Each passing year brings its own tech trend predictions, and it looks like this is the year of the chatbot. Chatbots are conversational agents, powered by AI, which are capable of interacting with a human being over a tech interface. They can range from functional applications, like automatically answering customer service queries or helping you make a grocery list, or can be simply for fun, such as the Chinese bot Xiaoice, to which more than 20 million people talk on a regular basis.
Chatbots may seem inconsequential or just a novelty until you begin to consider the applications they can have to businesses, especially in publishing. As Business Insider reported in a special report on chatbots, “Foreseeing immense potential, businesses are starting to invest heavily in the burgeoning bot economy. A number of brands and publishers have already deployed bots on messaging and collaboration channels, including HP, 1-800-Flowers, and CNN.”
Earlier this year we saw The Economist magazine make waves for using the chat messaging service Line to deliver news and graphics to its readership. Its strategy was to publish 4 to 6 updates per day to its Line page, and several push notifications per week. Tom Standage, the deputy editor of the magazine, told the media news website Nieman Lab: “Clearly messaging apps are where social media is going next, and we and other publishers need to figure them out.” The fact that the company chose Line, which is hugely popular Asia (an estimated 15 million monthly active users as of the end of 2015), and not a more mainstream app like Facebook Messenger or Whatsapp was down to an issue of usership. Nieman reported that “Line’s audience is ‘complementary’ to The Economist’s existing Facebook and Twitter audiences.” Other publishers who have also been active online include major players like The Wall Street Journal, BuzzFeed, the BBC, TechCrunch, and Mashable.
So what does this signal for news publishers and consumers? News is becoming increasingly tailored to its reader; we don’t open a newspaper and read whatever’s there anymore, instead we select what we read by choosing the streams to follow and the publications we want to send us alerts. We want our news to know what interests us as much as we want to know what’s going on. Because bots allow for, as Business Insider puts is “increasingly engaging and human conversations, allowing businesses to leverage the inexpensive and wide-reaching technology to engage with more consumers,” this presents the opportunity for publishers to serve their readership in an even more tailored manner, without more manpower. However, doing so requires that a publisher really knows their audience and ensures that they’re reaching them on the mobile platforms and channels that make the most sense. It also means that publishers have to tread the line of not allowing their bots to be too eager and chatty so as to irritate the recipient.
The trend of chatbots in publishing aligns with another macro trend going on at the moment: messenger apps are becoming more popular than social media apps. That is to say, people are spending more time communicating one to one – using apps like Snapchat and WhatsApp-than they are on broadcast apps where they talk to multiple people at once. This is a problem for publishers who build a business model on the broadcasting style, and the move to chatbots signals that some publishers are aware of and preparing to get ahead of this shift. As Aaron Batalion, Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners, said“Major shifts on large platforms should be seen as an opportunities for distribution.”