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Are chatbots the next big step forward for mobile marketing?

Microsoft?s recent chatbot disaster notwithstanding, an explosion of relatively easy-to-develop messaging interfaces is expected this year as marketers look to capitalize on the time spent in Facebook Messenger, Kik and other similar apps. 

With mobile users typically spending most of their time in just a few apps, marketers are looking beyond their own branded apps. Chatbots, which are mini interfaces inside a messaging app, are a focus because they are easy to develop and can be deployed across multiple platforms but, as Microsoft?s experience with a bot that quickly became a PR nightmare shows, the opportunity comes with its own set of challenges. 

?Every brand that you can think of will have to have a bot to engage with their users, to enable them to communicate with them and find them,? said Beerud Sheth, CEO of Gupshup. ?It is going to affect every brand and every business. 

?It is going to happen very quickly. I expect a bot explosion by the end of this year.?

App fatigue
A number of big brands are reportedly either looking at or actively developing chatbots. The idea is to enable messaging app users to order a pizza, shop and bank directly from within the app by sending a text message to a restaurant, a shop or a broker.  

The primary reason for the interest is that, after investing heavily in developing mobile apps, customers are not spending as much time in them as marketers expected. 

From a user perspective, it is a nuisance to have to keep downloading apps, maintaining them, switching from one to another and finding the app you need at the right moment. 

As a result, users are increasingly spending time in just a few apps, with messaging apps among the most popular with users. With this in mind, messaging apps are opening up so developers can create services within the apps. 

?I believe chatbots will be big,? said Mark Beccue, principal analyst at Mark Beccue Consulting Inc. ?Consumers have app fatigue, in that most spend a majority of their time in a small number of apps. 

?The most popular apps, such a messaging apps, will become platforms to which other apps integrate to,? he said. ?One of the most logical types of apps for this purpose is the chatbot. 

?The reason is because they are relatively simple to develop, can be deployed across multiple platforms. Chatbots are also appealing in that consumer interaction is very natural ? it?s chat ? which is becoming our preferred option for communication.?

Bad bots
One of the more visible chatbot experiments so far is Microsoft?s Tay, which was supposed to have the voice the of a teenage girl but, through the use of machine learning, soon started sending racist, sexist messages. 

The example is a cautionary tale for marketers. As mobile marketing evolves, they need to make sure they fully understand each development before diving in. 

The Microsoft example could temporarily dampen interest in chatbots, although most will not be AI-driven as Tay was. It also points out how bots with a more specific job ? as opposed to the more open-ended Tay ? could make more sense for marketers. 

?In regards to Microsoft?s misstep, I think that is definitely an event that hurts the image of chatbots and will slow their adoption for marketing purposes,? Mr. Beccue said. ?Twitter bots have given chatbots a bad reputation and this makes it even worse. 

?The use case for chatbots for the foreseeable future are more along the lines of the chatbots on Slack and Kik ? these bots exist to make your life easier.?

Taking off
The trend has already taken off in China, where a number of big brands are on WeChat. 

In the U.S., early chatbots include Uber?s integration with Facebook Messenger, letting users order a ride from within a message. 

More consumer brands are expected to jump onboard Facebook Messenger soon, with an announcement possible at the upcoming F8 developer conference, per Mr. Beerud. 

Chatbots are also showing up on Kik, Slack and Telegram.  

For chatbots to be effective, marketers will need to consider what constitutes an engaging experience for messaging app users. 

Marketers will need to make sure chatbots are useful. On Kik, there is a chatbot called blynkstyle that helps users pick a fashion look. 

Replacing traditional apps
Marketers also need to keep in the mind that consumers consider messaging apps as more private than social media. 

Areas where bots are likely to take hold include being able to conduct research, access customer support and receive relevant alerts and reminders. 

Ultimately, chatbots could even replace apps for many brands. 

?I don?t have a Coke app or a Unilever app on my phone,? Mr. Sheth said. ?Even though I consume all these brands, I don?t engage with them via an app. 

?For all practical purposes, I do believe that bots will replace apps and Web sites,? he said. ?It is going to be so much easier for consumers to communicate with messaging bots so that will be the primary way they communicate with brands.?