When Lionsgate sought to promote its February film "John Wick 2," it created a SMS chatbot so fans could become immersed in the plot of the film by texting with a mysterious assassin who challenges them to a mission.
"Your account’s on hold because you need to fulfill your oath," says the chatbot. "You know what happens to people who don’t fulfill their oath?"
It might be an intriguing way to interact with a film, but the exchange ends quickly, is inconsistent and the user is left with nothing more than a link to order tickets to the movie.
"It’s all been leading up to this," says the chatbot. "John Wick 2 is in theaters right now. See you there." The experience is underwhelming to say the least; the mission ends before it starts.
It’s the reality of most branded chatbots today. They are either character-based and last long enough to plug a product or, in the case of Taco Bell and Domino’s, provide a service that can already be found elsewhere, ordering online. Users, often expecting a more robust experience, are left disappointed and frustrated. It’s a sobering fact reinforced by Forrester’s "State of Chatbots" report.
So, why doesn’t the chatbot experience match the industry excitement? For one, it’s still early days of chatbot development, but experts say it is the marketers’ approach, not the tech, that is causing second-rate results. Generally, marketers are mistakenly approaching chatbots as they would social media campaigns.
"Most marketers don’t understand the potential of chatbots," said James Cooper, head of creative at Betaworks, "They see them as another way of connecting with their audiences on social channels."
Although chatbots exist in the same ecosystem as social media, they are quite different. "Social media platforms are broadcasting platforms; they broadcast to an audience," said Mark Fruehan, president of sales at Botworx.ai. "With chatbots, you engage with consumers one on one."
It’s this personalized connection that distinguishes chatbots, and yet brands are mainly using chatbots to push out the same bits of general information they share on Twitter or Facebook, expecting people to react. For instance, 1-800-Flowers.com’s chatbot sends the same message to all users: "If you’d like to speak with a customer service representative, select that option below. You can also easily make an order with the 1-800-Flowers Assistant by selecting ‘Order Now.’" The entire interaction is dry and simple.
Instead, said Betaworks’ Cooper, brands should look at the long-term potential of chatbots and use them for more than one purpose. Essentially, he said, they should act more like friends and provide both entertainment and customer service. The Domino’s chatbot would be much more effective and fun to use, he said, if it offered up jokes when a user was trying to order a pizza at 10 o’clock at night.
Cooper said the industry hasn’t seen a breakthrough brand yet that has successfully combined both capabilities. He does, however, point to his own Poncho, the chatbot that spices up daily weather forecasts with personality. The user selects certain times of the day and Poncho will message with the weather along with some sarcasm, a joke or an antidote. It’s been a year since the free service launched on Facebook Messenger, and so far, it has seen high retention numbers. Sixty percent of new users every week continue to use Poncho, a number that is 10 times the industry average, according to Cooper. Poncho might be effective, but unlike other chatbots, it has a 10-person team powering it, with three full-time writers with backgrounds in comedy.
Cross-platform reach is also another reason why marketers should not apply a social media strategy to chatbots. With social campaigns, marketers have to target the specific consumers of each platform with the content that performs the best on each. But with chatbots, they can cast a wider net. Last week, Oracle announced chatbot tools with AI capabilities that integrate with voice-driven systems like Amazon Alexa. With this, users can connect to a brand’s chatbot through a voice assistant just as easily as through a messaging app.
"Consumers today are multi-channel people," said Steve Krause, group VP product management at Oracle. "Marketers have to adapt to that."
A multi-channel approach could eventually determine whether a chatbot is used or not. "In a couple of years if a consumer is not able to have a chat with a brand across multiple channels," said Cooper, "they are just going to go to another one."
In order for a chatbot to really be successful, said Cooper, marketers have to devote more time and strategy than they do on social media. "We are at a stage where people are doing very simple cause-and-effect stuff," he said. "That’s a necessary process that everyone has to go through, to then move on to something much more interesting than a standard Facebook or Twitter campaign."
Asaf Amir, CEO at ChatSuite, said brands are on the cusp. "Marketers have just started to think seriously about the shift of marketing budgets to chatbots," he said.