Bots are widely misunderstood. Along with Cryptocurrencies, BlockChain and the guest list for Prince Harry’s upcoming wedding, bots are an unknown – and, no thanks to the Terminator franchise – even scary.
But let’s not be too hard on ourselves: it’s not just internal communicators who get in a flummox about bots, it’s pretty much the world-at-large: the media, the government, the private sector – pretty much every societal group you can think of.
I recently interviewed ICology founder Chuck Gose at November’s Smile London event to demystify the subject of bots. In the 15 minutes we had, we only scraped the surface.
So here’s a full lowdown on bots and more importantly: the opportunity for your business and you as a communicator.
So here’s 9 things you should know about bots.
- What are bots?
A bot is software that communicates with humans through messaging apps and voice devices.
Let’s break that down:
We all use messaging apps. Think Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Skype – they’re all messaging apps. We use them all the time.
You have contacts on those apps. Your Aunt Linda, she’s on your Facebook Messenger right. Imagine if, as well as your Aunt Linda, you had a contact called ‘Poncho’.
But here’s the difference: Poncho isn’t a person – it’s a bot.
A ‘weather bot’ to be precise.
You can ask Poncho ‘what’s the weather?’ and Poncho will respond with an instant weather forecast tailored to you (because it knows where you are, thanks to the GPS in your mobile phone).
The stuff of science fiction? No, siree. Poncho already exists. Try adding Poncho to your Facebook messenger.
Poncho is one example of a bot. There are dozens, hundreds, potentially thousands of things you could programme a bot to do (on Facebook Messenger alone there are 100,000 bots and growing fast).
Poncho is a relatively simple bot, the new breed of intelligent bots are on the way (we’ll cover some of those further down).
And get this: Not only can you have a text based dialogue with a bot, with the rise of voice devices (like the Echo Dot, or Google Home) you can ask the bot things in spoken voice and it will tell you stuff.
- People Are Moving To Messenger Apps, In Droves
So you get that bots predominantly live on messenger apps. Cool. But here’s the ‘Holy Cow!’ moment:
Since 2015, messenger app downloads beat social media app downloads.
Those social media apps we all know and ‘love’ (sometimes), also known as the big four: Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Instagram.
Well, Messenger apps Whatapp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat and Viber (heard of that one?!) – get more downloads.
This tells us is people prefer 1-to-1 (or 1-to-few) messaging over social networks. It’s more intimate. You’re less ‘on show’ when you’re messaging in small groups. Kind of figures, right. Think about your own life. Chances are you’re using messenger apps more than social networks – and your employees are too.
- Messaging apps are the next business communication channel
So we’ve established what bots are, and the popularity of messaging apps.
We’re seeing plenty of bots being used for consumer facing stuff – Tfl Transport Bot (for getting around London), Kayak Bot (for booking flights and hotels), CNN Bot (for consuming news), even, dread the thought, an Olly Murs Bot.
It’s a matter of time before businesses start using bots to communicate with their people.
As Chuck Gose put it “We always talk about going where our employee are”. Here’s your chance.
As a business, getting in front of your people is the hardest challenge. Asking them to download your ‘company app’ can be a stretch. Asking colleagues to converse on a channel they’re already on (i.e. Facebook Messenger) is an easier way to reach them.
In effect, what we’re seeing is the dawn of a new business communications channel.
- What’s on the lunch menu today? How bots can be used within the enterprise.
Ok enough with the big picture, let’s talk practical examples for how bots can be used inside your business.
The most common intranet search I’ve seen in my years of working in Corporates – the ‘What’s on the lunch menu today’ question.
Lunch menu example:
You: (Tap on your company bot in Messaging app of choice) and ask: ‘What’s on the lunch menu today’?
Bot: ‘On Today’s menu is: Pea & Ham Risotto with Sauteed Vegetables, Sweet & Sour Pork Stir Fry, Choose Your Own Omelette’
Holiday query example:
Or how about a slightly more complex use case. Let’s say you want to know how many holidays you have left of your 25 days per year. You’d typically have to dig out a spreadsheet stored somewhere on your team’s intranet page and check that. With a bot, it could be hooked up to your HR system and knows how many days you took off. So it goes like this:
You: How many days holiday do I have left?
Bot: 15 days left
Bot: Yup, here’s the days you’ve already taken…
News syndication example:
Or how about a use case that’s much closer to our hearts as communicators: Getting our employees to consume more of our content (news, announcements, strategy, etc).
Rather than blitzing your entire workforce with the same content in the classic newsletter format (we’ve all been there), you could let your people choose the top three news stories they get every day – delivered by the bot to their device.
Let’s say you have a Supply Chain executive – as much as she may be interested in a new fangled marketing strategy, chances are news that’s more directly related to Supply Chain is going to get read. We’re used to services like Netflix which serve us content based on user preference, Bots give us an opportunity to deliver a similar service in-house.
You: Show me news about manufacturing, logistics, supply
Bot: You got it. You may also like news about ‘supply chain planning’, shall I include this in your daily round up?
It’s “comms as a service” as Chuck called it.
- Bots let you initiate conversations
The Cosmopolitan Resort in Las Vegas has created a bot called ‘Rose’, which by all accounts is ‘quite saucy’!.
Rose Bot not only lets you check restaurant opening times, reservation details, etc, she also initiates conversation. Rose messages you questions like “How was your meal last night’? because she knows where you ate last night. Sounds potentially annoying, I know.
But just think about how you could initiate conversations in a corporate setting. After, for example, your Townhall Meeting, your Bot messages attendees and asks them “What did you think of the Townhall? Any questions?”.
Bots allow you to send tailored messages to people en masse.
That could be straw polls (What’s a name for our new brand?), pulse survey style questions (‘Is your manager supportive with your PDP’?) or random things like (What’s your favourite venue for the xmas party?).
- See what people are asking
Another feature of chatbots is the ability to see what people are asking.
But it doesn’t stop there. The more advanced bots have sentiment analysis baked in, giving you a sense of how people are feeling based on how they’re conversed with the bot.
- Bots let you connect with the far flung reaches of your organisation
What about all the front line employees you typically can’t reach through your intranet? The people who don’t spend time in front of computers. The front-line workers.
One thing for sure is they’ll have smart phones, and chances are they’ll have one of the many messenger apps on their phones.
Just because they’re not a computer all day doesn’t mean they’re not contactable. They’re using these channels – you can find them where they are.
- Bots get around the overly-saturated communication channel (email)
Email in a sense is a victim of it’s own success. It ushered in the digital revolution in the 1990s with the death of the paper based filing systems, but due to it’s popularity has become massively bloated.
A bit like the phone, email has gone the same way – we tend to ignore all the but the very critical emails.
Typical email open rates are around 20% with as low as 5-10% click through.
Contrast that with Bots. Due to its novelty and the popularity of messenger apps, open and click rates on through the roof. In the region of 80% open rates and over 90% click through (which is insane).
Of course, in all likelihood Messenger apps will go the same way as email – but while the sun shines, make hay!
- Getting started with Bots isn’t that hard?
As Chuck says, the best way to get started is to “start dabbling with them in your personal life”.
As far as using them in your business, start talking to employees and getting a sense of which channels they use to communicate and consume content already. Don’t ask them ‘would you use a chat bot’? Ask them: Hey if you could text a question to the company, would that be helpful?
Author and marketing legend Gary Vaynerchuk put it nicely: “innovation doesn’t care about you or me, if you don’t ride it it will crush your face”.
Watch Gerard Richardson interview Chuck Gose at smilelondon 2017:
Questions from the smilelondon audience:
How expensive are bots?
Bots sound expensive, but don’t be put off.
There are two types of bot:
- Rule based bots
The rule based bots such as ‘ManyChat’ or ‘Chatfuel’ let you create your own bot and deploy to Facebook Messenger. You have to add the dialogue yourself – I liken them to those ‘choose your own adventure’ story books (i..e depending on how you answer, you get taken down a different track). Most of them have a freemium option, with the pricing starting low (~$20 per month) and let you get building your bot right away.
- Intelligent bots
The emerging next generation of bots are much smarter. Rather than having to manually add the dialogue yourself (and structure the conversation) with intelligent bots you can bulk upload questions and answers, and the bot will do the rest. They’re constantly learning and refining what and how they answer. A bit like Tamagochi – those Japanese virtual pets – the more your feed them the stronger they get. BotSkill are releasing the first intelligent, multi-channel bot builder (called Chatamo) by the end of the year (hence why I joined them).
Is email dying? As people don’t email personally any more, they are on chat or messenger apps. Email is only a work facility today and one that is increasing unfit for purpose. Technology in personal life has moved on…
No! Even though email is extremely saturated, there’ll always be a place for email. Email is great for 1 to 1 long informative or personal emails. Email is a better medium for a workplace grievance to HR for example.
How do you get employees using a bot? What ways would you promote it internally?
Like any technology, the tech will only get you so far. You need to think about and speak to your business to understand the pain points in your organisation. Equally, think about processes that could be optimised, like the ‘lunch menu’ example.
Culturally, should companies be targeting work content to employees on personal social media?
The boundaries between business and personal applications is becoming ever cloudier. For many people, keeping distance between work and company platforms is important, while many others really don’t care how the information is delivered. So long as they get it.
Is the key to a bot for employees to not think it’s a bot, but a real person, or at least an authentic 2 way experience
There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that people don’t mind they’re talking to a bot. So long as they get the information they’re looking for. Bots like Rose (in the Cosmopolitan example above) can be given a personality too. In fact the best bots do have a personality (check out Poncho).
Do you think bots have got a bad rep?
Definitely. As it’s such a new technology, that’s inevitable. For communicators it’s important we make up our own minds.
How much work does it approx. take to implement a bot?
For a rule based bots (see above), you can have a bot up and running in the time it’s taken me to write this article (about 3 hours!). For more advanced bots – and depending on the use case – it takes a bit longer.
How do you get a bot to integrate securely with your systems?
Bots can be integrated securely through standard web and mobile authentication processes. You can connect to both cloud based or on-prem directories.
Guest post by Gerard Richardson
Gerard Richardson is a senior consultant at Simply Communicate and Chief Marketing Officer at bot specialists ‘BotSkill’ who build intelligent bots for the UK Police, among others. Find him on Linkedin for more info.