This article was originally published and translated by the Canada Media Fund.
Virtual reality was the revolution that was expected to shake up 2016. But this year also saw the rising popularity of chatbots, computer programs designed to simulate conversation.
Among several triggers was the announcement made by Facebook of its decision to open up its Messenger service to chatbot developers. That was last April, and six months later, more than 30,000 bots have been developed for this service alone. All of the main messaging services (Skype, WhatsApp, Kik, Slack, Telegram, WeChat, etc.) are today open to chatbots who allow users to interact with programs through simple conversations as if they were conversing with a friend.
For example, if you write to CNN on Facebook, you will no longer have to wait for the response of a community manager but will instead be immediately replied to by a chatbot, with the latest news displayed on your screen.
In this case, Messenger serves as a portal that redirects users to the official site of the 24-hour news giant, but other services are fully integrated in the messaging app and therefore do not redirect you elsewhere. For example, Poncho can deliver you the weather in any part of the world and, every morning via Facebook, provide you with the weather forecast wherever you are.
As is somewhat the case with apps, there’s beginning to be a bot for just about anything and everything. Directly from your messaging software, you now have the ability to reserve and pay your Uber ride, discover on a daily basis a selection of books that meet your tastes or receive the worst quotes of the soon-to-be US president.
And as always, as soon as a new platform emerges, storytellers are never very far behind, and the first “narrative chatbots” are beginning to appear. (We’ll get back to that a little later.)
These diverse projects all make the same promise: to create highly personalized experiences that are designed to be lived through the interface that you probably use the most over the course of any given day.
Is all that really revolutionary?
It goes without saying that chatbots were not invented last April. The most famous of all bots is without a doubt Siri—the personal assistant installed in Apple products since 2007 that is capable of answering a colossal number of questions from users, from the most serious to the most absurd. Since then, all of the web’s giants have developed their own assistants. Think of Cortana (Microsoft), Alexa (Amazon), and Google Now.
Consequently, the chatbots themselves are not the announced revolution; it’s their democratization that has revolutionized because anyone can today create his or her own chatbot and upload it to a Facebook page, for example.
As proof, I myself am in no way a developer. Yet, in less than a day, I was able to design and upload an educational chatbot on new forms of storytelling (test it here, French only)! It is full of defects but that’s not what’s important. Today, freely accessible tools enable you to create such programs and imagine new experiences for your clients or audience. But what’s the use?
From “speaking to everyone” to “speaking to each one”
Chatbots are the most recent incarnation of a global public relations movement. Before the Internet, the media’s role and ambition was to speak to everyone. It was the rule of the general public and mass media. The Internet eventually ended this hegemony and we tipped toward the need to speak to each one.
The web being a world of communities, we were forced to learn to no longer search for the single message that would reach everyone but instead look for different messages aimed at various target audiences. When it came to disseminating content on the web, the main challenge consequently became “discoverability.” In other words, how can I make sure that the audience that interests me is informed of content thought up for it?
This is where chatbots come into play. By entertaining personalized relations directly with individual users, these bots have sparked the era of speaking to each one. The relationship is inverted in that it’s no longer the editor who proposes content to the audience but the audience that requests content that resembles it or is adaptable to its specific situation.
For example, on Facebook, the content of your exchanges with users can be made to evolve according to their gender, age or location. You can also accept online payments or memorize users’ responses to adapt your future interactions (if someone doesn’t like cooking, you may avoid suggesting recipe videos).
Therefore, chatbots are not aimed at replacing your website, your mobile app and your Facebook page, contrary to what may have been announced. It’s more a question of creating a personalized user experience that is adapted to messaging services. It’s a major issue given the fact that these services now count more users in the world than social networks.
And the issue does not only concern companies that have something to sell. Of course, market services are often the quickest to develop tools that can help them convert people into consumers, but there are already editorial projects that consider this new support as a potential distribution platform.
Stories told by chatbots
At the time this post was drafted, “narrative chatbots” are only just beginning to appear. A lot of them set themselves apart only by their capacity to show us what not to do, but that’s the advantage of pioneering projects: to help develop codes and a grammar for those who will follow in their footsteps.
I however retain a few of them, like Humani: Jessie’s Story, which takes on the form of an exchange with a teenage girl on her existential issues. This project was designed using PullString, one of the two tools that I recommend to easily create a conversational bot, the other being Chatfuel.
Conversing with fictional characters is today’s predominant use of narrative bots. It’s also the choice that was made to promote Call of Duty: Infinity Warfare through two storytelling bots: a first last May, when six million users were given the opportunity to converse with a rough and tough soldier, and a second in October presenting a much more welcoming hostess.
Other chatbots are based less on conversing and more on the user’s choices to develop interactive fictions in much the same way as “books in which you are the conversational hero.” It’s namely the case of Game of Thrones Survival, a textual adventure in which you have to try to survive the events of the season 6.
Things are just getting started so please feel free to begin developing your own chatbots today. Determine your story and your tone, opt for a tool like Chatfuel (it won’t take long) and get going! Develop a first prototype, have it tested by people you know well and adapt your copy (repeatedly, you’ll see, it’s fascinating) before officially launching.
To reach your target, you’ll need to call upon all of your existing communication tools and clearly explain your bot’s purpose. For now, the general public is just starting to use chatbots and not everyone has yet had the chance to live the experience. You therefore need to educate people and familiarize them with this process.
The task should soon be made easier with the eventual arrival of bot stores. Just like app stores, they will definitely contribute to elevating chatbots to the level of full-fledged distribution platforms.