To envision the future of chatbots/virtual assistants, we need to take a quick trip down memory lane. Remember Clippy? Love him or hate him, he’s ingrained in our memory as the little assistant who couldn’t (sorry, Clippy.). But someday, this paper clip could be the chosen one. Imagine with me if you will a support agent speaking with a customer over the phone, or even chat support. Clippy could be listening in, reviewing the questions the customer is posing, and proactively providing relevant content to the support agent. Instead of digging around from system to system, good ‘ole Clippy would have their back, saving them the trouble of hunting down relevant information needed for the task at hand.
Magic, launched in early 2015, is one of the earliest examples of conversational commerce by launching one of the first all-in-one intelligent virtual assistants as a service. Unique in that the service does not even have an app (you access it purely via SMS), Magic promises to be able to handle virtually any task you send it — almost like a human executive assistant. Based on user and press accounts, Magic seems to be able to successfully carry out a variety of odd tasks from setting up flight reservations to ordering hard-to-find food items.
This is the big one. We worked with one particular large publisher (can’t name names unfortunately, but hundreds of thousands of users) in two phases. We initially released a test phase that was sort of a “catch all”. Anyone could message a broad keyword to their bot and start a campaign. Although we had a huge number of users come in, engagement was relatively average (87% open rate and 27.05% click-through rate average over the course of the test). Drop off here was fairly high, about 3.14% of users had unsubscribed by the end of the test.
One of the first stepping stones to this future are AI-powered messaging solutions, or conversational bots. A conversational bot is a computer program that works automatically and is skilled in communicating through various digital media—including intelligent virtual agents, organizations' apps, organizations' websites, social platforms and messenger platforms. Users can interact with such bots, using voice or text, to access information, complete tasks or execute transactions.
The process of building a chatbot can be divided into two main tasks: understanding the user's intent and producing the correct answer. The first task involves understanding the user input. In order to properly understand a user input in a free text form, a Natural Language Processing Engine can be used. The second task may involve different approaches depending on the type of the response that the chatbot will generate.
It may be tempting to assume that users will navigate across dialogs, creating a dialog stack, and at some point will navigate back in the direction they came from, unstacking the dialogs one by one in a neat and orderly way. For example, the user will start at root dialog, invoke the new order dialog from there, and then invoke the product search dialog. Then the user will select a product and confirm, exiting the product search dialog, complete the order, exiting the new order dialog, and arrive back at the root dialog.
Unfortunately the old adage of trash in, trash out came back to bite Microsoft. Tay was soon being fed racist, sexist and genocidal language by the Twitter user-base, leading her to regurgitate these views. Microsoft eventually took Tay down for some re-tooling, but when it returned the AI was significantly weaker, simply repeating itself before being taken offline indefinitely.
Conversational bots work in a similar way as an employee manning a customer care desk. When a customer asks for assistance, the conversational bot is the medium responding. If a customer asks the question, “What time does your store close on Friday?” the conversational bot would respond the same as a human would, based on the information available. “Our store closes at 5pm on Friday.”
As with many 'organic' channels, the relative reach of your audience tends to decline over time due to a variety of factors. In email's case, it can be the over-exposure to marketing emails and moves from email providers to filter out promotional content; with other channels it can be the platform itself. Back in 2014 I wrote about how "Facebook's Likes Don't Matter Anymore" in relation to the declining organic reach of Facebook pages. Last year alone the organic reach of publishers on Facebook fell by a further 52%.
Previous generations of chatbots were present on company websites, e.g. Ask Jenn from Alaska Airlines which debuted in 2008 or Expedia's virtual customer service agent which launched in 2011. The newer generation of chatbots includes IBM Watson-powered "Rocky", introduced in February 2017 by the New York City-based e-commerce company Rare Carat to provide information to prospective diamond buyers.