Even if you don’t realize it, you’re familiar with bots – automated computer programs that perform specific tasks. A good example is one of the “skills” on Amazon’s Alexa platform (available on Amazon Echo and now on Kindle Fire) that a colleague recently discovered. When she gets frustrated enough to blurt out “Alexa! Where’s my phone?” she no longer has to listen to Alexa patiently respond, “I suggest you retrace your steps,” or “look under the couch.” In combination with the phone app Trackr, Alexa can now call her phone. And that’s a perfect example of a bot in action, executing a simple (or complex) task, or even just serving up the right information at the right time.
Bots have been around for years, but this year we’re starting to hear a lot more about them. One reason is that a year ago, Facebook Messenger added chatbots, (bots that operate on a chat platform such as Messenger) and 2017 is seeing that investment begin to pay off. By Fall of 2016, six months into the experiment, there were already 34,000 Messenger bots and more coming all the time.
There’s been so much growth in this area of digital marketing that this year we’re going to focus our next Marketing GPS Webinar exclusively on how to generate leads through bots, so hold the date: June 21, 2017. We’ll have more information in Part II of this post, but for some background, let’s look at some popular bots in use today and the reasons for their success.
The best bots provide you customized information just when you need it. The worst bots are intrusive, spammy and, if programmed maliciously, a security threat. But the quality of bots has been steadily increasing. Bots like Poncho the Weather Cat provides customized forecasts automatically on whatever basis and for whichever places you need. Smart Way America Realty helps you buy or sell a home. CNN will send you news on a topic you select at times you choose.
And those are just the chatbots on Messenger. Kik, What’sApp and competing platforms offer others, while Siri, Google Assistant, Cortana and Alexa are all digital assistants available from Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon, respectively, each with more functionality than a chatbot. (Facebook’s M is in beta and due to roll out soon.)
Many of these developments have been made possible not due to artificial intelligence, which still requires a sophisticated budget and talent pool, but due to natural language sequencing which puts less intelligent bots in reach of any brand, including small businesses. Unlike apps, which are costly to design and build, a chatbot’s interface is already complete once you pick the platform (e.g., Messenger’s dialogue screens). While app developers must select color palettes, functionality, screen orientation adjustments, connectivity-level performance, etc., chatbot writers simply need to construct dialogue trees that branch in different directions based on a flowchart of most likely user interaction. This makes bots considerably cheaper and quicker to build.
Cheaper than low-wage labor, in fact. So what impact will bots have on your job if you read a script or perform an automated task in our information economy? Chances are: quite a bit. We’ll be taking a look at that in The Rise of Bots, Part II.