Messaging apps such as Whatsapp, Kik, WeChat and Facebook Messenger are becoming increasingly popular. According to eMarketer mobile messaging is predicted to reach more than 2 billion users in the next two years. These services have long been a fairly private method for users to communicate with their social circles but this is all set to change.

Brands and publishers are seeking to capitalise on the growing amount of time their consumers spend on these apps through the development of automated interfaces in the form of chatbots.

The chatbot (officially known as chatterbot) is a piece of interactive software that helps users get things done, but this is not an entirely new concept – you may remember trolling SmarterChild in AOL chat rooms, or Clippy the paperclip in Microsoft Word back in the day.

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Today, brands are increasingly using bots as part of the consumer’s multichannel experience to provide support, share content, and sell their products and services. Chatbots then, are an opportunity for brands to position themselves directly in front of consumers at a one-to-one level to generate personalised and relevant conversations. And this is surely a good thing right?….

The rise of the bot

Last week, messaging app Kik launched a platform for brands to build their own bots. Its founder, Ted Livingston, said

“This is the beginning of a new internet… Chat apps will come to be thought of as the new web browsers; bots will be the new websites”

Similarly, Facebook is set to launch its own bot store at this week’s F8 conference. You could probably say that bot stores are the app stores of the future.

Kik users are currently able to download bots from three categories: lifestyle, entertainment, and games. H&M and Sephora have been the first retailers to get involved, and their chatbots offer a strong insight into the possibilities for e-commerce brands. Sephora’s bot provides live makeup tutorials and tips while H&M works as a savvy personal stylist; before you know it – that rouge shine lippie and matching party frock have found their way into your shopping basket!

In a chat with DigiDay, Bindu Shah, VP of digital marketing at Sephora, said

“Based on global trends and the evolving landscape, this is the next element to engage with consumers… We can let clients ‘choose their own adventure’ with our content rather than it getting lost in a ‘newsfeed river’. We believe more brands will want to interact this way too”

Chatbots perform actions based on a user’s commands. They work only when summoned to respond to common queries. It’s thought that over time they will become more intelligent and, as a result, their abilities will evolve. This technology is set to shake up the way we book travel plans, check the weather, keep up with current affairs, and discover new music and media.

So why now?

Chatbots are gaining a lot of momentum right now because they are becoming easier to build across numerous platforms. For a while, brands have invested heavily in mobile apps but getting consumers to download them can prove an uphill struggle. Combine this with a decline in organic social engagement due to an increasingly noisy social media landscape and numerous algorithm shifts, and we can see how chatbots are becoming the next big thing for brands – they are promotional but also genuinely useful to consumers.

Personally, I think chatbots can unlock many new potentials for both brands and customers. As a consumer, I like the fact I have the choice to ‘opt-in’ to a relationship with a brand and that my experience will be personal and tailored to my needs. For brands, this could be a winning opportunity for building trust and loyalty through a friendly ‘face’.

As with all innovations, there are always new complexities, and recently, Microsoft’s creation TayTweets did well to illustrate that chatbots have still got a long way to go before we can fully accept them as mainstream link in the brand-to-consumer chain. After all, what is the point of implementing bots if they end up going off the rails, taking your reputation down with them?