Bots are going to be the engine that pulls the conversational commerce train, as smart chatbot technologies that deliver instant information can go far beyond a typical messenger app.

Why messaging apps?

The consumer of today expects their favorite brands to get back to them as quickly and provide as much personalized info as their friends and family do. Retailers know this, and they also know that means investing in tools that will match the demands of an increasingly tech-savvy customer base that continues to skew younger. First among those tools are messaging apps – it’s estimated that fully half of the world’s population uses them, and more and more of the other half are getting on board with every passing day.

67% of the people who already message businesses plan to message them more often in the future.

What’s more, 67% of the people who already message businesses plan to message them more often in the future, according to a recent Facebook-Nielsen messaging survey. The technology has been a godsend for retailers struggling to stay relevant in the digital age, but where can it go from here? To find out, let’s take a look at the technologies that are already in wide use and see where there may be some room for improvement.

Facebook Messenger

With over 1.2 billion users a month, Facebook Messenger has a lot to offer growing companies. Savvy businesses can use it to generate awareness, deliver better customer service, and improve brand loyalty. Messenger for Business lets consumers and businesses interact straight from the Messenger app and gives users access to a variety of support options while also helping businesses personalize their service to grow sales. Another advantage is that Messenger for Business works the same way the Messenger app does, with conversations shown in a continuous thread so that it’s easy to see the conversation history and keep it going.

When it comes to customer empowerment, Facebook Messenger 2.0 now comes with an interesting feature called Discover, which helps customers learn more about any business, start conversations, and book appointments. On the downside, there are the privacy issues that Facebook has struggled with since its inception, plus the fact that Messenger tends to run slower on older or lower-end devices.

WhatsApp

Studies have shown that following up on WhatsApp instead of making direct phone calls gets a 40% higher response – not many people appreciate phone calls from unknown numbers, but many customers don’t mind responding to a personal message.

WhatsApp is a way of life for many of its 1.5 billion users, who can send images, audio files, and short video clips to users across the world with a better chance of delivery and fewer restrictions than emails or text messages. It’s also become a player in the e-commerce and retail sector with the launch of WhatsApp Business, a free app that lets businesses easily interact with customers via tools that automate, sort, and quickly respond to messages. Studies have shown that following up on WhatsApp instead of making direct phone calls gets a 40% higher response – not many people appreciate phone calls from unknown numbers, but many customers don’t mind responding to a personal message.

In terms of limitations, the nature of WhatsApp makes it better suited for connecting with loyal existing customers rather than trying to reach new ones. The fact that WhatsApp mixes business and personal communication is a drawback as well – business-only enterprise messaging apps are proven to increase productivity and better protect confidential business content. What’s more, WhatsApp doesn’t support enterprise-grade file sharing solutions that are relied on by many businesses to speed up and simplify workflows.

AI for all

With features like Smart Replies and Auto Response, Facebook’s programmable Messenger Bots let companies provide quality service without spending extra time and money on training new personnel. “That’s true of pretty much any bot out there” you’re probably saying to yourself. “Why are Messenger Bots special?” The short answer is that the current generation of bot engines are increasingly adept at turning normal language into structured data. For the non-technical among us, that means that the bots can understand conversational language while also learning from it – every interaction makes your bot a little bit smarter than it was before. By opening up the Messenger and providing tools like the bot engine, Facebook has “democratized” AI and made building an intelligent bot easy.

Building a WhatsApp Bot shares a lot of similarities to creating a Facebook Messenger bot, but it relies more on external software that offers more flexibility and options for customization. To get started, businesses need to apply for a beta program called WhatsApp Business API. Only when an application is reviewed and approved is it possible to get started building a bot. Third-party chatbot applications like Botsociety or Botonic are the way to go here – they can save time and provide the ability to create a mockup of an application before producing the full version, which makes it easy to see any changes that need to be made.

Hybrid theory

People today are inundated with more information on a daily basis than at any other time in history, and it’s not always easy to interpret what’s helpful and what’s not.

Experts believe that as AI drives sales and lowers customer servicing costs, it may also result in dropping customer satisfaction levels as companies drive more traffic to AI solutions that might not be ready to engage customers effectively. “People today are inundated with more information on a daily basis than at any other time in history, and it’s not always easy to interpret what’s helpful and what’s not” explains Brian Hannon, Chief Commercial Officer at Voxpro. “This digital evolution is leading to a reversion to human engagement to help solve problems fully and effectively.” In other words, there’s still room for people, and a “blended” or “hybrid” approach can give the best of both worlds.

A good example of this approach is described by Arri Bagah, head of chatbots at growth hacking agency BAMF Media. “You can use bots at the top of the funnel to teach, build the relationship, and sell.” he says. “One thing I’m doing on my own website is asking visitors if I can walk them through a few strategies to help them reduce the cost of their Facebook ads. You can put people through that sequence and, at the end, recommend a product that would help them move forward to the next steps. And then people can ask questions. I’ve set it up to where the bot notifies me to answer specific questions live.”

A Closer view

AI’s capabilities are growing by leaps and bounds, and the future is brighter with each passing day, but the human element still matters.

At Closer, we’ve long been proponents of the hybrid approach, which is why we use bots to lend a helping hand in key tasks such as setting up questions for site visitors that will categorize leads and help sales teams decide whether or not to make a pitch to them, suggesting responses to advisers handling detailed customer queries by recognizing patterns and suggesting answers, and making service available 24/7, 365 days a year. AI’s capabilities are growing by leaps and bounds, and the future is brighter with each passing day, but the human element still matters – for the foreseeable future, the ideal chatbot solution is likely to be a “half man, half machine” one.