Chatbot Usage Has Nearly Doubled in B-to-B Marketing This Year

The tech has grown the most of any conversational marketing format, according to a new report

Illustration of a chatbot
Chatbot adoption has outpaced other forms of conversational marketing in b-to-b. Illustration: Trent Joaquin; Source: Pixabay

Chatbots are seeing a huge surge in business-to-business marketing use this year as the Covid-19 pandemic leads to more advertiser interest in conversational formats to reach consumers.

A new report from b-to-b platform Drift and Heinz Marketing charted a 92% year-over-year growth in chatbot usage compared to more modest increases in other types of conversational marketing, including online live chat and social media. The finding was based on a survey of 538 professionals in the b-to-b space conducted in July.

While the use of chatbots in consumer marketing has been growing steadily for years, Drift CMO Tricia Gellman said there had been a resistance to digital transformation of the sales and marketing process among business-facing companies that has changed with the pandemic.

“Now that everybody’s been forced to rely 100% on digital, and your in-person ways for doing business from a selling and marketing perspective have been pretty much eliminated, the digital transformation—not just for some in marketing, but across all businesses—has been accelerated by three to four times,” Gellman said. “That’s definitely contributing to some of what we’re seeing.”

As far as growth in other forms of conversational marketing, the report found that online live chat grew by 35% and social media interactions 31%, while even direct email communications with businesses saw a slight uptick of 3%.

Gellman said part of the growth in chatbots in particular over other categories can be attributed to businesses gaining a better understanding of how to combine human and artificial intelligence capabilities to maximize efficiency. While the actual conversation may not be fully automated, a human can guide AI to better understand who a particular person visiting a site is and target accordingly. Over time, that process will train the AI to better engage in a personalized manner.

Despite that growing understanding, confusion still abounds among some b-to-b marketers about the roles AI can and cannot play in that process, according to Gellman. “Everybody’s been talking about AI for years, but my impression of talking to customers and others is that while everybody says they need to have AI, people are still confused about what machine learning is versus natural language processing versus the general term of AI,” she said.

Meanwhile, recent advances in the natural language processing research space have prompted companies to begin experimenting with chatbots that can generate entirely new dialogue in real time—though the unpredictability of such tech means it hasn’t picked up much commercial traction yet.

“We’ve definitely been experimenting with [this type of technology] and seeing what when and how does it make sense to pull it in,” Gellman said. “But I don’t think we’ve dramatically adopted any new technology in terms of these types of experimental advances yet.”

@patrickkulp Patrick Kulp is an emerging tech reporter at Adweek.