Chatbots fuel the future of communications

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t’s Friday night, which means it’s pizza night. That means dealing with an annoying automated phone system, navigating a website that isn’t mobile friendly or downloading an app that will only be used once in a blue moon. Whatever way you slice it, ordering a pizza can be a hassle.

To make things simpler for consumers, a more complex technology – chatbots – might be the answer. Chatbots are software programs that communicate with people through a messaging platform like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or iMessage. Using artificial intelligence, chatbots can be programmed to understand and respond to questions, comments and requests from users.

Chatbots from Marriott Hotels, Papa John’s Pizza and Whole Foods Markets allows customers to talk directly with companies through Facebook Messenger. Photo credit: Trevor Hawkins

“Even just a year ago, chatbots were just a beta technology,” said Adam Durfee, manager of Brigham Young University’s Y Digital lab. “But because consumers expect immediate access to brands, chatbots are becoming more popular since they can instantly keep up with the demand.”

Chatbots have become increasingly accessible, especially thanks to smartphones that use chatbots like Apple’s Siri, Google assistant and Amazon’s Alexa.  With apps like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp companies don’t have to be a multibillion dollar tech firm to build a chatbot.

Using these platforms, consumers can order burritos via Taco Bell’s chatbot, buy movie tickets with Fandango’s chatbot or get beauty tips from Sephora’s chatbot. Even Microsoft’s Xiaoice, with over 20 million users in China, can become a friend and chat with users on almost any subject.

Skyscanner, launched in May 2016 on Facebook Messenger, checks on flight prices and tracks price fluctuations for flights to destinations around the world. Photo credit: Trevor Hawkins

The rise of chatbots comes as no surprise as consumers turn away from apps and turn to messaging platforms. According to TechCrunch, a majority of US consumers download zero apps per month as of August 2017. Another report on Business Insider found that messaging platforms like Apple iMessage, Facebook Messenger and WhatsUp are used more than social media apps.

As consumers turn to messaging apps, so do companies using chatbots. Companies can communicate one-on-one with consumers, giving them a very unique opportunity, according to Rick Boyce, an early pioneer of internet advertising.

“If a brand can create a bot that makes me laugh out loud, that responds with clever insight and truly makes my life easier and my experience with the brand more effortless and meaningful,” Boyce said, “then that brand will have discovered one of the most amazing marketing tools ever invented.”

Now is the perfect time to create a chatbot. According to a survey conducted by Retale, a mobile app developer, over 86 percent of millennials say that companies should “use chatbots to promote deals, products and services.”

“Chatbots won’t be replacing websites or apps anytime soon, but they will become more common,” said Durfee. “Companies were slow to implement automated phone systems, too, but now you can barely find a company that doesn’t use one.”

Companies like ChattyPeople, Meokay and provide free platforms for anybody to easily create their own bot, no coding required. In Utah, companies like AtlasRTX in Park City can create more advanced bots for a fee.

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While creating a basic chatbot takes only a few hours to implement, maintaining it and tailoring it to consumer needs can be tiresome. But Durfee said the initial pains of creating one are worth the price.

“Chatbots aren’t going away,” Durfee said, “Creating a chatbot and getting that experience now will definitely be worth it in the long-run. Even if there’s a lot of front-end work.”

So while building a chatbot requires some work, at least ordering a pizza through one will be easy.

Written by Trevor Hawkins