For me, 2017 already has a theme: chatbots. These are the computer programs that can work inside messaging apps, interacting with users by mimicking human conversation.
I believe that bots will fuel the big advances in the tech world in 2017. Why? Messaging has already become the “killer app,” where people are spending the bulk of their time on mobile—all the stats show this. At the same time, brands and companies are turning away from their own apps, finding it too difficult and expensive to build and maintain them for too little return. In addition, in the emerging markets, the cost of downloads and memory on handsets also provide challenges.
That’s essentially what the chief product officer of eBay said when the company launched its ShopBot in October: “We’re going to where our users are, versus letting it all play out on eBay.com and our mobile app.”
This is exactly why we’re launching a chatbot API early next year.
The new go-to ecosystem
There are a number of reasons why messaging apps have become the new focus of mobile innovation. Mobile messaging apps:
- Are mobile-centric and real-time, so they’re with people everywhere, all the time
- Maintain high (and growing) usage and retention rates (See growth chart here)
- Can provide user demographic information to brands, advertisers, and publishers, giving them a glimpse into who their customers and potential customers are
- Are transforming into huge mobile commerce platforms, and will likely leapfrog traditional ecommerce companies
- Have the size and scale to acquire or partner with all content and service companies
- Are perfectly suited to communication, shopping, and content consumption
- Aren’t dependent on any particular device or operating system
What chatbots can do for us
Right now, you can use chatbots to do a number of different things. You can order pizza (from Domino’s or Pizza Hut). You can request an Uber. You can get a coffee from Starbucks. These bots don’t fundamentally change the way you’d do these things today. They basically replace a phone call or simple web form.
But the exciting thing about chatbots is that they create a new kind of interface, and open up various possibilities for how businesses can interact with their customers.
For example, the eBay ShopBot I mentioned above can help you search for what you want on the enormous marketplace using a photograph, as well as text (typed or via voice recognition). It’ll also ask questions to help refine your search, acting more like a personal assistant than a search feature. Many ecommerce sites could benefit from a similar bot, helping customers find what they need faster.
Absa, a South African bank, has a pioneering chatbot that allows you to do basic banking. I think we’re going to see a lot more chatbots providing automated customer service for banking and other financial services organization. I can see them quickly replacing interactive voice response (IVR) calling for simple tasks like helping customers check their account balance, report lost cards, verify charges, and more.
Chatbots are also poised to change how we book travel and accommodations. Just imagine: instead of spending hours sifting through airline timetables and various travel sites, one of these travel chatbots could know your preferences for price, time of day, or airlines, and offer up the few best choices for your destination.
Sound like a better experience than searching a website or calling support? It is. According to this survey, 50% of chatbot users (and 55% of millennial chatbot users) say that using a company’s chatbot improved their perception of the business.
I’m excited to see what developers come up with, to see the different approaches from different industries, and which other available mobile technologies get incorporated: geolocation, biometrics, and voice recognition. Here’s an interesting list of five different kinds of bots we’ll be seeing in 2017.
Learning by doing
As is always the case with technology, chatbots will get better with time. The first versions are performing relatively simple tasks, but they are driven by “machine learning,” which is a bit like on-the-job training. The more each individual chatbot interacts with humans, the more it will improve. At the same time, once more chatbots come to market, developers will learn from each other, and be able to build more sophisticated features. Already, all the big tech giants Google, Microsoft, IBM, etc. are pouring a lot of investment into this area.
Full ecosystems of social commerce
We’re working to make BBM the center of your digital life: your first stop for chat, games, news, entertainment, shopping, travel, making payments and lots more. We see chatbots as an essential piece of building out this social commerce ecosystem, helping you manage your daily life, connect to brands you love, and keep in touch with those who matter most. Chatbots have the potential to make so much of what you do on your mobile easier, more convenient and more fun.
Our chatbot API is coming early next year—just in time for “the year of the chatbot!” As companies release their chatbots, we’ll be integrating them into our messaging interface and into the Discover menu. Keep checking back here at the BBM Blog for updates. In the meantime, have a safe and happy New Year’s.