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Q&A with Chris Messina on Messaging, Chat Bots, and What’s Next

Q&A with Chris Messina on Messaging, Chat Bots, and What’s Next

Join us on March 22 for an exclusive webinar to learn more.

We’re delighted to have Chris Messina speak about Chat Bots and the future of conversational messaging. We couldn’t wait, so we’ve kindly asked Chris to answer a few questions for us as an exciting introduction to the webinar. Enjoy and don’t forget to join us for the entire session!

Q: What first inspired you to create MessinaBot?

I’ve used social media for a long time, from blogging in the era of personal homepages to Twitter, Instagram, and the rest. As messaging has become the dominant paradigm on mobile, once Facebook launched its Messenger platform at F8 last year, I knew there was an opportunity to explore this new medium.

My partner, Esther, had previously built her bot, EstherBot, and so she and I worked together to adapt her early ideas to MessinaBot. With Messenger platform’s early menu system, we were able to create a carousel of options that pulled in my content and activities from several sources, and allowed people to schedule office hours with me based on a Google Calendar I managed. It also pulled in my cocktail recipes from Barnotes, allowed people to send me private messages, and if you connected your Uber account, MessinaBot would send you my Foursquare tips near your destination before you arrived.

My hope is that more personal bots will become increasingly sophisticated and offer more personalized interactions, just as we do in real life, when we vary our behavior based on how well we know someone. For example, if we’re friends, MessinaBot should be able to tell you things that I’d feel comfortable sharing with a friend. If we haven’t met yet, then it should help you get to know me, or give you some general background information.

The good news is, we’re in the very early days of this kind of application for bot platforms and there’s loads of room for innovation.

Q: You coined the term conversational commerce last year. What do you think we’ll see this year?

In the beginning of 2016, I wrote a post cataloguing a number of observations and thoughts about what might be an emerging computing paradigm using the label “conversational commerce“. Having watched various early attempts to bring brands and commercial entities into the messaging fray (notably Path Talk and Fetch, an SMS-based shopping service), and then observing Facebook launch the ability to request an Uber within the context of a conversation, it seemed that the raw materials were in place for a big shift. Sure enough, every serious technology company ended up launching a significant platform that opened up the ability for third parties to integrate into their messaging services.

Concurrently, Amazon discovered that people were eager for a more casual computing paradigm — one that could be controlled by voice. More importantly, Amazon could build a product to meet this demand, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning. In contrast to Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa was useful for many things thanks to its developer platform, and could be activated via an always-on, hands-free “room computer” called the Echo. With the surprising popularity of the Echo, others, notably Google, caught on and brought the Google Home to market, helping to drive further interest in voice computing applications.

Thus if I were to make a similar assessment of what will happen in 2017, I’d say that we’re going to see initial attempts at what I call “conversational products” — services that live in the cloud and can be accessed through a number of discrete modalities, and that adapt themselves to the needs and contexts of their users.

Q: Josh Barkin wrote “What Facebook consumers really want is to message a businesses with a question and quickly get back an answer.” Is the first stage of conversational commerce like the early days of social media for business where just listening and answering set you apart from other businesses?

I don’t think “just listening” and being available will be sufficient, at least for long. Yes, making it possible and easy for your customers to message you (via SMS, Messenger, or other messaging platforms) is a great place to start, but if you’re not setup to respond quickly, appropriately, and on topic, your customers will go elsewhere, fast. If Uber has trained us to expect everything on demand, then we now expect our customer service and commercial communications to be on-demand as well.

Frankly, the only way to achieve that is through a blend of automation and human participation. So, for example, if a customer asks you about the status of an order over messaging and it takes you a day or longer to respond, you’re liable to lose them in the future. Automation should make it possible to answer such questions near-instantaneously. Messaging isn’t like email; people expect instant gratification and if they don’t get it, they’ll go elsewhere to get it.

Q: Facebook Messenger gets a lot of attention for its bots and platform; are there other players we should watch too?

Messenger platform is leading the US market primarily due to its reach and existing customer base. But not everyone is used to using Messenger as their primary messaging service, and so there is room for others, especially depending on your demographics. If you want to reach a teen audience, Kik is where you want to be. If you’re looking to reach a Slavic audience, you might target Telegram. If you’re going after the enterprise market, then you want to be on Slack.

The best thing to do is probably to ask your customers and see what they prefer. Their answers may surprise you.

Q: Without giving away something you’ll cover in the webinar, how would you suggest a business start using Messaging, bots, and chat for business? What’s the low hanging fruit?

As it goes with most new technological platforms, the best way to contemplate what’s possible is to first familiarize yourself with what’s out there and what’s good. Try out different bots and explore all the different open messaging platforms. Buy an Amazon Echo and Google Home and try out some skills. Take note of interactions and onboarding flows that you find delightful or pleasant. Keep an open mind and lower your expectations. Keep in mind that it’s easy to be seduced into thinking that bots should offer incredibly sophisticated experiences, like Samantha in the movie Her, and don’t be disappointed when you realize that we’re still years away from anything that comes close to that. Think about the most common issues that your customers face, or the most frequency conversations you have with them, and then work on how to model them in the messaging context. You could even pretend to be a bot and have a colleague message you just to see how it feels to be on the receiving end, and to experience the wide range of expression that occurs in that context.

At the least, this activity will help orient you to both what’s possible as well as, more likely, what’s realistic in the immediate future.


Unilever used a conversational chatbot to increase their sales 14x