In case you haven’t heard, the chat bots are coming and they’re going to change the web as we know it. Or so we’re being told. Since Facebook brought bots to its messenger app, the marketing community has been abuzz about these little AI platforms. And the general consensus is they’re going to be huge.

The technology isn’t anything particularly new – it’s basically Siri or Google Now wrapped inside a messaging app. What’s different is chat bots give brands a one-on-one connection with consumers – and that’s a very big deal.

What the hell are chat bots anyway?

As I say, chat bots are basically the same technology you find in Siri. Essentially, users are talking to a robot to go about their daily business. They’ll help people search for products, answer customer support questions and make finding content easier.

Unlike a search engine, though, they connect users to a single store, publication or other kind of brand. So people aren’t using these to search their phone or the web; they’re directly interacting with a specific business.

For example, H&M already has a chat bot on Kik’s messaging app to help shoppers buy the perfect clothes.

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As you can tell by now, these bots are built using third-party platforms. We’ve already mentioned Facebook and Kik in this article and tech firms are queuing up to get their hands on bots. This is already shaping up as the next fierce battle in digital marketing.

Why should I care about these bots?

First of all, chat bots are going to bring artificial intelligence to the wider web – and that’s significant in itself. The likes of Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana feel like confined versions of this technology, while bots will unleash it across the internet. Which means the very nature of how we interact with the web is about to change. Which means the way people expect to interact with your business is about to change.

Messaging apps are now bigger than social networks

This isn’t just the year of the chat bots, 2016 is also the year messaging apps became more popular than social networks. It’s no coincidence the biggest names in mobile messaging are heavily invested in bots – it’s basically the same format, except you’re talking to a machine. The timing couldn’t be better for the likes of Facebook, Kik, WeChat and the other messaging giants either. User preference has already shifted towards messaging apps so the transition will be seamless.

Bots could kill off mobile apps

It’s not just social networks chat bots have in their sights. Mobile apps are directly in the firing line due to a number of user issues chat bots solve. Starting with the fact you don’t have to download a chat bot to use one. This is a big problem with mobile apps because you constantly have to justify the need to download.

Is someone going to download your app just to find out some basic information? Probably not. Would they ask a chat bot that can direct them to the relevant info without downloading anything? Sounds more likely.

There are other issues with downloads, too. Precious storage space, data usage, privacy concerns and countless other issues provide barriers to mobile app downloads. In most cases chat bots come with none of these.

The fact is app fatigue is real and people are ready for a new alternative.

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It’s not just getting people to download mobile apps that’s a challenge either. Convincing people to actually use them is even more difficult. A growing number of apps are only used once after they’ve been downloaded and many are deleted soon after. So, even though we spend more time in apps than in browser (on mobile), this is distorted by how much time we spend in Facebook and Google services.

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Bots could also kill off websites

A number of ‘experts’ (it’s a loose term these days) claim chat bots could also mean the end for websites as we know them. The current environment where you have to actively search for things on the net could become a thing of the past. Rather than scrolling through H&M’s clothing section, for example, you simply ask the bot.

Better yet, the bot will learn your sizes, preferences and other relevant info to make the search process more intuitive. Booking the nearest taxi to your location, ordering a food delivery and even doing the Christmas shopping could all be automated very soon.

So, as long as they stay spam-free (a big if with this technology), bots really could be the end of websites as we know them.

Bots bring new competition to the tech scene

This is a problem the entire marketing community associates with: the lack of competition in web technologies. I touched on this in a recent article on the Google-Facebook duopoly in online advertising. Brands, consumers and marketers alike are all screaming out for more competition on the web.

Chat bots could open up a real opportunity for diversification here. Facebook has jumped in early to make sure it has a chunk of the market share but there’s still plenty of space for other firms. And, if chat bots really do replace websites and mobile apps, then there could be a real power shift.

What will be interesting is to see how they impact the online advertising space – because this is where the power truly lies. And chat bots are the ideal platform to deliver personalised ads to people individually.

Chat bots make marketing more personal

Over the last few years we’ve been moving towards a more personal form of marketing. Data collection and targeted messages allow us to pinpoint interests and deliver more relevant content.

Chat bots will take this to an entirely different level, providing a new kind of one-on-one connection with consumers. Email marketing sort of does this but not in the same interactive, live conversation way. And the real beauty is you’ll be able to turn previous conversations into marketing messages that really hit home with consumers. Their buying history, preferences and other data sets can be used to tempt them with more appealing offers.

The pros and cons of ownership

I mentioned the issue of ownership over marketing channels in a recent article. The problem with all this Google and Facebook business is you own almost none of your digital assets. So you become dependent on a bunch of third party firms and you have no control over decision making – all of which leaves you vulnerable.

This will be the same with chat bots, sadly – unless you go ahead and build your own developer platform. There is an upside to this with bots, though. If you no longer need a website or app, you can kiss goodbye to expensive redesigns and development fees every few years. So at least you’ll be saving some money in the process.

Could this all just be a fad?

I’m normally pretty sceptical about new kinds of technology that create headlines. I’m still not excited about voice search or even virtual reality – despite the fact they will inevitably be the future of search and engagement.

Chat bots are different, though. Yes, the technology still needs some work but they’re already solving genuine user problems that exist now. You can’t really say that about voice search or virtual reality – and that why bots deserve to be making the headlines right now.

Above all, it’s the way they’ll provide brands with a direct link to individual consumers that makes them so exciting from a marketing perspective.

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