Do Chatbots Face the Same Doomed Future as Branded Apps?

Mobile World Congress panel sees challenges for marketers

Branded chat bots create a lot of heavy lifting for brands. KLM Airlines
Headshot of Lauren Johnson

BARCELONA, Spain—Chatbots may be all the buzz for brands these days, but some tech execs anticipate it will be tough for brands to create them—much like they struggled to make branded apps.

During a panel at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, execs from PayPal, Google, Adobe, Sprint and GupShup talked about how messaging apps are evolving as platforms for content and commerce. While voice technology and artificial intelligence have been big buzzwords in the industry thanks to Facebook’s moves to create bots and apps like Kik and Line gaining steam, not all marketers have the resources to realistically create and manage them, argued Harper Reed, PayPal’s entrepreneur in residence of next-generation commerce.

“Brands don’t know how to adapt these things for the technology that we find everyday and I think there’s a lot of hurdles between a normal consumer brand in the West, for instance, to figure out what is their mobile strategy let alone what is their chat app strategy,” he said.

Harper used his company’s own technology to explain marketers’ problem. PayPal is plugged into Facebook Messenger and has a partnership with tech company Shopify that allows retailers to set up ecommerce stores through a bot. Shopify is only one of a handful of companies that marketers can work with to create messenger bots, which could slow down how quickly brands are able to create bots. That’s partly because marketers don’t have their own internal staff and tools to handle bots, Harper said.

“It’s not that Facebook doesn’t want that—it’s that retailers don’t usually have the tech stacks to reach that,” he said. “I think we have a lot of work to do to build the connective tissue that allows anyone to participate in that.”

Adobe’s vp of mobile, Matt Asay, added that chatbots open up new data challenges for brands by pointing to branded apps as an example. A few years ago, brands were churning out dozens of their own apps, but didn’t have an underlying string of data to connect the app to other types of information—like an email list or web traffic.

“I think that we’re a long ways from all of our interaction being through voice or through a messaging app,” Asay said. “Given that a chatbot needs to be informed by my interaction with the brands on their apps, in their mobile website, desktop web and in-person if I’m a retailer, that’s really hard to do.”

“The thing that we learned from the first iteration of mobile apps is that building silos doesn’t work for customers, doesn’t work for brands.”

Another big challenge for brands and tech companies with messaging apps will be improving the experience so that consumers feel like they’re talking to a human instead of a bot, said Mitali Dhar, director of global product partnerships at Google.

“It’s different from how you communicate by just chatting with your friends, and I think that’s the next phase,” she said. “How can we start communicating with these services the same way that you communicate with your mom or your friend in a conversational manner?”

Popular messaging apps in Asia like Wechat and Line have focused themselves as hubs for doing everything from booking a cab to paying bills. Meanwhile, messaging apps in the West—think Snapchat and Allo—bill themselves as doing one thing. Snapchat, for instance, primarily positions itself for one-on-one communication. As messaging apps in the West become more prevalent, Dhar expects for more companies to take a cue from Eastern-based apps.

“I think we will bring a lot of learnings from how users interact with these services in APAC that will raise some learnings over how we want to make it work here in the West,” she said.

While mobile-enabled chatbots are still a new area for brands, PayPal’s Harper talked about how they’re only one example of how AI and voice technology will play a more important role in shopping going forward.

“All of this conversation about chat and assistance lays the groundwork for what I would look at as the future of commerce,” Reed said. “We see this as the first step—I really think we have a future ahead of us where chat is obviously a big part of it, but I don’t think the context of having that little assistant in your pocket is necessarily the only place where it will be.”

@laurenjohnson Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.