early days of computing weren’t about entertainment or social engagement. The driving forces were money, military, and machinery. First-generation computers were built to help people retrieve, process, and share large amounts of information. Early knowledge workers sat (or stood) stationary at their workstations—expensive machines designed for handling complex computational tasks.
This style of work influenced the design of computer systems and provided a strategic advantage to businesses and the military alike. These early computers were bulky, complex, and expensive, the property of the wealthy institutions that could afford to maintain them. Most importantly, the machines were shared; there was no concept of privacy. That’s in sharp contrast to today’s social, mobile, fast-moving world, where we can take our work anywhere and blur the boundaries between our personal and professional lives. Now we each have a supercomputer in our pockets, and ease of use and approachability are the deciding factors in the devices we adopt as our own.
Not until 2007, when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, did we have a truly “personal computer” — personal not only because it fits in your hand, but also because it introduced new behavior patterns into daily life. The iPhone was designed to be used by an individual, and because of this, social computing spread like wildfire, flamed by the rise of social networks. Not long ago, people were freaked out about their information ending up on the internet; now people get bummed when their Instagram photos don’t get a sufficient number of likes from strangers.
The second cultural shift driving the bots' trend is newer: the declining value of apps. Since Apple introduced the App Store in 2008, businesses have kept busy building apps to stay current and reach their increasingly mobile customers. More and more, we’re living on our smartphones, and platforms like Apple and Google have preserved the familiar “app”—represented as a squarish icon on a flat “desktop” surface—as a container in which each company could house its service.
But the novelty of downloading and trying new apps is beginning to wear thin. The last thing we want is one more app cluttering up our home screens and draining our batteries (save for Pokémon Go, apparently). Though developers continue to make apps, consumers are less likely to download them and enable app notifications. Considering that nearly half of U.S. smartphone users download zero apps per month, the situation seems dire for app makers.
So as app growth sputters to a halt, businesses are panicking. How can they make money if they can’t get people to download their apps? One answer is to meet users where they are — in messaging apps. And that means launching bots.
Rather than force consumers to stop what they’re doing and open a new app, chatbots allow companies to inject themselves into the places where people are already communicating. Instead of stopping to wait, download, and install an app (let alone find that app in the first place), users can call an Uber or schedule a meeting without disrupting the flow of their current conversations. This seamless experience puts services in reach of the many people who wouldn’t bother to visit the App Store.
What people want are integrated tools that make it easier to do regular tasks in a comfortable and familiar place: Within a conversation.
Those conversations need not be text-based; speech is also a conduit. Already you can see this happening in Apple’s latest mobile operating system, iOS 10, which finally opened up its voice-activated digital assistant, Siri, to third-party developers. For years, Siri couldn’t talk to outside apps—you could ask Siri to add a meeting to iCal, but you couldn’t ask it to order an Uber to get you there. No longer. With the latest update, Siri handles both seamlessly.
If you think back to the iPhone before the App Store, people were confused about how to best adapt desktop apps to smaller, touch-activated mobile screens. We’re in a similar moment with bots: Curiosity is high, but we’re still working out the best-use cases. A lot of businesses have made significant strides this year, even though the tools and platforms are in their infancy. From interactive publishers like Purple to on-demand photo filter services like Prisma, to clever devices offering “computer vision” like the WTFBot, creative bots abound.
As such, I expect many more companies to jump on the trend. The shift is inevitable: Businesses must go where their customers are. But I hope brands stop and soak up the moment, rather than seeing conversations as another channel for scamming unsuspecting consumers. With proper forethought and consideration, bots present a new, unpolluted opportunity to build lasting relationships with people. Brands should ask themselves why they exist, and then think critically about how a conversational encounter can support their mission.
Bots, like the apps before them, aren’t a panacea. Bots won’t save your business or make you great if you don’t already care deeply about your customers. But bots can make it easier to interact with people in contexts that feel safe and familiar. If brands and companies seize the opportunity to meet people where they are in their technological evolution, they’ll be rewarded with relationships that endure.