Are Chatbots Digital Marketing’s Next Big Thing?

I have to admit that when I first heard about chatbots, I thought they sounded too complex for most small businesses.

However, as we all know, it’s getting more difficult to compete for attention online. A recent survey by MailChimp found that email opens now hover in the high teens to low 20 percent range, depending on industry. Social media is equally saturated. And content may be king, but it’s also getting more difficult to earn a spot at the top of the search engine rankings for the best keywords.

But what if I told you that there was a new technology out there for reaching clients. One where open rates and click-throughs have been measured as high as 88 and 56 percent, respectively?

The technology exists. It’s chatbots and they may be may be the next big thing in digital marketing.

What are Chatbots?

Chatbots are automated chat services that can be used within a messaging app like Facebook Messenger, Slack or text messaging. They can be rules based,  sending appropriate messages to chat partners and customers based on “If This, Then That”-type workflows. Some use a rudimentary form or AI, or Artificial Intelligence, to respond appropriately to queries. Chatbots can also “escalate” the conversation to a human if the customer requests.

Chatbots are somewhat similar to email drip campaigns or phone-based decision trees, but scaled down for chat platforms.

Why Chatbots? Why Now?

It’s no surprise that “traditional” digital marketing methods don’t deliver the bang for the buck they used to.  We’re chasing customers whose online habits are constantly changing, yet relying on old technologies to do it.

Think about it. Email marketing has been around now for more than 20 years, beginning back in the mid-1990s. 20 years ago it was already so prevalent that regulation (the Data Protection Act) had to be put in place to require the ability to opt out. By 2003, spam had become such a problem that the Federal government began regulating commercial email.

Content marketing is almost as old as email. WordPress, a blogging platform that eventually morphed into the world’s most popular content management system, launched in 2003. Even social media got its start more than a decade ago.

In short, many of the platforms that digital marketers rely on most heavily have now been around for a very long time. And once a technology becomes widely adopted as a marketing platform – as all of the above are – message fatigue begins to set in. Users begin to find the platforms less useful, and seek to use communication tools where they aren’t being constantly bombarded by unsolicited messages.

Today, we’re seeing online habits moving away from these older platforms onto lighter weight, private and direct messaging tools like Facebook Messenger and Slack.

These shifts make chatbots powerful. They are at the beginning of the adoption curve and take advantage of a shift in user habits. Because the technologies are new and not widely adopted by marketers, there’s less resistance to marketing messages. And there is a bit of a wow factor: people find the technology fun to use.

How to Use Chatbots in Digital Marketing

The uses for chatbots vary according to your industry, business and marketing goals. They can be used to handle simple and repeatable customer service requests, or in place of email-based marketing automation (keeping in mind that the chat platform is more suited to shorter form content).

Some specific applications:

  •  A restaurant or salon owner might use them to set appointments or make reservations.
  • A real estate agent might use them to deliver new listings to potential clients.
  • A digital marketing agency might use them in place of email drip campaigns, on a landing page or as part of a lead magnet.

Chatbots can also perform a variety of simple customer service tasks. Paypal, for instance, uses them to provide receipts to customers that make payments via their platform.

And although chatbots are based on complicated-sounding technology like AI, implementing them is easier than you might think. Platforms like Manychat and Chatfuel provide a simple user interface for setting up chatbots in Messenger and other platforms. These can be integrated with a website so that users are welcomed to use the chatbot to connect with your business.

Users can then subscribe to blog posts or website updates, be entered into a chat-based drip, or use the chat to download useful information.

The Upshot on Chatbots

I admit that when I first heard about chatbots, I thought they sounded inhuman: who wants to talk to an AI interface? I thought customers would hate them, and that they would be too complicated to be truly useful.

I was wrong. Digital marketers owe it to their clients to begin introducing chatbots into their online strategies. Over time, the novelty will wear off and message fatigue will set in here as well. But right now, the technology is less than two years old and hasn’t been adopted widely by businesses.

That means the time is right to learn how chatbots can benefit your digital marketing efforts.