Monday 24 October 2016

Are bots the next big thing in marketing and media - or just more hot air?

Published 17/04/2016 | 02:30

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks on stage during the Facebook F8 conference in San Francisco. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks on stage during the Facebook F8 conference in San Francisco. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Bots are computer programmes that mimic interactions with a real person. And they've suddenly become a hot tech topic.

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It's partly Facebook's fault. At Tuesday's F8 developer event, the social network announced that developers would be able to build bots for its Messenger app.

Mark Zuckerberg showed off a bot from CNN, which sends users news stories that become more personalised over time, and another which allows users to order flowers.

"You never have to call 1-800-Flowers again," Zuckerberg said, making a mockery of the brand's moniker.

But Facebook isn't the first social network out of the bot block. That honour goes to Telegram - a Russian messaging app with over 100 million users, which launched a 'bot store' last year. Another messaging app, Kik, also launched a bot platform a year ago. Its 275 million users can interact with bots from the likes of Sephora, the Weather Channel and Vine. According to Kik's founder and CEO, Ted Livingston, bots offer users immediate access to brands or businesses via an app or interface they already use.

"These developments open up new and giant opportunities for consumers, developers, and businesses," Livingston wrote in a Medium post. "Chat apps will come to be thought of as the new browsers; bots will be the new websites. This is the beginning of a new internet."

The opportunity for marketers is clear. Bots could become automated customer-service tools, with the potential to cost-efficiently reach huge numbers of consumers.

Remember, Facebook Messenger has more than 800 million monthly active users. And from users' perspectives, bots offer the ability to seamlessly interact with service providers in their apps of choice. Rather than closing Facebook Messenger and opening Uber, Uber's Messenger bot will allow them to hail a cab via Messenger's conversational interface.

But what about media brands? Could bots do the business for publishers?

Via apps like Facebook Messenger, they certainly could. Conversational news bots could serve up a list of breaking news stories, taken from a set of publications or news aggregators. They could also answer queries relating to specific topics or themes from celebrity gossip to government formation.

But there's a bigger picture. Bots offer the potential to create something that's more akin to a personal assistant for news-type information. They could scan the web for content that may be of specific information to each particular user; keep track of their reading habits and proactively flag videos, articles or podcasts that their users might like. We're talking about a news app that approximates Google Now, Microsoft Cortana, or Apple's Siri.

But it's unlikely that any legacy media outlet has the stomach and the engineering muscle to create something along these lines. Publishers don't have a track record of embracing expensive and unproven technology. So it's more likely that a well-funded technology company will crack this nut, rather than any publisher - except maybe for Jeff Bezos' Washington Post.

And wouldn't you know, the Washington Post is working on a live news bot. WaPo Bot, as it's affectionately known, will talk to readers, giving them the information they need about the news of the day and will have a personality and tone that's in line with the Washington Post. It will have a specific set of commands and will also respond to open-ended queries.

So most publishers will have to make do with using Facebook's API to create a messenger bot, if they want to get in on the act. CNN, Mic, Business Insider and others have already announced that Messenger bots are on the way.

But publishers who create a bot for a platform like Facebook Messenger should be aware what they're getting into. They're only engaging in the latest and most faddish online content distribution. And there are risks. The Messenger platform could explode with a plethora of spammy news bots. Plus, users who expect to interact with real-life friends and family on messaging may not want to interact with news outlets in these platforms.

The sudden explosion of bots in the media and marketing world isn't some sort of scientific breakthrough. Programs like ELIZA have been conversing with humans since the Sixties. What we're looking at here may well herald the beginning of a new internet, as Ted Livingston predicts.

But the current hoopla is best viewed as a piece of perfect opportunism from those who know how to monetise the zeitgeist. Ask yourself, who wins when everyone invests in Facebook's eco-system? Facebook, that's who.

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