“What’s your bot strategy?”– is  a question marketers are going to be asked a LOT this year. (agencies please take note)

To learn more about this quickly emerging trend, I popped along to a very interesting session run by the team at Lost Boys this week to learn more about bots – who’s using them and what the opportunity is for brands. What they shared really got me thinking about the implications of the rise of the bots for brands.

So what is a Bot?

A bot is software that is designed to automate the kinds of tasks you would usually do on your own, like making a dinner booking, making a purchase, adding an appointment to your calendar or fetching and displaying information. The increasingly common form of bots, chatbots, simulate conversation. They often live inside messaging apps — or are at least designed to look that way — and it should feel like you’re chatting back and forth as you would with a human.

The rise of the bots makes a lot of sense to me as a response to the ever increasing use of ad blockers and the need for brands to reach consumers in the most frictionless way possible. It’s still very early days but there are already some forward thinking brands  experimenting and being first in market.

Shining a light into the Dark social

Accessing the bits of social that are private like messaging apps is a big challenge for brands. How do you connect with and engage consumers in a space that can’t be targeted with ads or even analytics? Why should you even care about messaging apps?

Ask any digital marketer worth their salt and they’ll tell you that Facebook is where 90% of the social budget is being spent. That’s ok, isn’t it?  Well, for starters, there are more people using messaging apps daily than there are people using social platforms. So the eyeballs are in the messaging apps.

What’s more, this communication is private (1:1) and not public (like your timeline). 2.5 billion people have at least one messaging app. Within a couple of years that will reach 3.6 billion people or half of the humans on our planet. Also, teenagers spend much more time in messaging apps than they do on social networks. Anyone still wondering why Facebook bought WhatsApp?

The opportunity for brands is looking to be quite immense.

It’s a route into mobile for brands that’s much easier to build than an app and much easier to maintain. Many many brands are still struggling with a native approach to mobile. Also, for now, no huge bot store ecosystem to navigate.

  • It may finally be a way to do true 1:1 marketing and real personalisation. Think personal shopping, car configurators…
  • It could take the load of customer service and community management departments, automating a lot of work
  • It could give brands struggling with utility positioning instant cred.

The will also be plenty of challenges

  • Bot fraud – it’s bound to happen so brands will have to get out in front of this
  • Bot fatigue – when everyone has one will we be tired of bots? Remember how every brand needed “an app strategy”
  • Bot devs – are there enough developer and agencies who can help deliver your bots?
  • Bot authenticity – will they feel human enough for us to want to interact with them? Will the tech keep up with our need for “human” authenticity?

Bots currently in the wild

 As with anything new there will be some epic fails and some brands that truly nail it. As some examples of early adopters doing it well, here’s what’s stood out for me so far:

Uber bot in Facebook Messenger. Book a ride as your finalising plans to meet up.

  • KLM on Facebook Messenger where you can get your booking confirmation, check in notification and boarding pass.
  • Sephora on Kik where users  can ask for beauty advice and take a short quiz about their preferences in exchange for customized product suggestions and reviews.
  • Adidas on WhatsApp building micro football communities.

So there you have it, a quick 101 on bots and why you should care. No doubt I’ll be seeing agencies pitch me their “head of bot strategy” people soon and I will have brands asking me who makes great bots and whether they need to look into this area further. Watch this space.