Chatbots: taking e-commerce to a whole new paradigm

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REWIND to 2013, when Spike Jonze’s highly acclaimed film “Her” first showcased to the world the capacity of artificial-intelligence (AI) technology to interact with users of mobile devices. Many thought it was something available only in the realms of fic

Fast-forward to 2016, and that once inconceivable notion of a human being actively and casually interacting with a machine is slowly becoming a reality.
Not surprisingly, messaging-app giants are already getting into the act of delivering it. Fast.
Line recently announced that it would join the chatbot bandwagon (which was led by the likes of Microsoft, Facebook and WeChat) in introducing AI-powered smartphone call centres to enable businesses to connect one-on-one automatically with their customers.
What is it about instant messaging as a user behaviour that makes these IM app giants want to invest heavily in various technologies and integrate them into these platforms?
Take a minute and reflect: When was the last time you held your smartphone and chatted with someone through Line, perhaps WhatsApp or the Facebook Messenger? A few minutes ago, I guess? And on a normal day, what is the average total time you spend on these messengers, even while slacking off work?
The answers are beginning to fall into place.
According to IPG Mediabrands’ Connections Panel research, instant messaging is a top-three behaviour on digital devices among consumers aged 15-49 who use the Internet on a regular basis.
Line chief executive Takeshi Idezawa has said we have entered an era where people expect everything to be done on a chat screen. That’s how far we have evolved as human beings, and how lazy we’ve become.
In the very near future – and this is not an understatement, considering the speed with which the digital ecosystem has changed this decade – you will be able to purchase all of your favourite brands, purchase flight tickets, order a pizza or even hail a cab through chat interfaces, with the chatbot at the very heart of each conversation.
The most startling thing about those conversations is that they will be very personal, very human, despite their being a robot on one end.
So, what exactly is a chatbot?
In layman’s terms, it is a computer program designed to simulate conversations with human beings |over the Internet. And this is the direction that every messaging app is heading towards in facilitating the link between consumers and advertisers.
So how is it different from Apple’s Siri or Google’s voice-activated response interface? A chatbot, as the name suggests, is in essence for chat purposes and designed to respond on instant-messaging platforms.
For instance, popular North American messaging interface Kik just released a chatbot shop, whereby users can interact with various brands such as H&M and Sephora.

Current usage
Thai businesses have really embraced Line when it comes to answering inquiries on products and making business transactions with customers, so this kind of behaviour is nothing new. But it has all been manual up until now.
Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg recently stated at the company’s F8 conference, where he introduced a chatbot for Facebook Messenger, that the new system would help solve the problem of app overload on a user’s smartphone.
“No one wants to have to install a new app for every business or service that they want to interact with. We think that you should just be able to message a business in the same way that you message a friend,” Zuckerberg suggested.
Almost two years ago when Facebook took over WhatsApp in a US$19-billion deal, many balked at the price. Now it is starting to make financial sense.

Implications
With eMarketer predicting that messaging apps will reach 80 per cent of global smartphone users by 2018, brands should start to experiment with this platform and interact with users with customised bots, whether through Line, Facebook or other alternatives.
This will also cut out the need to hire so many personnel to answer frequently asked questions, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises that don’t have the resources to implement a full-scale human-centric call-centre programme.
Most important, isn’t it every brand’s wish to build a meaningful relationship with its customers? This is the most exciting time yet to integrate humanised replies to put your customers at ease while talking to a robot.
I end this article with a famous quote from Theodore, the lonely protagonist from the Oscar-winning film “Her”, when he confided with Samantha the AI:
“I feel I can be anything with you.”

Pradon Sirakovit is associate director for corporate communications, IPG Mediabrands Thailand. He can be reached atpradon.sirakovit@mbww.com; LinkedIn: IPG Mediabrands Thailand.