AdAge recently ran a piece about chatbots, the contents of which were directed at Chief Marketing Officers. As chatbots become more common and frequently used and customers—particularly millennials—are comfortable interacting with them, we can expect their use by brands to soar. If marketing and customer service are using chatbots, what are the implications for communications and PR?
What are chatbots?
Chatbots are interactive artificial intelligence (AI), designed to emulate human interaction primarily through voice interaction. There are a lot of examples, but some that come to mind are the Amazon Alexa line and Google assistants, along with a lot of individual brand applications that allow you to do anything from ordering food to making an airline reservation to resolving routine customer service questions.
Why the sudden increase in chatbots?
Chatbots have been around for a while, so it’s probably more accurate to note that there’s been an increase in the interest in chatbots. As the AdAge piece notes, some of the recent upswing in interest can likely be attributed to Facebook. When Facebook launched Messenger Platform, its chatbot API, developers started tinkering and so did many major brands. Facebook is probably only part of the story though. Amazon’s Alexa line (Echo and Dot) and Google Home have also been successful—these devices were one of the hot holiday gifts in late 2016. The era of being alone in a room, asking a question out loud and expecting an answer has begun.
What are brands doing with chatbots?
As expected, much of the initial crop of brand chatbots focus on individualizing product recommendations to lead to sales. For example, last March beauty chain Sephora launched a chatbot on Kik, a mobile messaging app. Customers are asked a few simple questions, and the answers allow the chatbot to deliver an appropriate response, makeup video, or suggested product. Other brands follow a similar pattern, suggesting clothing or food items.
Where does PR fit into all of this?
Right now, the most obvious link between chatbot use and the practice of public relations comes in the form of customer service. Customer service and PR go hand-in-hand, for both the good and the bad. Good customer care means good PR, and bad customer service can lead to negative PR (or, if it’s really awful, can lead to a crisis).
As programming chatbots becomes more sophisticated, they can tackle customer service inquiries, either alone or in conjunction with a human customer service representative. Brands can assess what their most frequent customer service queries are, and program chatbots to respond appropriately; if the issue is more complex, the customer gets bumped to a human who can then hopefully address the issue to the customer’s satisfaction.
Of course, this means that chatbots should be programmed with a company’s PR at least somewhat in mind. Microsoft learned this the hard way when it introduced a chatbot named Tay to Twitter, only to have Twitter users exploit the AI learning capabilities of the bot, turning it into a total jerk in less than 24 hours.
So, while there is likely a role for chatbots in PR’s future, for now much of the focus for PR practitioners will be on the cautionary side, waiting to see how the future of interactive AI unfolds.