by Mark Hayes
August 31, 2016

Chances are pretty high that you’ve talked to a chatbot at least once in your life. If you’ve ever asked Siri a question, gone shopping through Kik, or requested directions from Cortana, you’ve stepped into the world of chatbots.

And while chatbots are great for consumers, they’re downright AMAZING for brands. Bots fulfil all kinds of roles in the business world, such as facilitating team communication, making your products easy to find and purchase for your customers, and even smoothing out customer service concerns.

And yes—even start-ups can tap into this awesome potential.

Not convinced? Let me walk you through what chatbots are, why they’re such a huge opportunity, and how you can build one of your very own to connect with your customers.

What is a Chatbot?

Most chatbots are limited micro apps that respond to basic questions according to a prescribed set of rules. For example, Kitbot won’t book a hotel room for you, but it will help you keep in touch with your friends by reminding you to keep in touch and telling you who you see most often.

A small number of chatbots are more advanced, however. These artificial intelligences use machine learning and pattern recognition to decipher human speech. You can have actual conversations with these chatbots and they’ll continue learning and getting smarter.

According to TechCrunch:

“Chatbots are programs that respond to natural language text and, optionally, voice inputs in a humanlike manner. They can execute tasks give specific commands (think voice control, or most Slack bots), but their raison d’être is that they listen, talk and seem to converse.”

The most popular chatbot platforms include:

  • Facebook Messenger
  • Skype
  • Slack
  • Discord
  • Telegram
  • Kik
  • WeChat
  • KakaoTalk
  • LINE

Examples of other popular chatbots:

Why Should You Care About Chatbots?

At this point, you’re probably wondering why any business would care about chatbots.

After all, a virtual assistant that you can have an actual conversation with is a neat bit of software, but it’s tough to see the inherent benefit in that program—especially if you’re in the retail or B2B industry.

But many businesses have found huge success by realizing that they could find their customers on mobile messaging platforms and meet a demand by developing a chatbot

In fact, Kik CEO Ted Livingston (@ted_livingston) revealed that developers have made over 20,000 chatbots for his platform and that users have exchanged over 1.8 billion messages with those chatbots as of early August.

Livingston says that the popularity of bots, especially among teenagers between the ages of 13–19, is because they’re easy to adopt and don’t require the commitment of installation. In his words, “Bots are to apps as dating is to marriage, and teens have a lot of time to date.”

Around the world, engagement on other messenger apps with other chatbots is also exploding.

WeChat—the most popular messaging platform in China—actually has more than 10 million official accounts and even celebrities use chatbots to interact with their fans.

And, according to Business Insider’s latest Intelligence report, mobile messaging apps have now surged past social media apps in popularity. In other words, hundreds of millions of users are using these apps on a monthly basis.

As Peter Rojas (@peterrojas), a Partner at Betaworks Ventures, told Chatbots Magazine, “People are now spending more time in messaging apps than in social media and that is a huge turning point. Messaging apps are the platforms of the future and bots will be how their users access all sorts of services.”

Long story short, chatbots help connect you with your customers.

What’s the Opportunity Here for Start-Ups?

So where do you fit in, when companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Google are all sinking money into developing the smartest and most robust chatbots on the market?

Simple—you develop a niche chatbot, unique to your brand, which satisfies your customers’ needs. As Aaron Batalion (@abatalion), Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners says:

“The fundamental idea is that customers will interact with just enough UI, whether conversational and/or widgets, to be delighted by a service/brand with immediate access to a rich profile and without the complexities of installing a native app, all fueled by mature advertising products. It’s potentially a massive opportunity.”

Not sure how to do that? Consider these ten examples where using a chatbot makes perfect sense:

1. Chatbots for customer support

When most of your customer support tickets are all begging for answers to the same question, a chatbot will probably be able to solve your customers’ issues without the need for extra staff just to answer the phone. There’s a rising trend in the US of answering troubleshooting questions through text message, which chatbots are perfect for.

2. Chatbots for FAQs

Chatbots are a blessing when it comes to answering questions like “How much does your product cost?” “What are your shipping options?” and “What are your hours of operation?” Any question that has a simple answer (including questions about price, availability, and what’s in stock) are up the alley of a simple program.

3. Chatbots for simple retail

You probably wouldn’t buy a house without talking to your real-estate agent, or a car without taking it for a test drive, but when it comes to buying something simple—such as a movie ticket or a smartphone case—most people just want to skip the line. Chatbots are great at searching a website and pitching low-involvement products that suit your needs.

4. Chatbots for comparison shopping

Everyone wants the best quality for the best price, but not everyone has the time or the know-how to track down every other competing offer that the internet (or, sometimes, a single website) has to offer. Chatbots filter through all of that information for you, grouping items by price, style, and brand, so that you can always find the best deal.

5. Chatbots for repeat visits

Landing a sale is great. Repeat visits are better. When you want to encourage your customers to return, but you’re not sure if your promotional emails are reaching them or winding up in their Spam folder, chatbots are perfect for re-breaking the ice. Messaging apps that carry on exactly where a customer left off, and chatbots that can show customers related purchases, have a better chance of succeeding than many other forms of communication.

6. Chatbots for advertising

Ross Simmonds article on Chatbots Magazine runs through all the ways chatbots can begin to generate revenue for business. Some of the examples he lists that various platforms are already using include monetization through sponsored/native content and affiliate marketing.

7. Chatbots for research

When you’re looking for important insights into your customers and their buying habits, finding out how they interact with your chatbots is a crucial analytic. Websites like botanalytics.co and dashbot.io will unearth what your customers use your bots for and how you can improve their engagement.

8. Chatbots for education/entertainment

Want to encourage visits to your website? Simpl e chatbots that are educational and entertaining are immensely popular. Examples range from the National Geographic Kid’s UK chatbot “Tina the T-Rex,” who teaches inquisitive minds about dinosaurs, to the PewDieBot, who strings quotes from the popular YouTuber PewDiePie into very quirky dialogue.

9. Chatbots for communication

The right chatbot makes internal and external communication easy. Need to send a bug report to members of your team? Chatbots can search for all the information on the bug and then send that information out at the same time. Need to send out a Twitter blast to your loyal followers? Chatbots can type up your text and tweet it for you. Need to find the contact info for an important client? Chatbots can find that info for you and compose the message you meant to send.

10. Chatbots to expand your influence

When you’re looking to grow your brand abroad, a chatbot can help you reach more countries and interact with customers around the world. Unique APIs like Cyrano will make your bot multilingual, giving you the ability to communicate in more than 20 languages with humanlike quality.

As you can see, there’s plenty of utility to be gained through chatbots—even for small businesses. However, when building a bot for your business, remember that every bot is built for a specific reason. Figure out what role a chatbot should play in your business before you decide to implement it.

As Chatbots Magazine’s “Complete Beginner’s Guide to Chatbots” says:

Bots are created with a purpose. A store will likely want to create a bot that helps you purchase something, where someone like Comcast might create a bot that can answer customer support questions.”

How Do You Build a Chatbot?

Looking to build your own chatbot? Here are some websites that will help you build your own bot, even if coding isn’t your forte. Or, if you want to get your hands dirty and build a bot from the ground up, you can also consider using the following chatbot APIs to host your bot and integrate with key platforms.

  • Api.ai – Api.ai helps you design, connect, and launch a smart Facebook conversational chatbot in mere minutes. Its once-click integration means that you can access Facebook Messenger without knowing any code.
  • Beep Boop – A chatbot developer for Slack, Beep Boop lets you set up incredibly simple bots in no time flat. You can even pick the coding language you love best.
  • Botkit – Another slack developer, Howdy’s Botkit helps you create bots that automate simple tasks and communicate with your customers.
  • Botsify – Botsify will set up your bot in only 5 minutes, and they’ll walk you through each step. Everything from integration to execution is incredibly simple.
  • Chat Fuel – Even if you don’t know a lick of coding, Chatfuel will help you create a bot that intelligently engages your audience in any number of things, such as media alerts, sports updates, event coordination, and business services.
  • Facebook Messenger – Building bots for Facebook Messenger gives you the potential to connect with more than 900 million people every month. These bots are quite simple, but they’ll allow you to send/receive API, create generic message templates, and develop custom welcome screens and CTAs.
  • Init.ai – If you’re looking to offer your customers a conversational app, Init.ai will help you create a bot that learns through conversation and engages your customers on all platforms, including SMS, chat, web, or custom apps.
  • Language Understanding Intelligent Service (LUIS) – Language understanding models is one of the made building blocks you’ll need to write your own bot code. Microsoft’s LUIS will teach you many useful lessons about intelligent app design, including how to add conversational intelligence to your program and how to add action fulfillment to your apps.
  • Microsoft Bot Framework ­ ­– Microsoft Bot Framework helps you build intelligent bots for SMS, Skype, Slack, Office 365, and other services. They had also have a handy guide that will teach you the basics about building your own conversational bot.
  • Pandorabots – Pandorabots won’t build your bot for you, but they do provide the hosting and API access necessary for keen developers who want to build their own bot.
  • Program O – One-click is all it takes to download a full admin center for managing your MYSQL AIML chatbot (or multiple chatbots).

Final Thoughts

We’re long passed the point where talking to a computer is just something from science fiction. Smart assistants like Siri and Cortana can book a restaurant reservation, check sports scores, make a phone call, read your email, flip a coin, and even tell you a joke.

But chatbots aren’t exclusively the realm of large corporations—even small businesses can use these advances to connect with their customers and build their brand.

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