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AI, Bots & Messaging

Roundtable insights from media, brands and product teams

Bots, AI & Messaging is big business. We got a group of brands, media, technology and agencies together to discuss opportunities

Although bots have been with us for some time now,  — the combination of advances in the underpinning technology, wider usage and improved customer experience — have placed them right in the centre of the fourth industrial revolution. Messaging platforms are growing rapidly and bots are helping drive that growth.

User numbers for the main messaging platforms (Whatsapp adds around 1bn MMAU)

Senior marketing, technology, brand and content experts from Sony, Pan Macmillan Stylus, Wolf Ollins, Redwood, Blink, and Spiral got together at BAM Mobile HQ to talk about how bots, AI & messaging can help businesses connect better with their customers.

“The whole bots and messaging space is the first technology in a long time that made me sit up and think this could be a game changer for our customers’” — James Luscombe, Marketing Technology Director, Pan Macmillan

As with any good roundtable there were some strong opinions voiced; How useful bots are, whether they are a fad, how they could affect the future of brand communication. Some Key themes emerged from the session which we’ll outline below.

Firstly, we asked the group the one thing they would like to know by the end of the roundtable — we used these to form the basis of the discussion.

  • Will bots replace apps?
  • What are the main bot challenges?
  • Are brands ready for bots?
  • Are they the future or just a fad?
  • How do we avoid negative connotations?
  • What do we do next?

1. “Only businesses with large marketing spend will continue to get traction from users in the app world”

The question ‘will bots replace apps’ split the group On the ‘yes’ side there was strong opinion that the current app experience was showing its age and that it was next to impossible for new apps to find an audience.

Whilst the ‘no’s’ proposed there would always be a need for apps in cases such as gaming, photography and social networks themselves

Will bots replace apps?

Paul Fletcher, Product Architect at workplace software company Blink noted that in big enterprise in the work space, apps and legacy issues cause a lot of friction — with different logins, interfaces to remember. Chat interfaces were just ‘easier to understand and use’.

Roy Murphy from BAM Mobile put foward that mobile devices weren’t going anywhere but ‘single app silos’ will die out.New technologies such as deep linking, instant articles and AMP would help ‘redefine the current app experience’ to make it simpler to access content and easier to use.

‘No one wants to go to the bother of downloading an app, use it once, forget about it, when it’s still there silently taking up valuable space on your mobile device’ — Paul Fletcher, Product Architect, Blink.

User experience designer Robbie Tingey put forward that there were strong use cases for both apps and bots and that apps ‘wouldn’t be disappearing any time soon’. — particularly in areas such as design, architecture, and the creative industries in general.

Will bots become more app like?

Rui Teimao from BAM picked up on this suggesting Apple’s move towards visual messaging would drive messaging to be more app-like. He suggested that ‘current chatbots are in their early phase — messaging could well end up more like an app experience’.

Mike Burgess from Mobile product business BAM added that ‘there is an excitement around the messaging area — it feels like there are opporunities for brands to do something valuable for their customers’ he noted that interest from businesses in developing messaging solutions had increased significantly this year compared with other platforms.

2. “Brands that understand how to talk to human beings have a clear advantage

Branding = Experiences

How will brands keep their identity if communication is automated? Andy Dobson, Technical Director at branding agency Wolf Ollins proposed that bots were part of a bigger trend towards experiences — that end users don’t really care how their experience changes across platforms, as long as it is relevant to them.

He went on to note that ‘traditional elements of branding such as visual identity and tone of voice need to be viewed in a more strategic way’ and that the touchpoints of multiple consumers need to be consistent for customers to feel comfortable and connect more — though this doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be visual.

“Everything is converging around an overall experience design approach, independent of channel” — Andy Dobson, Technology Director, Wolf Ollins

Mike Burgess from BAM put forward that the advent of social 10 years ago had changed the consumer and business relationship — where brands couldn’t fully control what was being said and how — and that messaging and bots were a natural extension of that. ‘ the fear factor of controlling the message fully is gone, he noted.

‘Personalised experiences are key to music fans’

Terry Summerbell, Digital Producer at Sony Music notde that messaging and bots could help to bring music fans and artists closer together through more personalised experiences — even when the artist themselves weren’t able to be present. Citing that ‘authenticity was the key’ element necessary to make fans want to use new platforms or services.

“A strong use case for bots in the music industry is serving fans better, faster and more frequently” — Terence Summerbell Producer, Sony Music

There was some concern in the room that brands would need to be convinced on the use of AI bots on messaging platforms — with the story of Microsoft Tay mentioned as something to be aware of.

Rui Teimao from BAM picked up on this, explaining that currently the messaging and bot experience was in it’s infancy and that ‘AI needs more time to bed in with how customers use it and expect it to work’.

Businesses should get their bots running on rails at first — then add in richer interations based on live user data — Rui Teimao, BAM Mobile

He further noted that brands should set decision paths at first to understand user journeys better ‘Our live bot user research show bots work well within a set decision tree. Adding ‘ Decision trees allow for user paths to be understood quickly, from there they can be enhanced to include more complex interactions and into AI experiences.

3. “Old taxonomies are screwed in complex areas like finance - we need a new way to understand what people want”

Are brands ready for bots? Jez Dutton, Head of Digital at content agency Redwood suggest that certain business sectors would need to be ‘sure of a strong use case’ before diving in to the space, whereas Christian Ward, Head of Consumer Lifestyle at Stylus countered that ‘speed would be an important factor’ in gaining user traction in a fast moving market.

Speed is a factor in the bot and messaging space

There was agreement in the room that brands in sensitive areas such as finance, insurance, or health should consider testing with closed groups to ensure the way people would use chatbots is understood more clearly.

‘My advice to brands would be to ensure you have a long term strategy and plan for bots and messaging’. Jez Dutton, Head of Digital, Redwood.

Jez Dutton from Redwood added that brands should have a strategic plan of action for their bots suggesting that ‘New technologies have burned bridges before and sometimes businesses aren’t sure whether marketing, IT or customer service should own it’

There was discussion on what a successful bot would look like for brands — and how KPI’s would be measured. UX designer Robbie Tingey noted that brands are already familiar with messaging and automated responses, from the ICQ era onwards.

Jez Dutton maintained that chat has ‘already become normalised’ as a user interaction, With Mike Burgess further noting that messaging was an everday activity

Talking on the phone is anathema to a generation — brands would be remiss not have an authentic presence where their people are conversing’ Mike Burgess, BAM Mobile.

It was suggested that a lean ‘test and learn’ approach to developing chatbots and messaging applications is a good approach for brands. Paul Fletcher of Blink and said that bots could be viewed as ‘first line of customer service’ and the analytics data that brands can pull from bot interactions can go deeper into understanding user behaviour such as sentiment

Brands wanting to get involved in bots should take note that the success of any messaging activity ‘fall or rises on the data behind it’ suggested Mark Ashworth from collaborative learning company Spiral.

Redwood’s Jez Dutton added that any APIs connected would need to have reliable sources of raw information to make them valuable. Whilst Mike Burgess proposed that comparitively speaking the Chatbot and messaging space is ‘cost effective when put beside the cost building an app.

Andy Dobson of Wolf Ollins rounded up the ‘are brands ready for bots?’ conversation by suggesting that brand chatbot and messaging channel should be ‘part of a bigger digital transformation strategy’ to avoid it being a shiny new thing that gets forgotten about quickly.

Wrap up on part one

Bots, AI and Messaging are big news this year. With the opening up of Facebook Messenger in the spring and the upcoming Apple iMessage changes later in the year (and WhatsApp?) bots are going mainstream. Developers have a reason to develop services for these platforms (reach and potential revenue) and what the actual bots can do is maturing.

Add in the popularity of voice controlled interfaces such as Amazon Echo and the possiblities of AI and machine learning to truly personalise the messaging space — and there are strong reasons for brands to get involved.

Businesses can get bots up and running relatively painlessly, though brand concerns over automated customer service need to be addressed.

There is a note of a caution that early users have complained that the bots on these services don’t always work as advertised — (i.e. why does it take me 7 questions to get to an answer — wouldn’t a website be quicker?) and giving users ‘escape hatches’ throughout chat sessions is important as with most things simplicity is key — and often hardest to nail.

Our top 5 learnings from part one of the Roundtable

  1. Not all apps will be replaced by bots — but some definitely will
  2. Tone of voice (and copywriting) is more important more than ever — when brands don’t have the same visual mechanism as on web or apps to convey their messages
  3. Rails (defined decision trees) are a good way to keep users happy in the early days of bots
  4. Bots should be part of a bigger customer experience strategy — or risk being another ‘build it and they won’t come’ expense
  5. This is happening. Now.

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