Pontifications on Chat Bots and AI in Marketing

Retro Robot on a White Background

Someone asked a question this morning on new-comer professional social networking platform Alignable regarding the efficacy of Facebook Bots. It got me thinking about a lot, from the actual use of a Bot and AI, the future of online vs human-based shopping, and the fear of a computer-driven world as we adopt AI into our lives. I can’t help but recall that that not-so-great Will Smith movie?

Rogue robots in cheesy, yet increasingly plausible sci-fi plots aside, how should marketers adopt Bots into their marketing strategies?

Several commenters on the post expressed a hesitancy to allow Bots on Facebook, saying keep social social with the human connection. Or, my favorite, Chocolate over Technology. But a blanket statement like this could really hurt business in the long run.  See, not everyone wants to keep social social. More and more people are going to Facebook to shop….In a 2014 study, 30% of buyers go to a small business’ Facebook page BEFORE they visit the brick and mortar…and that was almost 4 years ago. In the rapid evolution and adoption of the web, that’s ancient history. In 2015, 9% of Facebook users expressed an interest Amazon’s Buy Now button.  So what? 91% didn’t? For context, 9% is 140 million users. That’s more than double the populations of the Top 100 US Cities combined.

Not a bot.
Bots are becoming increasingly smarter and more sophisticated.

Sure, we know that people shop online. But let’s talk about the introduction of AI, or artificial intelligence, into the mix. Chat Bots are simply digital concierges that start their relationship with you, the human, in a predictable way to make you feel comfortable. Then they listen to your questions and ask you pointed questions to derive a better understanding of who you are. They look at the past shopping history by cookies they and other sites have placed on your machine. They build a profile and, in turn, deliver to you what they think you want using your own natural language. If they don’t deliver the first time, AI is the master of learn and repeat. Creeped out yet?  Wait.

A bot that just wants to socialize.
Why can’t we be friends?

Some of the best bots are following you around, site to site, store to store, building a better profile of who you are and what you’re looking for. So those jeans you looked at yesterday? Today, your personal concierge will show you the perfect top to match. The day after that it will give you advice on the proper laundry detergent. And the day after that, the perfect washing machine. Within a year the AI is recommending that you should move to Vale, Colorado because it now knows you’ve searched for jeans and sweatshirts, new allergy meds, and mountain lodges for rent within the past few months.

Sure, the technology is not there quite yet and I spent the last few moments to scare you. But, seriously, how scared were you? In truth, probably not so much until you saw something that you felt went too far. And there’s my thesis about Bots and AI.  

Is the use of bots and AI right for your business? Yes. Emphatically, Yes. But to what degree is completely dependent upon your product and your audience. Bots accomplish two things: they give your business, large or small, an element of “cool”, and they provide a bridge between a passive offering of your wares, and intense customer engagement. In short, these bots allow your customer to engage with your business until they become qualified and committed. When is that? Well, that’s sort of up to you knowing how far you client will be willing to accept interaction with a computer.

We can scratch the surface of this process by looking at consumer behavior offline. Who, and at what point, is a consumer willing use the self-checkout vs. the actual cashier at the supermarket? The Hardee’s (Carl’s Jr.) near my home offers a discount to use the computer ordering screen sitting at the front counter – directly in front of a human cashier. Starbucks offers orders through their mobile app, just walk in the store and your caffeine is waiting with your name on it.   Would you buy a television at Best Buy without speaking to a sales rep?   What about a car? (Have you seen Carvana’s vending machine in downtown Nashville?)

There’s no right or wrong answer.  We’ve adopted automation into many aspects of our lives. Many have adapted automation and AI into nearly every aspect of their lives, so that the idea of interacting with a computer to answer questions about products (Google, the verb), learn more about our behavior in order to improve the product choices (Google Shopping), and transacting money for products or services without ever seeing another human being (Google Wallet), should not be foreign to us.  But knowing when to disengage the robot and introduce a human for the sake of compassion and understanding is the key to successful launch of Chat Bots.

AI is here. It’s been here. But now it’s becoming useful, practical. That means we are exiting the stage of fear. While in an Orwelian point of view, we’re making ourselves more vulnerable through desynthesis, the future may not be so gloomy after all. We’ll always have hope in Wall-E and BayMax (let the Imagineers design AI).