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How Your Company Can Build Its First Chatbot

How Your Company Can Build Its First Chatbot

Even at seven o’clock in the morning, Tod Maffin’s upbeat and enlightening presentations on digital technology and marketing bring audiences to their feet. Recognized as a thought leader in online business innovation and strategy, he sheds light on trends and technological advancements, specializing in campaigns for specific sectors, from human resources to social media to real estate to education. His comprehensive understanding of high-velocity change and competition, hyper-innovation, and the accelerating pace of the world offers an insider’s viewpoint of what lurks around the corner—whether it’s six months, a year, or 10 years away. In this column for The Globe and Mail, Todd shares some tips for in the event you decide to embrace the “bot economy”.

It’s becoming more clear every day – the revolution will be automated. From “smart” homes to AI learning, our world is going to be increasingly controlled by intelligent objects all around us.

Little wonder that marketers are looking into automating their business as a way to save human costs and serve customers around the clock. Some social media platforms, notably Facebook, have dived right into the mix, offering a way to hook these “bots” into the messaging platform. This lets people “talk” to your brand and ask it questions without the need for a human at your end. (The most basic versions of these are quite simple: If the user says, “Hi,” the bot responds with, “Well, hello there!”)

And it’s growing fast. In fact, today, people are using messenger apps like Kik and Facebook Messenger more than they’re using social networks.

At my social media agency, we’ve deployed some of these bots for our clients. And we’ve learned a lot along the way. Here are some tips for you, in the event you decide to embrace the bot economy.

Don’t fake it

One of the most common mistakes people make in setting their bot up is they try to make it seem as if the bot is a real person – an agent in a call centre or something. Bot intelligence is not nearly smart enough yet to fool a human. Have your bot tell people it’s a bot, that it’s a little limited in what it can do, but it’s still happy to try to help. The integrity of your brand is at stake. Don’t start that relationship by lying.

Start simple

Even in these early days, bots can do a lot of things – collect payments, sign people up to weekly content digests, schedule direct messages, and more. You should do none of these things. At least not at first. Start simple. Create a bot that understands about 50 concepts (phrases like complaint, phone, help and products would be a good start) and can respond to people with the right answers. Make liberal use of the quick replies – shortcut buttons that can direct people to the right answer.

Monitor and bolster

Watch the channel closely and take note of what people are saying to the bot. You might be surprised how people interact with it. For instance, people might be trying to get a list of your products by typing “List,” when you have it programmed to respond to “Products.” Monitor the channel in as close to real time as you can, and add responses to the bot as you notice how people are using it. Don’t forget to teach your bot common misspellings too and entire phrases – instead of just “hours,” make sure it understands “huors,” “What are your hours,” “When are you open,” and so on. In the case of my own bot, I spent an entire day just watching and adding new concepts to it when it launched.

Create a personality

Bots can be impersonal beings, so bring some humanity to your bot by giving it a personality. Does it have a gender? How old is it? Is it wise and sentient? Or is it a wisecracking fun buddy? One of our clients is a Manitoba shopping centre whose brand voice is everything “happy.” So we created the HappyBot – modeled after an actual computer kiosk in the mall – which uses a lighter, fun tone with people. Instead of “Goodbye,” HappyBot says things like, “See you later, alligator,” or “Well, my work here is done.”

Randomize, don’t repeat

Have you ever been stuck in a phone tree where no matter what number you press, the recording says the same “I’m sorry, please try again” phrase back to you? It’s horrible. Yet, many people setting up bots set the same process in place. Make sure your bot developer provides a series of randomized responses for your most common triggers – especially the all-important “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that” phrase, which your customers might be hitting a lot.

Push, but step softly

One of the real benefits of bots is that once your bot has communicated with someone, you’re able to push that person promotional messages right into the chat platform. So if someone messaged with your bot on Facebook, you could send them a message asking them, for instance, to check out a new product. A warning: This part of the technology is still very early going, and there aren’t many choices yet available. Many bot platforms only let you message everyone who’s ever chatted, as one big group. Tread lightly if you plan to take advantage of this. In most cases, it might be better to wait for the technology to mature so you can more target people with better precision. Just because they asked your bot about your store hours doesn’t mean they want a message about the new shoes you got in.

Plant some Easter eggs

In video games, Easter eggs are intentional inside jokes or hidden messages buried in the gameplay. Depending on the voice of your brand, you might want to drop a few of these triggers into your bot’s memory. Perhaps it knows the name of your CEO and can tell a story about her. Perhaps it can suggest a good jazz song if asked. Think about some on-brand fun items you can sprinkle secretly into the bot’s brain for people to randomly stumble upon. This will make the experience all the better.

Tod Maffin/Globe and Mail/January, 2017