2017 saw the rise of the chatbots but January has only just begun and with Facebook shuttering its M chatbot project, we are seeing the first mutterings of their fall. Are they really doomed to fail?
The End of Facebook M
Last year, Facebook were rumoured to be switching focus with its Facebook M platform, which allowed approximately 10,000 people in San Francisco access to a personal assistant powered by ’M’.
You could ask it to order flowers, a taxi, book restaurants etc. but the technology proved a step too far and in the end the result seems to be a suggestions feature added to Facebook Messenger.
Facebook rarely managed to get more than 30% of requests automated, which is problematic if you want to scale to even the entire userbase of North America, let alone the world.
By far the majority required human intervention and clearly it didn’t look like that was going to improve anytime soon.
The use of people alongside the machine was positioned as a way to accelerate past the efforts of Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa, who had a significant head start. In the end the general purpose approach of the assistant proved to be its downfall.
It highlights how far away technology is today from truly understanding us, despite what you read in the press.
It was also text based rather than the voice activated approach of Amazon and Google’s offerings. It feels much more natural to ask an assistant questions rather than open an app and type in requests. I’d rather just go to the Uber app and press a few buttons. That may just be my preference though as I don’t live inside my mobile messaging apps.
Regardless, Facebook M is no more whilst Alexa and Google Assistant go from strength to strength. For now, the general purpose chatbox is put out to pasture, whilst smart assistants rule the day.
Chatbots vs Smart Assistants?
At first glance, other than the voice capability of smart assistants, they look pretty much the same.
They are different. Very different in my eyes.
The smart assistant is a new interface to technology in the same way the mouse transformed computer interfaces and the app changed the mobile experience.
Chatbots are a layer built on top of the app or web interface, whilst the smart assistant is a revolution in the way we quickly retrieve/process information.
That is not to say smart assistants will completely replace the mouse or the mobile app, but some types of apps will surely disappear.
So if smart assistants are the future and not chatbots, is this the end of the chatbot?
The end of the chatbot?
No. Despite the huge sales of smart assistants we are still far away from them being ubiquitous. The app interface and the web are going to be the major way we interact with companies for many years to come.
They also reduce the load on call centres, which saves companies money and is I suspect one of the primary motivators behind adoption.
Gartner thinks that by 2020, chatbots will be handling nearly 85% of customer queries – that would lead to a significant cost saving overall and the decimation of the call centre industry.
Regardless, the foundations of the technology behind the chatbot is not far from the technology required to integrate into smart assistants so the investment is likely to be positive into the future also.
Even better, it gives companies benefits today. People are increasingly savvy about using messaging apps and, unsurprisingly, would prefer to get answers to their queries quickly without hanging around on hold to companies.
Chatbots can deliver on this promise – when they are implemented well.
Many feel like a text reinvention of a company’s telephone routing systems or The old Microsoft assistant, Clippy rather than using any form of artificial intelligence but that I suspect will change in 2018.
Chatbots that aim to solve specific tasks rather than trying to solve everything will succeed. This sets expectations up front and improves the overall experience.
One of my favourite chatbots is by Duolingo, which teaches you how to speak in different languages through a conversation.
When it comes to business to business marketing, chatbots can also level up the experience, providing the information that the specific individual requires rather than generic content written to appeal to everyone (and nobody).
This more natural interaction could also mean the death of the form – though we are still a long way away from that and results in building better relationships – making chatbots a natural fit for an account based marketing strategy as well.
(This post was originally posted on Connected Paths, a weekly newsletter on marketing and technology trends.