Social Media

#BotOrNot: Are Chat Bots the Future of Social Media?

August 15, 2014

The fast rise of messenger apps – like WhatsApp, Snapchat and Kik – is challenging marketers to quickly adapt their social media content strategies. In response, platforms and brands are experimenting with automated communication solutions to help them capitalize on the explosive growth in chat audiences.

When Facebook acquired WhatsApp earlier this year, the 5-year-old startup was processing 50 billion messages a day from more than 450 million active users (Source: Sequoia Capital).  The universe of chat apps includes billions of users and offers enormous opportunity to brands that can run effective social media marketing campaigns at scale.

Recently, Kik, a popular messenger app that claims four out of 10 U.S. teens are active users of the app, launched a new feature connecting brands with people via chat bots. Chat bots have the potential to be a scalable social media engagement solution for brands, working to cultivate conversations instantaneously from every customer text.

Kik’s new chat bot feature is a first step towards that exciting future, but more progress is needed. When I texted brands that are using Kik’s chat bot feature, their responses seemed more like randomized auto-reply messages than dynamic chats. Responses from texts to “Kik Team” were a bit more interactive. For instance, Kik Team replied, “Maybe…” when I asked if it was a chat bot and, later on, attempted some funny comments based on keywords in my texts.

The greatest technical achievement for any chat bot would be passing the Turing Test, an artificial intelligence performance benchmark proposed by the famous computer scientist Alan Turing in his 1950 paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”. Turing’s test declares that a machine is “intelligent” if a human being can interrogate it in writing for at least five minutes without suspecting it’s a machine.

As automated messaging tools advance, one key question arises: Are the brand benefits of intelligent chat bots universal, or does their usefulness depend on how they are used?

For customer service chat handles, there could be clear advantages to employing a bot with human-like conversation and problem solving skills. In many cases, resolution only requires interpreting a request and providing the customer with objective information (e.g., “Your account balance of $314.15 is due on March 14.”), a task at which intelligent chat bots could excel. Yet in other cases, such as customer complaints, resolution partly depends on establishing an emotional connection between the customer and the brand.

Similarly, successful social media brand campaigns also depend, in part, on establishing an emotional connection with customers. But, is relationship building a good task for chat bots, even ones that can pass the Turing Test? And should brands disclose when they’re using intelligent bots to chat up customers on social media?

The outcry that erupted over Facebook’s 2012 experiment in manipulating the emotional state of nearly 700,000 users should give brands pause if they are thinking about connecting chat bots with customers. When technology is targeted at influencing how people feel, the machine-human interaction can be volatile.  An enthusiastic customer enjoying an engaging personal chat with a pseudonymous bot might feel deceived and angry after learning he was “tricked” into believing that a computer was a human.

Alternatively, if brands disclose when chat bots are being used, conversationally fluent bots might be more likely to attract – rather than alienate – people intrigued by the opportunity to interact with an entertaining new technology. These types of experiences are reminiscent of AIM chat bots, such as SmarterChild, which became popular in the early 2000s.

Intelligent chat bots are a potentially disruptive addition to social media marketers’ tool kits.  The prospect of being able to scale real-time, personalized chatting across thousands of customers simultaneously is alluring, but widespread use of chat bots could fundamentally alter the social media landscape. Today, social media is a space where people expect to connect with other people. In the future, that expectation may need to change and, if it does, changes in how people use social media will almost certainly follow.

Cover photo via BMC Group