Note: this article was originally published on 13th May 2016
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last month, you’ll know that Facebook recently announced that they’re opening up Messenger to allow developers to build bots. Big news.
Bots can work in a number of ways, principally they’ll either perform natural language processing, or they’ll have a guided conversation through the use of controlled interactions (for example, buttons). “Hey, Amazon here. Want to buy this TV set?” “Yes/No”. Conversational commerce.
Naturally, this leads to people questioning their place within the ecosystem — are chatbots replacements for websites? Are they going to kill off mobile apps?
History tells us that new channels can become complementary rather than displacing existing channels. Websites didn’t kill physical stores, and mobile apps haven’t killed websites. Instead, the makeup of the ecosystem changes and each channel performs a different job for the customer whilst coexisting with the other channels. Its’ likely that over time that bots will become a quadratic channel — physical, web, app and bots will likely make up a businesses ‘omnichannel’ presence.
Whilst I’m excited about bots, I do wonder if their potential for driving commerce is a little misunderstood. They’ll be great for service discovery and acquisition, but that ultimately they’ll hand off to apps + websites. Finding out about a new product or service via chat might be contextually relevant, but the experience will never be rich enough or allow for enough customisation for it to be entirely contained within the bot. Instead, the bot serves the initial parts of the customer journey, awareness and acquisition, and the other channels provide the richness needed for conversion and retention.
If bots are to be a vehicle for acquisition and service discovery, are they more a challenger to the App Store than apps themselves? The App Store has unaddressed long-standing problems with discoverability (rumoured to be somewhat addressed in iOS 10) and perhaps chatbots will provide consumers with another way to discover great apps. To take this a stage further, you could argue that chatbots could begin to challenge search engines… Google & Apple vs Facebook. A fight everyone would love to see.
One way or another, chatbots will change the way we interact with products and services over the coming years. Expecting them to replace apps, however, is a false dawn.