This article was first published on Mediatel
Too many brands are launching chatbots willy nilly, often without a clear goal or business plan - but new tech points to a brighter future.
Chatbots have long been hailed as the future of a brand’s communication and customer relations strategy - cutting costs, saving time, proving easy to manage - but media and tech companies have hitherto found chatbots a tough nut to crack.
Telegraph Media Group’s (TMG’s) new chatbot might be about to change all this and with its voice-led Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology and ambitious pledge to drive up repeat visitors, it could well point to the future template for chatbots not only across newspapers but more broadly across media and tech.
Called Thornton, the chatbot - which has received funding through Google’s Digital News Innovation fund - ups the ante in the sophistication of the technology (being voice led) and unlike many chatbots has a clear ambition: driving up subscription numbers.
The irony of Google, which TMG and other newspaper groups have spent the past few years bashing for housing unpalatable content, helping fund the technology which helps TMG have a sustainable future aside, the bot in theory has a lot going for it.
How will it work? Thornton will act as an all in one alternative to the Daily and Sunday Telegraph’s website search button and its customers service: it will help readers discover stories and guide them to e-commerce opportunities in an “unobtrusive manner”. The aim is for users to sign up as subscribers.
Yet bosses at TMG must be cautious, as the media and tech landscape is a graveyard of failed chatbot ventures, including bots from Microsoft and Facebook while WSJ and CNBC have also suffered problems with the technology.
TMG, which saw profits drop in half of £13.7m last year, can ill afford to suffer a similarly costly failure.
So why are so many chatbots failing? Myriad reasons, from being ill-conceived, tech problems to customer backlash.
Who can forget Microsoft's Tay bot, which went rogue on Twitter, swearing and making racist remarks and inflammatory political statements. Meanwhile, chatbots from WSJ and CNN had issues with understanding words.
Yet, there is a deeper malaise and media and tech companies of all stripes should be cautious of falling down this trap: launching a chatbot for the sake of it.
Too many brands are launching chatbots willy nilly, often without a clear goal or business plan, just to launch a chatbot. It is like the app market 10 years ago, with all and sundry launching apps because it was in vogue.
For media and tech companies, it is important to remember a chatbot - and AI for that matter - should solve a business challenge and fit seamlessly with the brand.
For example, the BBC has had success with its “Real Happiness” chatbot, which sends out tailored animal messages to make users smile while, outside of media, a London council has a bot which helps with frontline services, taking resident queries, handling requests for permits and authenticating licences.
These work because they solve a challenge - be it one less serious than the other.
TMG has identified its business challenge: to drive up subscription numbers. Whether it gets the technology right, will determine its success.