How chatbots are automating one-to-one marketing

Erin Bury

Erin Bury is a Toronto-based marketer and former tech journalist. She is currently the Managing Director at Eighty-Eight, a Toronto-based creative communications agency. Erin is a frequent speaker with Speakers’ Spotlight, writes a monthly column for the Financial Post, is a tech commentator on CTV News, and was named one of Marketing Magazine's Top 30 Under 30 marketers. Her claim to fame is being retweeted by Oprah — twice. Follow Erin on Twitter at @erinbury.

Consider this a prerequisite to her Tech Forum talk about chatbots and how they’re changing marketing.

As everyone who has used Twitter to complain directly to a brand knows, social media helped move marketing from one-way to two-way communication, and brands have incorporated engagement-heavy social media strategies into their marketing mix. Behind every social interaction there’s a Community Manager, Social Media Manager, or “Customer Success Ninja” taking the time to respond to every tweet, and increasingly the robots have come to automate it all. Specifically, chatbots have arrived to help brands provide personalized marketing experiences at scale, without having to employ an army of tweeters.

For the uninitiated, chatbots are software powered by data, and often machine learning and AI, that are designed to simulate human conversation. They live inside messaging apps like Kik and Facebook Messenger, on SMS, or on social networks. They allow brands to automate conversations with their audience, while keeping those conversations completely tailored to the inputs of each user. As iNovia Capital’s Sarah Marion wrote in VentureBeat, “chatbots enable brands to simultaneously reach millions of users, while letting users choose inputs and engage in a personalized conversation relevant to their specific interests and demographics.” Chatbots enable businesses to combine scale with personalization.

Whether you’re using Taco Bell’s Tacobot to order a Crunchwrap Supreme on Slack, or using Slack’s own Slackbot tool to help you get onboarded with the messaging platform, or chatting with the Nordstrom holiday gifting bot about whether you should get your dad a tie or socks for Father’s Day, your interaction with a chatbot will be completely different than your colleague's, or friend's, or any other customer's.

The key for marketers isn’t just that chatbots offer a unique touchpoint with each customer — it’s that they offer the ability to interact with their customers on their preferred messaging platform. If you’re an 18-year-old girl looking to buy a new acne cream, it’s a lot easier (and more discreet) to open up Kik and chat with Sephora’s bot about which product is best for your skin type versus going on the Sephora app or website, and that message history is saved when you need to re-order. Chatbots are often called “invisible apps,” and for good reason: “There’s no new app to download, no new account to create, and, perhaps most importantly, no new user interface to learn,” Kik founder Ted Livingston wrote in a Medium post that outlined why his company has doubled down on chatbots.

Another benefit is the ability to automate interactions that brands are paying people to handle today. Gartner projects that 85% of customer interactions will be managed without a human by 2020, and brands like Barclays Bank have already started testing customer service chatbots. The reason chatbots will beat out human interactions is their ability to store customers’ account and payment data for more seamless interactions. If Rogers launched a RogersBot on Facebook Messenger, for example, customers would be able to easily find out the amount of their latest bill, process their payment, and add a service quickly and easily without ever having to provide an account number, phone number, or credit card number after the first interaction.

There are downsides to eliminating the human touch though. Talking to a chatbot can sometimes feel like calling Kramer’s Moviefone on Seinfeld — chatbots aren’t always trained for enough input variations, so you end up getting a steady stream of “I didn’t understand that” responses — the text equivalent of getting stuck in automated customer service phone system hell. Tech publication The Information recently reported that bots on Messenger only understood 30% of inputs without the need for human intervention.

There’s a reason Facebook’s team took a hybrid approach to M, its smart assistant tool for Messenger. While M is powered by AI, it’s overseen by humans, who are answering questions the machines can’t, but also helping to improve the AI along the way. It’s still the Wild West when it come to chatbots, so while there’s a lot of opportunity for brands, consider augmenting — and not just replacing — the human touch for now.

If you'd like to hear more from Erin Bury about chatbots and the future of marketing, register for Tech Forum, March 23, 2018 in Toronto. You can find more details about the conference here, or sign up for our mailing list to get all of the conference updates.