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Chit-chatbots: The growth of artificial intelligence in digital

Roger Barr
14th February 2017

Chatbots: The good, the bad and the ugly.

“Are you a real person?”

It’s not a question that’s likely to come up in a face to face conversation. But, as a community manager, I’m asked this approximately twice a week.

When chatting with 50 customers within an hour, it doesn’t take long before your answers veer towards autopilot. I did make a cheat sheet of standard responses in seven different languages, which has made my job a lot easier. On the other hand, it also gives my answers a more ‘robotic’ feel than I would like. Which got me thinking: Could this part of my role be replaced by a chatbot?

There’s been a growing attention for AI and chatbots recently – and the technology has come a long way. Remember this guy?


Clippy was the ‘user interface agent’ that came bundled with Microsoft Office, starting in 1997. Despite being phased out a decade later, this proto-chatbot has not been quickly forgotten, and – depending on who you ask – is now remembered for being either wildly unpopular, or the lovable pop culture relic which changed the world.

Last year, Microsoft got back into bots with Tay, its now infamous Twitter account modeled to speak like a teenage girl, which rather dramatically turned into “a Hitler-loving sex robot within 24 hours”. Tay was built to “learn” by imitating the tweets from other Twitter users that interacted with it, and – because, you know, people – those users quickly realised that they could teach Tay to say some really nasty things. Microsoft promptly pulled the plug on its latest experiment.

And yet we still haven’t given up on chatbots, no matter how imperfect they are (and I should know - I have Amazon’s Alexa at home, and have shouted at her more often than I would like to admit). That’s because chatbots have huge potential. Just look at these three savvy ways that brands (and one creative job seeker) have put them to use in recent months.

1 Chatbots in customer service

Messaging apps have now officially surpassed social networks in popularity, especially after the rise of Whatsapp and WeChat. The issue for brands and publishers, though, is that these conversations take place in private – so how to engage with these private social network users?

Apparently, ‘Chatbot’ is the magic word here. Through a one-to-one conversation with a consumer, chatbots can not only gather important data about your follower base, but have the potential to turn conversation into conversion. But do consumers really want to talk to chatbots? It’s quick to assume that because a trend is taking over, all consumers actually desire it. What is forgotten, are important metrics like age and location.

It’s quick to assume that because a trend is taking over, all consumers actually desire it.

One thing companies should keep in mind is your bot represents your brand. This new feature will provide an opportunity for some to stand out, while others get lost in digital chatter. If chatbots are employed by your brand, you’ll need to make sure they can speak in your desired TOV, too.

2 Chatbots made fun

For braver brands looking to move beyond functional customer service, chatbots and emojis are a match made in heaven. Take British Airways, which launched its “Emojibot” in December. The chatbot asked customers a series of questions about their ideal holiday, and, after answering with their favourite emojis, recommended holiday destinations to suit their personality and mood. Both Whole Foods and Domino’s have since tried something similar, with Domino’s even adding IoT devices like Amazon Echo and Apple Watch to their order options.


These chatbots might be a fun novelty designed to raise awareness for their associated brands – but it doesn't always work out.

In August last year, Starbucks introduced PSL, also known as Pumpkin Spice Latte: the chatbot. The idea was nice, but the execution? Not so much. Earlier this year, Starbucks tried again by adding voice ordering capabilities to Amazon’s Alexa. My initial thoughts were sceptical (“WOW! Ordering a coffee by talking!? REVOLUTIONARY!”), but I have to admit it has a certain appeal. A phased rollout for iOS is planned for summer 2017, with an Android version to follow later in the year.

3 Chatbots to land a job

Can a chatbot replace your resume? Maybe not, but it can attract the attention you need to land your dream job. Elizabeth Nieves, a 26-year-old former account executive and digital producer, recently moved to Chicago and aspired to have a career switch to being a copywriter. But talking to recruiters and repeating yourself over and over again can be exhausting: so Eli got creative and built HireEliBot. At time of writing it seems Eli hasn’t landed that elusive job just yet, but, if the news coverage it received is anything to go by, it’ll  only be a matter of time.

So there you have it: three recent chatbots which go far beyond the modest capabilities of Microsoft’s Clippy. It seems there’s huge potential for adding chatbots to your business, but don’t get caught up in the hype and try to “chatbot” everything all at once. Make sure you have enough insights about your consumer base before introducing them to your newest ‘employee’, otherwise things can get awkward fast. But do it right, and your chatbot will create a stronger relationship with your customers than ever before.

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