The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2017 was all about Alexa, Amazon’s virtual personal assistant that is now the hub of the connected home. CES showcased a long list of home products with full Alexa controls built in—refrigerators, power strips, speakers, dimmer switches, and more. With the rising popularity of virtual personal assistants like Alexa, we see emerging a new marketing channel—the conversant channel. Conversant channels give brands the opportunity to connect with their audience and interact with their customers one-to-one via chatbots. We sat down with Jonathan Mellinger, CEO of uTu.ai, for a quick education on the realm of chatbots and what they will mean for marketers and new advertising experiences.
- What makes Alexa so great and what is fueling its rise?
Ease of use. Alexa works as advertised. You ask Alexa a question and it responds. If you ask it for information, it accurately returns it. It plays music at your suggestion. It’s an early step in the right direction for creating frictionless experiences from conversational interfaces.
- Can you help us with the definitions—personal assistants vs. chatbots? What is what and how do they work together?
Technically, Alexa is a personal assistant. Amazon uses the term “skills” instead of “chatbot”, and they (and others) have kits that allow developers to build skills on top of Alexa. These skills perform the same “jobs” that chatbots do, only they are voice-activated. Our team recently won a hackathon for creating a skill on Alexa that tracks blood pressure. The applications for skills are manifold.
- Can you give a real-life scenario in which someone may have already come into contact with a chatbot?
It’s quite possible that the customer service bubble that you see in the corner of a webpage is really a chatbot. Type “Kayak” into Facebook Messenger’s search field, and you’ll be interacting with its chatbot to book travel. Think of a chatbot as a mini-app that performs a specific task, like book travel or reservations, recommend and order products, or track fitness goals.
- How might an ad experience work in conjunction with chatbots, skills, and Alexa?
At uTu.ai, we spend a lot of our time thinking about this. This channel, more than any other in digital marketing, offers advertisers the opportunity to communicate with their customers on a one-to-one basis. A standard banner or persistent scroll unit in a chatbot won’t work. Advertising in conversant channels will take a form that is native to the bot and chat experience. This presents advertisers with myriad sponsorship opportunities to communicate with their customers in contextually relevant bots. uTu.ai’s console gives bot-builders flexibility in determining entry points based on engagement, loyalty, or goals, for example. These moments can still include audio, video, text, and all the same creative elements available in mobile or display advertising.
Alexa isn’t too much different, just no video or images. You may ask Alexa for your bank account balance. After she reports the balance, an airline advertiser, for example, suggests an offer that you could receive 10% off your next seat-upgrade purchase deposited directly into your account—brief, contextually relevant, and unobtrusive.
- How should marketers and advertisers think about a media strategy that involves chatbots?
Careful consideration of their customer. Marketers don’t get many chances to speak or engage directly with their customers. This is a nascent market, and advertising in this channel isn’t yet programmatically enabled. We are focused on introducing similar work flow, audience identification and identity resolution, and targeting to inventory suppliers and buyers. However, marketers and advertisers should begin to think about how they’re going to adjust their website, email, and digital media strategies to take advantage of this new and powerful channel. It will take share of voice from and potentially supplant other strategies in their marketing mix. Tactically, their media strategy should consider what brand message they want to express, content they want to curate and share, and what message they’d convey to their customers if they were talking directly to them because that’s what this channel will enable.
- How would you describe the audience demographics that come into contact with chatbots?
Dominoes’ order bot has 14M Likes, CNN’s headline bot has 25M likes, and Kayak’s travel bot has almost 600K likes. Keep in mind Messenger just released the API’s to build bots in April 2016. I look at “Likes” as a proxy for engagement, so my takeaway is that we’re at a stage where it’s not just early adopters who are using bots anymore. The more digitally savvy, (presumably) younger generation has tried them out, but the broader population is beginning to engage with them. However, what we’re building is the capability for bot-makers to better understand who comprises their audience and to make it easy for advertisers to engage with them.