Can Virtual Agent Chatbots Represent Brands?

The WSJ recently ran an article describing how the chat app Kik now lets users converse with chatbots that represent brands. Christopher Mims, the article’s author, terms this interaction with chatbots “chatvertising.”  Kik is apparently the most popular chat app with teens in the U.S., and interacting with chatbots seems to be popular.

KikThis brings up the question: what are effective use cases for the current generation of chatbots (or virtual agents / intelligent virtual assistants)? Even if Kik users seem to have just recently discovered enterprise virtual agents that provide information about brands, forward-thinking companies have been employing this technology for years. Web self-service is a growing trend across web, mobile, and social channels and organizations and the customers they serve can leverage big benefits from text or voice-based virtual assistants.

Today’s virtual assistants, however, are limited in their ability to converse convincingly. They are good at answering specific, common questions that customers may have about products and services.  Future generations of virtual agents are likely to be more capable and more skilled at carrying out humanlike conversations. But can a virtual agent chatbot effectively represent a brand? When I use the phrase “represent a brand,” I mean act as the face and “spokesperson” for a brand and engage customers in a way that will make them want to continually interact with the brand.

Ted Livingston, the founder of Kik, notes in the WSJ article that they’ve purposely dumbed the chatbots down for the time being. Mims reports that Kik itself has a chatbot that can tell jokes and apparently engage in very simple dialogue. For other brands, such as Moviefone, Kik chat app users can address the brand’s chatbot, but the bot just pushes out predefined content in response. Livingston says that interactions are purposely very limited to ensure that the chatbots don’t say something that may portray the brand in a negative light. It wouldn’t be advisable, for instance, for auto-learning to be enabled for these chatbots that might lead them to pick up inappropriate language or jokes that they would then add to their database of possible responses.

A one-dimensional chatbot with no real conversational repertoire or personality seems like it wouldn’t make a very good representative for a brand. But perhaps the perceived novelty of chatbots in itself is enough to engage younger users. The article sites a number of instances where the availability of a brand agent increased user engagement with the brand significantly. There’s no data to provide insight on how deep the engagement went, but my assumption is that it was probably fairly superficial.

Virtual assistant technologies, machine learning, and dialogue generation systems are all advancing rapidly. Having a chatbot truly represent a brand may be a bit far fetched in our current environment, but it might seem like an obvious strategy in the not so distant future.

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