For most people at this point, the bot craze seems to have fizzled out. For months, we listened to speakers, marketers, and technologists talk about how bots are going to revolutionize communication, from customer service to buying that ugly Christmas sweater.
But, after what seemed like a year-long hype train, with blog posts, emails, and social media messages being published every day about why everyone needs to use bots for their brand, it almost feels like people have started to sweep the whole thing under the rug.
Don't get me wrong - I think bots can be a massive asset and are really cool to use and interact it. Hell, I even made a few that are live across a few websites. But when people start talking about new technologies - i.e., bots - what do you think us marketers do first?
We ruin it.
Or at the very least, we abuse it the same way we do all our other marketing channels like blogging, email, social media, and even texting.
Fun fact: your marketing strategy for one channel does not work for a different one.
I know, I know...it's easy to just copy and paste your general marketing strategy across mediums, but if you do that, be ready to waste an opportunity and ruin this technology.
You have a choice to make with this new great power - will you craft a fresh, personalized strategy for this new technology, or will you default into seeing it as a new way to “email” people.
Here's an easy way to think about bots - it's all about (digital) conversations. Ask your resident millennial to come up with some texting conversation you can use as a base, because let's be real, the only conversations they have now are over text and Snapchat.
What is a Chatbot?
The thing about chatbots is that you don't need to be a techy to know how they work. If the word "programming" frightens you, then just think of it this way: coding/programming is just a different way to write instructions. When it comes to making a bot, this is no different. Sure, someone programmed the whole thing out, but at this point, the whole craze is "make a chatbot without writing a single line of code". At this point, it's a matter of logic. If someone says X, does my bot respond with Y or Z?
When you read or hear about bots, you'll also hear the word artificial intelligence thrown around as well. In most cases, you probably won't be making an AI-enabled bot. The perk of integrating AI with a chatbot though is so that the bot can improve over time based on user responses and successes/failures.
The way I like to think about it is if you somehow installed Alexa or Google Home on your website. In most instances, it should be smart enough to help answer any question you might have and point you in a good direction. While this isn't a perfect analogy, I think it covers most of the bases of what a chatbot was meant to do: understand your intent and then provide relevant content.
According to HubSpot's Inbound Messaging Framework, your conversational marketing strategy can be split into four sections:
Connect - be able to start a conversation with someone that uses a conversational tone and user context in a messaging application that is going to solve the user’s problem. Bonus: solving users’ problems is a key component of SEO.
Understand - outline the flow of a basic user conversation and the different routes they could take when trying to solve their problem.
Deliver - provide a comprehensive solution to them without forcing them to jump through hoops, like leaving the chat application to go to your landing page or app.
Refine - analyze user response and interaction data to refine your branches, getting rid of harmful ones and adding ones that answer pain points you didn't originally think of.
Let me ask you this: what do you think are the most popular apps used by people? You might be surprised to learn that messaging apps are gradually working their way into people's coveted 5-app circle. With people starting to use messaging apps more than even social media apps, the power of bots should be even more apparent - if used correctly.
Bots are this fresh start that many people have yet to abuse and be sick of (at least that used to be the case). Today, almost every email we get is some sort of spam or promotional piece and social media is full of ads. As marketers, it's almost like bots are something people haven't blocked yet and so we should just shift our focus to that channel in order to keep sales up.
But we should really be looking at it from the consumers perspective - i.e., what is the easiest way someone can get their problem solved, from getting a forecast of the weather to buying 10 pounds of bacon. What if we removed the number of hoops people had to jump through to resolve a pain point, so they don't have to sign up for a newsletter, click a link, submit an interest form and then wait for someone to finally respond to their inquiry.
And when people are spending a majority of their time on messenger apps/platforms, it's marketing 101 to adjust your strategy to focus on where your clients spend their time (looking at you buyer personas).
Similar to Google's zero search results page, we're entering a world where we want answers quickly and without doing more work than necessary. Chatbots can be the solution, we just need to not screw it up.
The Fall from Bot-Paradise
When content marketing entered the battlefield, it became the medic that people needed. Instead of cold calling, intrusive ads, and getting 500 emails a day, content marketing focused on creating content people wanted. But oh, how this was abused. Soon, we adopted the mentality of pumping out content, and losing sight of why we did this in the first place.
Eventually, we turned content marketing into another stream of marketing that we were trying so hard to get away from.
So what could happen with conversational marketing?
Well, considering how us marketers have treated communication channels in the past, the future looks a little rough.
For example, I get a message every day from a bot that is on a page that I liked at one point, and I'm just about ready to unsubscribe to all communication from that brand. It's honestly too much and it's not providing helpful content (and just feels like spam at this point).
Or, let’s pretend that you want to schedule an appointment on Tuesday at 3 pm with your dentist, who just recently put a bot on their site. You'd think it would be pretty straightforward, but for some reason, the bot only recognized that you want to make an appointment at 3 pm today. I'll let you guess how long it takes before you get frustrated that it can understand the word Saturday and from then on you hate bots.
Again - I strongly believe in bots' ability to scale one-to-one communication. But trying to account for even the majority of variations a conversation can go through is a feat by itself. When even one word is unaccounted for or misunderstood, your bot might enter a logic route that only drives the user away, and that is some damage that is hard to undo.
Don't make bots the more modern version of the automated call help numbers where people just get frustrated every time and end up talking with a representative in the end anyway.
But wait, there's more!
Chat now, and we'll throw in an invasive strategy that has no filtration rules, at no additional cost!
Think about it. Email today is not some personal communication channel for most people. I use it for work and to get discounts at stores. Maybe 1% of the emails I actually send/receive are with an actual person.
But with bots, you're now accessing a more personal environment, and there are no spam filters there yet like there are for email. You take one wrong step and you're outta there.
Even though a majority of people say that they're willing to use some messenger service, it's only because they want their problem solved fast and accurately. Don't bring your bot into the equation and do the opposite of what the user wants. And as more brands jump on the bot bandwagon, you need to make sure you stand out from the 100k other bots (on Facebook Messenger alone) and provide a delightful user experience.
How to Think About Bots
If you take only one thing away from this post, I hope it's this: bots are NOT just another marketing communication channel. They are a tool to help users solve immediate needs, and are perfect for those micro-moment decisions.
Coming from an IT background, I really like the strategy behind bots. And I'm not talking about how the bot was coded or the APIs you can use to augment your bot even more. I'm talking about the essentials here, like how a bot should not be this universal tool that can do everything. It's almost like you need to imagine bots are like functions: they only need to do one thing, but they need to do it really well.
For most people, this will look like creating two categories of bots:
Informational bots: your bot provides a new channel for people to stay up-to-date on information that they really want.
Utility bots: your bot is able to provide assistance or complete some action that enhances the customer experience (buy a product, schedule an appointment, call an Uber, provide quick website analytics, etc).
WeChat is a great example of integrating bots with a popular messaging app. Bots provide contextual help when asked, and only give the user exactly what they asked about. As marketers, it's going to be hard to resist the temptation to upsell other resources, but you're going to have to be strong and resist.
How the Flow Should Go
Even though chatbots are just logic routes, you'll want to mimic a human conversation as much as possible. Humans are good at understanding context, so your chatbot should be too. While this would probably work best with some AI-powered bot, every conversation should be able to reference past conversations and pull information from them. Maybe the user tends to only buy movie tickets between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. on a Thursday. The bot would see that and show you times for movies between those limits.
A word(s) of warning: don't play 20 questions. Your bot needs to ask only the essential questions to provide assistance, nothing more, nothing less. And for God's sake, don't make them leave whatever application they're using to interact with your bot in order to get their pain point addressed. Keep it all in one place so that the conversation someone has with your bot is frictionless.
Conversations can go an infinite number of ways, so make sure you outline the most crucial branches before anything else. That could look just like drawing a bunch of branches on a whiteboard or throwing something together in Visio. Map it out before you build it out - otherwise, you're asking for a headache later.
As people interact with your bot, figure out what they're really asking about and adjust your conversation accordingly. Maybe you thought people just wanted to buy flowers from your shop, but really were just curious about flower facts. Adjust your bot to include information on each flower (like how to keep it alive, different colors, best seasons to plant, etc). Building and launching your bot is step one, now you review and refine so that each conversation delights the customer.
Bots have immense potential to provide scalable one-to-one conversations with your brand's customers. All I'm asking is that we respect the consumer's space and provide the essential information they're looking for. Play the long game and give them an experience to enjoy, not one that asks them to register for your webinar because they subscribed to a news alert.
By now, we all know that bots are a powerful marketing automation tool. But that's all in theory. Let's now look at some tangible ways we can use a bot in our marketing strategy that really work to help our (potential) customers.
1. Chat with Users
Basically, the most common use for chatbots, and a part of its name, is being able to chat with users at any time and address some pain point. If you have a small support team, or maybe you don't even have one, then a bot can be a great way to address a user's need when you don't have the bandwidth.
Bots can work wonders when they address the user's pain point using a conversational tone. Plus, most people - myself included - would rather open up a chat window for a quick answer than emailing a support inbox or, God forbid, call someone.
When automating communication in any way, make it feel real and personable. Be more like Ryan Reynolds in that regard. While you're not trying to trick people into thinking that they're interacting with an actual person, you want to provide them with an authentic experience.
As marketers, we have to do a lot of research whenever we're creating a new piece of content. Even if we're subject matter experts, we need data to back up what we do and talk about. With bots, you have the ability to automate some of that research.
A bot I like to use is HubSpot's Growthbot. Using this bot, I can learn more about what keywords my competitors are buying, information about a specific website, or even what information people have on me based just on my email address.
Some people might find that terrifying…I find it awesome.
If you're like most companies today, you probably use Slack. And if so, Growthbot can integrate directly with your account and provide instant data on various metrics.
Much of this data can be found in a slew of other platforms, but if you need some quick answers, bots can be a valuable assistant.
3. Qualify Leads
Not everyone who comes to your site is going to match your ideal buyer persona. So instead of spending time weeding out the prospects yourself, why not have a bot do it?
A lead qualifying bot is a great tool you can use to get some basic, but essential information from people before you even have to talk with them. In many cases, it will feel like they're talking with an actual person, and then based on their information, you can make informed decisions as to whether to further nurture them or not. Once the bot has collected enough information, it can easily pass the conversation off to an actual sales rep that can really handle the user and provide a delightful customer experience.
4. Team/Project Management
Except for a select few instances, you will most likely be working with other people in your day-to-day job. While this could be in person, the practice of working remotely has become a more standardized environment.
A successful marketing strategy needs to have a strong team foundation, from a well-laid strategy to efficient internal communication. If your team is operating on four different pages, you're going to have a hard time launching a campaign. But bots like this and this can help automate some of that team management for you, or at least make sure everyone knows what is being worked on and what needs to happen next.
5. Personalized Conversations
Marketing basics advocates for personalized content across channels. Bots are no different. Bots are great at gathering basic information about users and allow you to use all that information later when that person comes back. Once you know someone is interested in topic X, why give them content on topic Y? Gather the necessary information and give them the necessary information. Again, do only what is asked for and your customers will reward you for it.
Bots aren't here to take your job, they're here to empower you to do it better.
6. Integrate with Other Platforms
Similar to Growthbot above, bots are powerful tools because of their ability to work across platforms. I can use one bot (like Growthbot) to conduct research for me, and use another bot in Facebook messenger to sell shoes. When you can use bots to gather information from a variety of other platforms and give you real-time information on your own marketing efforts and that of your competitors, it's almost unbelievable to find companies that don't do this.
Bots are also a great way to drive sales without even needing to lift a finger (assuming you do it well and don't just make the buying process more frustrating). As per usual, your bot should get some basic information about the potential customer and then guide them through the process of purchasing an item or items they are interested in.
Show them products relevant to their interests and you'll have another tool making money for you. Just make sure to monitor it and improve it based on customer interaction. Remember, as humans and communication changes, bots need to change as well.
8. In-Depth User Data
Taking personalization one step further, bots can also be a great place to get really deep information on users who will give it. Since users know they aren't talking with a real person, they might feel more comfortable giving more intimate information. Bots can be a great way to know your consumer base better and make their buying experience a memorable one.
I guess that’s assuming you tell them that they’re talking with a bot and not a real person…
9. Bots Start the Conversation
The thing about bots that no other channel can really provide is the ability to actually have a conversation. Almost no other channel can do this (social media is kind of the exception), and in most cases, our strategies err more on the reactive than proactive sides, i.e., we kick into overdrive once someone submits some form, opens an email, or likes a Facebook post.
But with bots, you're actually able to start the conversation yourself. When bots take initiative, it might trigger a psychological response to engage with it.
Think of it this way: a bot that tries to engage with you first is like if you walked into the store and one of the employees asked if you needed help finding something. Usually, it's as simple as "where can I find X" and they simply tell you. You go on your way and don’t think twice about it.
Maybe I'm weird though and I rarely ever notice a chat bubble in the bottom corner. Since they're basically on every website now, I almost assume one is always there. Again, maybe I'm just too steeped in the bot ecosystem that I am an outlier. Just know that bots are great at initiating, nurturing, and handing off conversations as needed.
In the end, just remember this: automation does not mean a stiff and logical user experience. Bots are great at gathering that initial information and then leveraging it when needed. In fact, if the bot is done well, it can be one of the most personalized experiences someone can have without talking with a real person.
As Uncle Ben has taught us, with great power comes great responsibility. This applies to super strength / fighting super villains just as much as using bots in our marketing strategy.
In my personal experience, almost every website I go to now has a chatbot in the bottom corner. While I tend to ignore it most of the time, I understand why it's there.
People still have some mixed feelings about chatbots. Sure, they're growing in popularity, but just like email and ads, if it's abused, people will begin to tune it out.
With less than half of users thinking that chatbots are effective, how do we make sure we are creating the best chatbot possible? Well, to start, follow these nine rules of thumb.
1. Keep it Simple
Chatbots are great for data in, data out requests. When users come to your site, it's very likely that they have a specific question in mind. If you have clear buyer personas established, there's also a good chance you know what that question is. If it's an easy to answer question and you find it's asked pretty frequently, make a chatbot that can quickly and efficiently answer that question or group of questions.
Keep the chatbot simple - from just answering a set of pre-established questions to scheduling a meeting. Don't make bots a one size fits all tool.
Also, don't make the user scan through your hundreds of blog posts, case studies, and download gated content just to find an answer to some basic questions. Make it easy to solve their pain point, and they'll likely come back again. Otherwise, you might have just botched an opportunity.
2. Don't Do it Just to Have One
While it's easy to think that chatbots are this new great way to improve customer experience, generate leads, and bring people further down the funnel, you shouldn't have one if there's not a place for it.
You know your customers best, so only make a bot if it is something that they will benefit from. Doing it just because everyone else is also doing it is not a strategy and will more than likely lead to a poor experience.
3. Sound Conversational
Remember - chatbots are for conversations!
Nobody wants to talk with something sterile and cold. Give your chatbot personality and make interacting with it an enjoyable experience. Unless you immediately start with "I'm a bot", your customers should not even realize that they're talking with a bot.
4. Try to Avoid Emotional Weak Spots
People can be difficult, and when they don't feel understood or heard, things might get a little tense. While chatbots are great for simple topics, customer service at a detailed level is usually handled better by an actual person. In this instance, either don't use a bot or just make it extremely easy to connect with a real support representative.
5. Be Transparent
Consumers value companies that are transparent. In most cases, you don't need to hide the fact that you're using a chatbot on your site or for customer service. By addressing it upfront, it might even cause users to be a little more patient with it as they try to solve their problem.
6. Be Careful with Sensitive Data
If you're trying to implement a bot that can handle sensitive information, you'll just want to ensure that it is built on a framework that can handle that kind of data. If your chatbot data is something that can be accessed publicly, then you definitely don't want to be asking for someone's credit card number or social security. Make sure the proper security and encryption processes are in place before any real data starts to get passed around. In this case, I’d rather be safe than sorry.
7. Hand Off to a Real Person
Chatbots are great for first contact, but should always have an option to talk with an actual support rep. This could either happen in the background without the user noticing or be a direct request from the user.
For example, when I make a chatbot in the HubSpot chatbot platform, I can easily connect it to a member of my support team once they reach a certain point. It can either be at the direct request of the user, or I just have enough information about the person that the actual support team can finish the conversation from there and provide a better experience. The hand-off can be seamless or I can tell the user that I’m connecting them with a real person. The key here is to keep them informed at all times and never feel neglected or forgotten.
8. Do One Thing, and Do It Well
While I'd love for us to all have our own personal J.A.R.V.I.S. assistant one day, we are unfortunately limited by our current technology. It's important that you don't think of chatbots as universal assistants that can do anything and everything for your users. Like functions in programming, chatbots should only do one thing, but do it really well. That way, you can focus on making your bot the best it can be at whatever it does.
9. Integrate Your Bot
With almost 7k marketing technology solutions at your disposal, chatbots need to connect with most of these.
Well, it's more than likely you use a handful of these solutions in your day-to-day marketing efforts. And just like how you've integrated email, social media, and paid advertisements into your marketing automation and CRM systems, chatbots deserve some love (and APIs) too.
This is just another channel that marketing technology platforms can't ignore, and luckily, most haven't.
Chatbots need to integrate with your existing CRM and other business systems so that your data stays fresh, clean, and provides the most relevant and contextual user experience.
Too Long; Didn't Read
When it comes to making your very own chatbot, there are a few good rules of thumb you should really follow:
The bot should only do one thing, but do it really well
The bot should sound natural and conversational
The bot should always allow the user to connect with a real person
The bot should give the user exactly what they need, nothing more, nothing less
The bot can always be improved
The bot needs its own conversational strategy - which is very different than any email, social media, blogging, or even texting strategies you might already have
By following these rules, you'll begin your journey to making a chatbot that your customers and even potential customers will enjoy interacting with. Make sure you start off on the right foot, as people will have no problem tuning out chatbots just as much as they have email.
Remember, good user experience means your content is relative, timely, and contextual. Chatbots can do all of this, just plan it out and you'll have another tool working for you 24/7 - generating leads, closing sales, and delighting customers.