An introduction to chatbots: the future of customer engagement

Chatbots are growing in popularity and are set to take off in 2017 - but what are they? And why do they represent such a significant marketing opportunity?

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Chatbots

Social media chatbots represent a the bold new frontier for SMEs and marketing professionals. But what exactly are chatbots? How can you use them? And why do they represent such a huge opportunity?

Over 2.5 billion people have at least one messaging app installed. WhatsApp users spend an average of nearly 200 minutes each week on the service, and the growth of the four largest messaging apps exceeds that of the four largest social networks.

The big players are trying to address that. Facebook has made a big play in chat this year, with Mark Zuckerberg announcing the arrival of bots to Facebook Messenger by saying in April that he has “never met anyone who likes calling businesses”.

Twitter followed suit by bolstering their own automated customer service offering. Businesses now have the option to set up automated DM welcome messages and present customers with a range of topics, giving brands the ability to welcome a customer and direct their query without involving a human at all.

Bottom line: chat bots are here to stay and are set to explode over the next 12 months.

What are chatbots?

Think of chatbots as human-to-robot instant messaging. Using artificial intelligence and carefully-written computer scripts, chatbots can recognise natural language to have rudimentary conversations with your customers – answering questions and interacting just as another human might.

But what does this mean for marketing?

Chatbots, consumers and the culture of immediacy

The always-on nature of the internet has changed consumer expectations. In a recent survey, 63.9% of consumers agreed that businesses should be available via instant messaging, while 49.4% said they would rather use a messaging application than a phone call to communicate with a business.

Response entitlement drives the perception that businesses should be ready to respond anytime, anywhere. Leaving a customer waiting for the answer to a query can impact their perception of your brand. It could even mean the difference between making a sale and losing a potential customer.

Chatbots don’t sleep. When your customer service team clocks off, chatbots take over. It gives you a way to respond to customers the moment they need you: fielding queries, processing orders and triaging enquiries to humans when necessary.

But perhaps most crucially, consumers want to engage with chatbots. While traditional marketing is pushed to apathetic, disengaged consumers, chatbots pull users towards them. The audience is already captive. And therein lies the opportunity.

How can chatbots be used for marketing?

Chatbots are an emerging technology. But already there are several examples of how you can use them to promote your products, engage customers and boost revenue. For example, a chatbot for a travel business could ask the consumer a few questions about the type of getaway they are looking for, before retrieving relevant deals.

Or instead of forcing a consumer to navigate your entire catalogue of women’s fashion, they could ask your chatbot to retrieve black dresses that are available for delivery in size 14. Or media companies such as CNN can deliver the exact type of news a reader is looking for, giving the user an interactive mobile experience and CNN another way to engage with its audience.

The more you think about it, the bigger the opportunity becomes.

CNN Chatbot

A new way to engage your audience

What do you think provides a more engaging experience for your target audience? Filling in a form on your website? Or entering a two-way conversation based on their specific needs? Chatbots give you an opportunity to create memorable interactions with your audience and build rapport. Rapport means loyalty. Loyalty means revenue.

Personalised interactions and targeted offers

The more targeted your marketing, the more successful it is likely to be. The 1-to-1 nature of instant messaging allows chatbots to go where traditional marketing can’t, asking questions such as ‘What’s your favourite pizza topping?’, ‘What’s your dream holiday destination?’ or ‘How often do you go to the movies?’.

This is great for two reasons: 1) it gives you rich data on your target audience and 2) because chatbots remember user data, you can create interactions that feel far more personalised and authentic – sending offers that are relevant to each individual user.

Improve marketing strategy

Chatbots make it possible to gather huge amounts of data on your audience’s likes, dislikes, needs, fears and desires. That can help inform your marketing strategy across all channels – from social media and email newsletters to print and radio ads.

Easier than apps

Mobile apps are great. But they cost a lot to develop and are a pain to update. Chatbots live on a server and are easy to create. The skill lies in how you script your chatbot to facilitate natural-sounding, on-brand interactions.

The time is now…

Chatbots allow your business to have meaningful, personalised one-on-one interactions with a limitless audience – with no drain on your human resources. It empowers your audience to control the way they interact with your brand, breaking down the traditional barriers between business and consumer. That’s why the opportunity is so exciting.

In the near future, consumers will expect to be able to contact businesses via instant message as well as email, social media and phone. Yet few SMEs are aware of how chatbots could benefit their business, let alone have a strategy for implementing them in their marketing plan. Early adopters could transform audience engagement, market share and reach.

Which is why everyone’s talking about chatbots.

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