Chatbots, or AI-driven virtual assistants, are the in-thing in the Digital world, enhancing consumer engagement and opening up advertising opportunities for brands
BY ALLAN D’SOUZA
You should message a business, just the way you message a friend” was Mark Zuckerberg’s statement to the world when Facebook opened its flagship Messenger platform for businesses to run their AI-developed bots and engage with users last year. Eighteen months later, Messenger has over 1,00,000 bots, with Indian brands going all out to cash in on the multitude of opportunities that machine learning and bot technology has to offer.
Hitherto, chatbots have been operating under different names, serving different purposes for their masters. For instance, HDFC Bank’s EVA (Electronic Virtual Assistant) engages with customers, helping them with their banking needs, while Dish TV’s ADI (Advanced Dish TV Interface) helps customers with recharges and availing new offers and connections. Adobe’s Sensei is equipped to learn the user’s photo editing patterns and suggest recommendations to enhance the results on Photoshop. Although customer engagement is currently the bedrock of chatbot use, marketers also have added benefits like up-selling to existing customers, engaging with prospective customers and lead generation for targeted advertising that complement the purpose of chat interfaces.
PERSONALIZATION: BUILDING BRAND IMAGE
Brands that have embraced the concept of chat interfaces have plenty of positives to share, as they have not only cracked the code to personalized customer engagement, but have managed to discover new opportunities in boosting their digital marketing game plan. Talking about the customer response to its chat assistant, Tata Sky Bot, on Facebook Messenger, Malay Dikshit, Chief Communication Officer, Tata Sky, says, “With the growing connectivity on social media, consumers are more comfortable to engage in a familiar environment. Hence we first launched Tata Sky Bot on Facebook Messenger. The reactions and results have been encouraging, with over 3,00,000 interactions in less than two months of launch. This also gives us a platform to interact with validated users by recommending entertainment viewing choices based on their personalized preferences.”
The feedback that brands have received from users has been nothing less than stupendous. While Tata Sky received 84% positive feedback from customers that engaged with Tata Sky Bot, its contemporary in the satellite TV space, DishTV had over 90% of its users agreeing to communicate with ADI in the future. Similarly, HDFC Bank’s OnChat on Facebook Messenger registered a 160% month-on-month growth in transactions, whereas EVA was successful in addressing over 2.7 million customer queries in the six months since its inception. For brands that don’t shy away from shelling out extra cash to hone their AI capabilities, bots have opened many doors. Stressing on building brand perception through quality customer engagement, Nitin Chugh, Country Head - Digital Banking, HDFC Bank, says, “Though our objective has been centred towards strengthening the brand by delivering to customer expectations, good customer feedback has had a definite rub-off on brand perception too.
However, currently we are more focused towards giving customers what they seek from EVA and HDFC OnChat, rather than focusing on what the brand stands to gain.”
As an engagement tool, the potential that chatbots have to offer brands and customers is immense. Sharing the experience with AI-driven digital virtual assistants in solving complex customer problems, Subroto Gupta, SVP, Head - Innovation & Business Excellence, Jubilant Foodworks Limited, says, “Food ordering is one of the most complex processes to handle, given the variety of options and customer preferences involved. However, we’ve seen a decent success with the use of our virtual assistants when it came to solving customer issues with orders and redeeming offer coupons. Our chat interface was able to generate, process and finally execute the payment, making it a one-stop, interactive solution for customers.”
AN ADVERTISER’S DELIGHT
Though the prime focus of marketers has been to leverage chatbots as an engagement tool, its potential for advertising is a remarkable area that Digital agencies have started exploring. In July this year, Maruti Suzuki and Isobar rolled out an integrated chatbot within a video banner. Talking about the advertising innovation with chatbot technology, Gopa Kumar, Executive Vice President, Isobar India, says, “With the video banner, we enabled a two- ADVERTISING’ way communication with our target audience to address their first level queries on the sidelines of the car launch. These queries were on the most important parameters for buying a car, which are efficiency, ease and design. There was a multimedia campaign running to support it, and this Chatbot Video overlay was implemented for engagement. This served a dual purpose for our TG - intrigue for the launch and education through chatbot.”
Customer data and analytics are significant for running a successful brand campaign, and as chatbots collect valuable data, it takes them far beyond their function of just being an engagement tool. Talking about the benefits of having a conversational bot, Anil Dua, Group Chief Executive Officer, DishTV, says, “ADI is also helping us gather intelligent customer insights for new product development, capturing customer expectations and generating useful analytics for the organization. Being a ‘self-learning bot’, the more conversations ADI has with customers, the more evolved and capable it will become in the coming days.”
On the possibility of running ads via chatbots, Nitin Chugh says, “If the communication is contextual, relevant and non-intrusive, advertising is possible. Though I cannot divulge details, we do have a communication plan for our chat interface and it could range from servicing, offers, etc., that run on other interfaces too.”
Earlier this year, Microsoft launched Ruuh, a friendly AI chatbot exclusive for Indian users. While the disclaimer does notify users not to rely on Ruuh for counselling, advice or endorsements, the chirpy bot is rather prompt in recommending the Tata Nano, when asked for car suggestions or pointing the user towards Bagittoday.com to get the best fashion deals online.
THE RISE OF THE BOTS
Market research company Forrester, in its recent data on chatbot adoption, revealed that 57% firms globally are already using chatbots. However, the start wasn’t as rosy as it looks today. Technology developers that saw immense potential early in the day had many hurdles to jump over, trying to convince investors and keep the excitement high. Tracing the journey of bots, Aakrit Vaish, Cofounder & CEO, Haptik, says “In 2015, the concept of having conversational assistants became very hot and suddenly there were hundreds of companies globally doing something in the bot space, both in the consumer, and the enterprise side. Interests were heightened and even we managed to raise capital from our partners Times Internet. However, by the end of 2016, the excitement tapered down and it was still interesting but not as hyped as we originally imagined. Now in 2017, the utility of chatbots has been validated and there are different areas of chatbots that are 100% productive such as customer service and lead generation. Content is still picking up and hence it is too early to comment on that.”
According to Sachin Jaiswal, CEO, Niki.ai, “The global chatbot market is set to expand at an incredibly high CAGR of 27.8% in terms of revenue, within a forecast period from 2016 to 2024. By the end of 2024, the global chatbot market is expected to reach $994.5 million in size. In India as well, this figure is soaring. The use of chatbots saw a surge in 2016. However, they were already being used in many industries including Finance, Healthcare, etc., for a few years globally.” Niki.ai has also developed HDFC Bank’s Messenger chatbot ‘OnChat’ which received more than 2.4 million messages, with 25% conversations with non-HDFC Bank users, thus proving to be an effective marketing tool.
For a multi-lingual country, developing a vernacular language support can be a game-changer in improving engagement. Also, in areas where Internet bandwidth is yet to pick up, and there is limited usage of smartphones, chat interfaces can be an apt alternative. “We want to make AI accessible to everyone and for everything. The aim is to take e-commerce to people in deeper geographies that have connectivity issues and people are loathe to download many apps due to bandwidth constraints and limited usage of the smartphone,” sums up an optimistic Jaiswal.
Spamming inboxes has been the biggest drawback of email and SMS marketing. Contrary to being intrusive, chatbots have proven to be a delight for customers looking to connect with a brand for multiple purposes.
Talking of the opportunities that chatbots have opened up for 9X Media, Kapil Sharma, Senior VP Marketing, 9X Media, says, “Chatbots serve as an additional touchpoint for our brands to interact and engage with consumers. Rather than being intrusive like a push SMS, chatbots are an effective two-way communication platform between a brand and a consumer. Our chatbots allow viewers to send across their selfie video requests, which are aired on our channels. Fans can also receive jokes and videos, and participate in contests through the chatbot. Given the amount of time our viewers spend on social media, the chatbot allows us to remain connected with them 24x7 and deliver instant entertainment directly to their mobile phones.”
Embedding a personal assistant within a news app is another opportunity that publications are exploring. The Times of India recently embedded a personal chat assistant within its news app to help readers with their day-to-days tasks such as setting reminders and mobile recharges. While CNN and Wall Street Journal run integrated virtual assistants on their digital platforms, TOI is the first Indian publication to experiment with the technology. TOI’s announcement also comes on the back of an $11.2 million investment in AI start-up Haptik.
Norm Johnston, Global CEO, Mindshare FAST, & Global Chief Digital Officer, Mindshare, says that AI has to evolve to such an extent that the most talked about brands would be the ones that actually talk less and do more to make the life of the consumer easier
Q] What role will chatbots play in changing the way brands engage with customers?
Johnston: Chatbots are turning the whole customer engagement model upside down. In a world where there are umpteen options available and the attention span of consumers is limited, brands need to stop telling consumers what to do and instead execute it for them. That’s the fundamental objective of every innovation, to simplify the life of the user. AI has to evolve to an extent where instead of telling the consumer that her coffee machine is running out of capsules, it should be capable enough to order it for her. It’s not just customer engagement, it is alternative advertising where the most talked about brands would be the ones that actually talk less and do more to make the life of the consumer easier.
Q] Could you share an example of a brand that has done well with chatbots?
Johnston: Domino’s Pizza has done a phenomenal job of integrating its chat assistant DOM with the holistic experience of ordering pizza. When a user connects the DOM bot to the nest system in his home, it can do amazing things like automatically turning off the sprinkler when the deliveryman arrives; it also automatically rings the door bell to alert the user. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. As AI and machine learning evolve, it will bring customer experiences and engagement to all-new levels.
WHAT MAKES A PERFECT ‘BRAND-AND-BOT’ BLEND
Now, pay bills, book flights, web check-in through Haptik bot in the Times of India news app
The Times of India has just incorporated a virtual personal assistant in the Times of India news app, courtesy Haptik, a leading artificial intelligence-based personal assistant and chatbot platform. The virtual assistant enables users to set reminders, recharge their mobile, book flights, do web check-ins, make to-do lists, and much more through the Times of India Android news app. Puneet Gupt, COO, News at Times Internet and Aakrit Vaish, Founder & CEO, Haptik talk to IMPACT about the brand objective and advertising potential of the latest integration.
Q] What was the objective of integrating a personal chat assistant in the TOI news app?
Gupt: Our objective was clear and straightforward. We wanted to create an opportunity to engage our audience beyond their news experience. Our readers can now rely on Times of India for requirements such as setting reminders, paying bills, flight bookings and so much more. This is just the starting point, as we will closely monitor what services are getting better engagement and use the insights for our future projects.
Q] How will the integration strengthen the Times of India as a brand?
Vaish: It is still early to predict the outcome, but opportunities are plenty. For instance, if there is an insurance request, we can plug in an ET Money bot inside the Haptik interface itself. Here, we won’t promote ET Money, but service the customer by suggesting the benefits of which product is better. The Times Internet ecosystem has multiple services available, and that’s the advantage we look to leverage.
Q] What are the advertising opportunities that come to the fore?
Vaish: We see four brand categories that will have a good fit with the platform. FMCG brands are always on the lookout for avenues to plug their products, and the large user base of TOI gives them that reach and engagement. TOI also has an evolved set of audiences and our AI capabilities allow us to answer their queries related to banking and insurance, making it an apt plug for BFSI brands too. Then there is travel and commerce, where users are constantly engaging for best deals and suggestions.
Q] What are the innovations that can be expected with advertising on the platform?
Vaish: Sprite has come on board as the launch partner and it is a super integration where the brand’s tagline ‘Clear Hai’ is embedded in the bot communication to create a perfect ‘brand-and-bot’ blend. So if you you’ve set a gym reminder, it will be accompanied with a witty response that resonates with the brand. Similarly, there are multiple touchpoints where the consumer can be seamlessly engaged and also entertained if the content is great and the strategy is perfectly executed.
EARLY DAYS TO REAP MARKETING DIVIDEND
As in every business venture, first comes the capital, followed by ROI. With brands still experimenting with the technology, gauging its contribution towards marketing revenue is a long way ahead. Building brand reputation and loyalty among customers by enhancing customer experience is the immediate focus of most brands. Sharing his thoughts on upgrading customer experience, Neeraj Singh Dev, SVP & Head, e-commerce, Thomas Cook India, says, “From an AI and chatbot POV, our focus has been to enable a great customer experience for our travellers. Customer acquisition is only 10% of our concern, 90% of our AI strategy focuses on enhancing the experience after the customer has booked their holiday with us. After a thorough study, we realized that 40% of customer conversations with the interactive voice response (IVR) were around standard FAQs in travel such as weather conditions, foreign currency exchange rates, flight timings, etc. Therefore, we developed a chat assistant that can deftly answer these questions.”
Commenting on similar lines, on where customer interests align with the marketing objective, Subroto Gupta, adds, “One of the biggest metrics of our focus is ‘Value for Money’ where value is the function of product, image and experience and then cost (money) is the denominator. If you keep product and image aside, experience is the most important part of what consumers expect from us. Bots, through their interactions, help create better consumer experiences, which drives customer loyalty and ultimately helps the brand.”
Lack of robust measurement metrics is one bullet that agencies and ad developers are dodging while getting advertisers to invest ad budgets in the technology. On room for advertising innovation in chatbots, Rajiv Dingra, Founder and CEO, WATConsult, says, “There are endless advertising opportunities and possibilities to the use of chatbots, but its engagement results are yet to be tested across different verticals. Currently, the ROI on use of chatbots is only measured through the rate of engagement in customer service. If food brands and BFSI brands continue with their chatbot innovations, we can hope for interesting times ahead.”
WHERE CHATBOTS STAMMER
Despite the surge in use of AI-driven bots by brands, there are many roadblocks staring marketers and bot developers in the face. The biggest challenge that brands face with the implementation of bots is language processing and machine learning, which is still work-in-progress. Reiterating the need for advanced and intelligent bots, Deepak Sharma, Chief Digital Officer, Kotak Mahindra Bank, says, “Bots are a great way of engaging with customers, but they need to be intelligent. Nine out of 10 conversations with bots die because they fail to comprehend the emotional quotient and sometimes even the context of a conversation. We do not want to repeat the same mistakes, and hence we are investing considerably in the technology.”
Sharing an example of what needs to be done about improving the technology, Veer Chand Bothra, Chief Innovation Officer, Netcore, says, “Chatbots and all other conversational interfaces can be made intelligent by making them native and location intuitive. If a person in India is asking a bot “What’s the score?” he is not remembering to type ‘cricket score’, because the conversational interface is intelligent enough to know that when in India somebody asks for score, it is most likely to be the cricket score. Now, that is what a smart chatbot is all about. If a user is talking to Siri or Amazon Echo, he is talking in voice, but the point is not voice or text. The point is, he is having a conversation, where the onus is not on the human to learn the machine, but the other way round.”
BOTS WON’T REPLACE, BUT COMPLEMENT APPS
Technology developers may have touted chat interfaces to replace websites and apps in the coming years, but marketers have a different opinion on the rise of chatbots, and believe that instead of replacing the traditional channels, bots will aid them. “All the business channels, including the ones of yesterday and today, which are the call centres and relationship executives and our websites and apps are here to stay. Customers should have the choice of subscribing to the channel that suits their convenience. Chatbots may develop new opportunities, but will not replace existing channels,” adds Deepak Sharma.
For mobile marketers, chatbots are an engagement tool that will strengthen apps rather than replacing them. With chatbots becoming an integral part of business apps, marketers will have more options to play with. Predicting the future of chatbots and apps, Anjali Hegde, CEO, Ansible India, says, “An app has the potential to offer the entire range of services that one can offer through a single digital asset – be it information, display the entire range of products and services, commerce, customer service, recommendation engine or pure engagement. An A2P chatbot is specific to a purpose. Some bots also aggregate multiple services and utilities - for example Haptik - to serve like concierge services. I do not foresee chatbots replacing apps in the near future. What I definitely do foresee is apps integrating chatbots and AI into their ecosystem to offer a personalized experience to users.”