Back in October 2014, Taylor Swift opened an account on Line, the messaging app that is massively popular in Asia. The account currently doesn’t do much. If you communicate with it, you can hear a funny voice message from Swift, for instance.
But that is not the point.
The Taylor Swift Line account is interesting because:
a) she opened it to address the Asian market and
b) it is a very early case of a primitive chat bot being used as a marketing vehicle for music.
Paul McCartney has one, too. Burberry and Selfridges also have accounts on WeChat and Line.
Right now, Swift’s Line thing is little more than an account, as opposed to a fully realised AI presence. But soon there will be an avalanche of artificially intelligent chatbots filling up your messaging apps, like Messenger and Whatsapp, according to the folks at BetterBrand, a bot marketing startup based in London.
That’s partly because BetterBrand has a staff of 25 dedicated to creating them, with offices in London, Israel, and New York. But mostly it’s because Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg declared bots were the future and in April opened up a bot platform in Messenger. It lets companies create various bots that you can communicate with as if they were a regular person in your contacts list. More commonly they serve you content if you ask for it, or alert you when new things you’re interested in become available.
CNN has a news bot in Messenger, for instance, that will serve you headlines if you prefer to see them there rather than on TV or the web. China’s WeChat has had bots inside it ever since 2013 — this is one area where the West is actually behind Asia.
One of the best bots is “Trumpchat,” a Donald Trump parody bot created by Mic, the media publisher that focuses on political issues for millennials. You can find him inside Kik. Trumpchat mostly insists that you respond to his statements via an A/B choice. If you try to say anything that Trumpchat doesn’t have a script for, he says this:
“Until the last four months you couldn’t create such a programme in the apps we’re talking about,” BetterBrand CEO Asaf Amir told Business Insider.
At first, it is not obvious that the world really wants a bunch of bots clogging up its messaging apps. But think of it this way: You’re cooking. You have only leftover ingredients in your fridge. Can they be combined to make a decent meal? BetterBrand thinks there ought to be a recipe bot inside Messenger which will deliver recipes you ask it for. You won’t need to search Google or YouTube if you can just ask the recipe bot for suggestions.
Most people imagine that AI bots will be like the movie “Her” (2013), which featured an intelligent operating system that users communicated with as if it were human. (The hero of the film falls in love with the system, which loves him back. It doesn’t end well.) But in reality, the first wave of commercially successful bots will be functionally simple decision-trees that guide users to the info they need by asking Yes/No questions.
This is — potentially — a business that will generate billions in new revenue for tech companies and their clients, according to BetterBrand’s Amir. The potential market for bots could be as many as 4 billion people globally. (He gets that number by adding together the users of messaging and chat apps like Messenger, Whatsapp, Line, WeChat, and so on.)
Business Insider and Socialbakers just published data at the Engage conference in Prague on communications between customers and companies in Messenger which shows that there are five times as many private messages occurring as there are public wall posts being made on Facebook. Yet company employees on average take 10 hours to respond to a direct message. That suggests there is a huge opportunity for bots to deal quickly with simple questions from customers, freeing up the humans to address the more complicated problems.
Initially, BetterBrand business development head Blair Underwood sees bots as being very simple interfaces that help people with specific utility tasks. A recipe bot. A personal trainer bot for the gym. Movie recommendations. Taylor Swift alerting you to a new video or music clip. That kind of thing. (Business Insider is developing a Messenger bot that will serve you our headlines.) “General utility is what will get the most early adoption,” Underwood says.
The bots will also create a wave of new interesting jobs, such as script writers who understand the flow of structured conversations, and local teams to customise bots to sound relevant and natural in different countries. “We’re waiting for the market to mature,” Underwood says. “Companies will need teams to handle conversations on a daily basis, to create, strategise, script, test, launch, monitor and optimise” the bots. Companies will get into the habit of A/B testing different words and scripts to see which get better responses from users. (That’s the dirty secret of bots, by the way — the number of behind-the-scenes humans these bots will need to keep them going.)
Amir believes bots have a natural advantage: They exist inside the apps we are already using. If all your friends are on Line, there is no need to leave Line if you want to find out what Taylor Swift is up to.
The first wave of simple bots will be like early websites. People will learn to navigate through them, responding to scripted prompts to get what they want. “Then it starts to get more complicated, with personalisation,” Amir says. “Randomisation. It’s like a dynamic website, not to mention you can have a conversation.”
Amir keeps mentioning websites because he sees bots as being a massive step beyond them. If you think about it, websites are bizarre, unnatural things: We all had to learn to navigate them. Drop-down menus, search boxes, navigation pages — none of these things exist in real life. The web trained us to use it. In real life, when a human wants to know something she usually asks a friend. So bots fit right into that. They can provide all the content a website or an app can, but a bot is navigated the same way you might talk to a human. It’s not a directory of links.
“We’re starting to see global campaigns on WeChat and Line from companies from the West,” Amir says.
Investors are taking notice. BetterBrand is one-year-old, funded by private equity. Amir declined to say who his investors were. But the company entertains offers for new investment all the time. “There is a list of a lot of people who are interested,” he says.