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Rise of the bots

News, 08 April 2016

NEW YORK: Chatbots are set to hit the mainstream as a rash of announcements from Kik, Microsoft and Facebook pushes the services into the limelight – and signals new opportunities for brands.

Business Insider described chatbots as virtual assistants that users can talk to in order to get things done: "Think Siri, but better."

Earlier this week messaging app Kik launched a bot store. "Every major messenger is in [the chatbot space], and I can't remember the last time we've all made a bet together," Mike Roberts, head of messenger services at Kik, told Ad Week. "It's only going to drive more interest."

Facebook is also expected to introduce a bot store. It has been trialling a service with six US retailers and last week announced a partnership with KLM, the Dutch airline, which will enable Messenger users to automatically receive their itinerary, flight updates, check-in notifications, get their boarding passes, rebook flights when needed, and communicate with the airline "all from one contextual, canonical thread".

Microsoft's recent problems with Tay notwithstanding – the AI bot had to be pulled from Twitter after it made racist comments and talked about taking drugs – the company is betting heavily on "conversational computing" being the future.

"Human language is the new user interface," said chief executive Satya Nadella at Microsoft's recent Build conference. "Bots are like apps and digital assistants are like meta apps, or the new browsers. Intelligence is infused into all of your apps."

From a brand's point of view, chatbots which can be deployed across multiple platforms are preferable to expensive and little-used branded apps and are also better able to exploit the time consumers already spend in messaging apps.

Further, noted Mobile Commerce Daily, "this is one way that marketers are addressing the ad-blocking threat and creating more organic communications to engage mobile users".

These developments are not new to Chinese consumers, who have long been accustomed to using Weibo and WeChat for services and commerce as the two giants have created holistic consumer experience platforms that are hard to leave.

Instead of monetising advertising or marketing opportunities, WeChat monetises access to service and customers, Ad Exchanger noted last year.

"Every celebrity and fashion company, hospital and bank must have WeChat accounts, absorbing much of the combined function of social media, mobile and digital in the US," it said.

Data sourced from Ad Week, Ad Exchanger, Business Insider, Mobile Commerce Daily, Telegraph; additional content by Warc staff