What Are Chatbots, and How Are They Useful?

There’s a lot of excitement about chatbots right now. Big tech companies like Facebook and Microsoft are involved in developing the technology along with a number of innovative start-ups. Major brands are also experimenting with chatbots, which is leading many experts to predict that we are on the verge of what will soon be an explosion in the use of chatbots.

What is a chatbot though? And more importantly, how is it useful, particularly for sales and marketing purposes?

What Is a Chatbot?

A chatbot is a computer program that can have conversations with users. Normally this is done via a messaging platform such as Facebook Messenger.

Chatbots can be relatively simple programs based on rules, or they can even use artificial intelligence. AI makes them much more sophisticated, and this also makes them suitable for a wider range of tasks.

We are now seeing a rise in the development and use of chatbots for a number of reasons, including recent advances in Natural Language Processing (NLP). This is the ability of a computer to understand context, nuance, and intent when conversing with a person.

How Do Chatbots Work?

Rules-based chatbots work a bit like an automated telephone system: “Press one for sales, two for accounts….” The rules are built into the program, and the chatbot works rigidly within those rules.

Chatbots that use AI, on the other hand, can have much more realistic conversations with users. This is because this type of chatbot learns from every interaction it has with a user, and it gets better at understanding both user intent and what the user wants. In other words, it’s able to anticipate what a user wants before they ask for it.

Why Are Chatbots All the Rage?

This mostly comes down to the increasing popularity of messenger apps. People use them all over the world, often as their primary means of communication. At the same time, people are less willing to download apps to their devices, particularly when they are not strictly necessary. Chatbots give brands an effective way to connect to users on the platforms they like and want to use, including messenger apps.

What Are the Downsides?

microsoft tay chatbot twitter
Of course, not all chatbots are successes. In fact, one of the most famous was a spectacular and very public failure, although from that failure, a lot of lessons were learned, and the industry is now much more aware of the risks involved. The failure happened with an experimental chatbot launched by Microsoft. It was called Microsoft Tay, and it was designed to learn how to talk and interact like a millennial. It was deployed on Twitter, but it didn’t take long for the trolls and pranksters to go after it. It wasn’t long before it was promoting Nazism and anti-feminist viewpoints.

How Are They Used?

One of the main ways that rules-based chatbots are used is in customer service and support operations. In other words, they are used to ask customers a series of questions, thereby leading to a resolution of their query.

Chatbots built with artificial intelligence offer more potential, including being another way to reach and communicate with customers. In fact, they can be used to generate immediate conversions and act like a digital version of a salesperson.

An example is a consumer who wants to purchase a new pair of shoes. That consumer can go to a retailer’s website, browse the range of items offered, and then make a decision. If the retailer has a suitable chatbot, the customer could message the chatbot and say something like, “I would like to buy a pair of shoes.” The chatbot would then engage in a conversation with the customer to find out what type of shoes the customer wanted before presenting suitable options.

There are limitations, and the technology is new, but chatbots present new and exciting opportunities for any company looking to engage consumers.

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