Why Bots Are the Next Big Frontier for Agencies

Bots are rapidly becoming one of the most important new channels for brands to engage consumers and drive business results. And forward-thinking agencies are moving quickly to seize this massive emerging opportunity by developing innovative bot experiences that deliver personalized, conversational interactions at scale.

As an expert who has been at the forefront of the bot revolution since its early days, I believe bots represent the most exciting new frontier for agencies since the dawn of social media. Here‘s why every agency needs to be prioritizing bots as a key part of their growth strategy for the years ahead.

Bots are powered by exponential advances in AI and NLP

The single biggest factor driving the bot opportunity today is the breakneck pace of innovation in artificial intelligence and natural language processing. Over the past few years, large language models like GPT-3, BERT, and XLNet have achieved step-change improvements in their ability to understand and generate human-like conversational language.

What was state-of-the-art just 3-5 years ago has been utterly eclipsed by the fluency, nuance, and contextual awareness of today‘s cutting-edge NLP. These models can now engage in freeform dialogues that are often indistinguishable from a human and can be easily customized to embody a particular brand voice and domain knowledge.

Simultaneously, a proliferation of third-party platforms like MobileMonkey, Chatfuel, and ManyChat have made it easier than ever to build and deploy sophisticated bots without heavy technical lifting. These low-code and no-code tools abstract away the underlying complexity and put the power of bots in the hands of agencies and marketers.

The pandemic has triggered a massive shift to conversational experiences

The COVID-19 crisis has dramatically accelerated the adoption of bots and digital messaging across industries. As social distancing forced businesses to close call centers and in-person touchpoints, many turned to bots to maintain customer communication and support.

In the first half of 2020, bot usage surged 92% as companies scrambled to keep up with skyrocketing digital engagement. And consumers have enthusiastically embraced this shift, with 75% reporting they are comfortable using bots for customer service needs.

Many experts believe this marks a permanent inflection point in consumer behavior and expectations. Having adapted to the convenience and 24/7 accessibility of bots during the pandemic, customers are unlikely to shift back to slower, less available human-only experiences.

For agencies, this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to help clients navigate a tectonic shift in how they connect with customers. Bots are becoming a central pillar of CX strategy across the board, and agencies that can deliver best-in-class conversational experiences will have a defining competitive advantage.

Bots enhance every stage of the customer lifecycle

The applications for bots extend far beyond simple question-answering and customer support. With some creative thinking, bots can deliver value and drive outcomes at every stage of the customer journey:

  • Awareness: Bots can engage consumers proactively to introduce a brand and share top-of-funnel content in a personalized, interactive format. Sephora‘s Kik chatbot shares beauty tips, how-to videos and product suggestions based on a user‘s preferences and needs.

  • Consideration: Bots can act as interactive product discovery tools, helping customers navigate options, compare features, and get personalized recommendations through natural conversation. Levi‘s Virtual Stylist bot guides users to find the perfect pair of jeans based on variables like fabric, fit, and price range.

  • Purchase: With secure integrations into ecommerce and payment systems, bots can enable seamless conversational commerce, with transactions completed entirely within the messaging interface. Domino‘s allows customers to order their favorite pizzas for delivery with just an emoji, thanks to their in-house DOM ordering assistant.

  • Service: Bots excel at resolving common customer inquiries and issues quickly and efficiently, without the friction of phone/email support. Disney‘s Facebook Messenger bot provides instant answers to FAQs about park hours, ticket prices, and more, and can connect guests to human agents for more complex requests.

  • Advocacy: Bots can proactively reach out to customers post-purchase for feedback, reviews, and personalized cross-sell/upsell offers, helping turn one-time buyers into loyal brand advocates. Casper‘s Insomnobot-3000 builds playful, memorable relationships with customers through witty late-night conversations that reinforce its sleep-focused brand.

By developing bot experiences that add value across the entire customer lifecycle, agencies can unlock powerful new ways for clients to acquire, convert, retain, and delight customers at scale.

Real-world agency bot successes

Many leading agencies have already built impressive bot experiences for major brand clients that demonstrate the power and potential of this emerging channel. Some notable examples include:

  • R/GA developed Rose, an AI-powered chatbot with CoverGirl that allows users to virtually try on and purchase makeup products. Rose uses computer vision and facial recognition to analyze a customer‘s photo and suggest personalized looks aligned with their unique features and style. In its first month, Rose drove a 51% lift in conversion rate and a 31% increase in revenue per visitor.

  • AKQA created Andy, a Messenger bot for Nike that serves as a virtual personal trainer and running coach. Andy provides customized training programs, motivation and checkins to help users achieve their fitness goals. The bot integrates seamlessly with Nike‘s ecommerce to recommend and sell running gear tailored to each user‘s individual needs. To date, the Andy bot has exchanged over 1 billion messages with Nike customers.

  • 360i developed Roku City, an immersive Messenger experience for HBO‘s Westworld combining chatbots with interactive video. Users engage in mysterious conversations with bot characters to solve a murder mystery while unlocking exclusive show content. The innovative activation was a viral hit, reaching over 1 million consumers and generating 484 years worth of engagement.

As these examples show, bots offer agencies a powerful new creative canvas to build unique brand experiences that drive measurable results. And we‘ve only scratched the surface of what‘s possible.

Bots offer compelling agency economics

In addition to being an exciting new edge for creativity and innovation, bots also represent a highly appealing business opportunity for agencies. Compared to one-off campaigns or content assets, bots are persistent, always-on experiences that create recurring engagement and value for clients over time.

This positions bots as a natural fit for retainer or subscription-based pricing models that generate predictable, ongoing revenue for agencies. And because bots automate many routine interactions and tasks, they offer attractive profit margins compared to more labor-intensive services.

Bots also provide rich conversational data that agencies can package into unique analytics and insights offerings for clients. By mining bot interactions for patterns and trends, agencies can uncover actionable intel about customer needs, preferences and behaviors that informs smarter strategies and decisioning.

As the bot ecosystem matures, I expect to see the emergence of even more creative agency business models. Some may build proprietary bot frameworks that can be efficiently customized for each client‘s needs. Others may develop specialized vertical bots for healthcare, fintech, ecommerce and other industries. The possibilities are endless.

The bot boom is just beginning

For all the progress and excitement around bots in recent years, I firmly believe we are still in the early innings of this transformational shift. As AI continues its exponential march forward, bots will only grow more sophisticated, emotionally intelligent, and capable of serving users‘ needs.

The next major unlock will be the rise of Voice AI, which will enable bots to engage users through natural speech conversations across smart speakers, phones, cars, appliances, and more. As of 2021, 1 in 4 consumers already use voice assistants weekly, and this behavior will become ubiquitous as voice bots grow more helpful and human-like.

I also expect to see bots become increasingly integrated with other emerging experience technologies like AR, VR, and the nascent metaverse. Imagine a virtual shopping mall where an AI concierge bot guides you to stores and products tailored to your interests, answering questions along the way. The creative possibilities are limitless.

As these trends converge and compound, bots will become a primary way consumers interact with brands and accomplish tasks across contexts. And agencies that establish an early leadership position in bot development will be strategically positioned to ride this wave to new heights of customer value and revenue growth.

Getting started with bots

For agencies looking to seize the bot opportunity, the key is to start learning by doing. Begin by experimenting with the latest bot building platforms and NLP models, getting a hands-on feel for the process of designing and training a bot.

Next, identify a few client opportunities where a bot could drive meaningful value, like streamlining customer service or enabling 24/7 sales support. Don‘t try to boil the ocean – start with a constrained use case and iterate based on feedback and performance data.

Make it a priority to study and deconstruct bot experiences from leading brands and agencies to fill up your mental library of creative concepts and UX best practices. There is no substitute for real-world exposure to great bots in the wild.

Cultivate a deep empathy for the end users who will interact with your bots, and obsess over delivering them real utility through natural conversations. Avoid gimmicks and always stay grounded in how a bot can tangibly enhance the customer experience and drive concrete business outcomes.

Prepare your organization for the unique creative and technical demands of bot projects. Consider hiring or upskilling team members with backgrounds in AI, NLP, conversation design, and interaction design. Invest in data and analytics capabilities to surface actionable insights from bot interactions.

Finally, evangelize bots to clients and stakeholders at every opportunity. Paint a bold vision of the future where bots are a core component of any digital strategy, and help them imagine the art of the possible. Position your agency as a forward-looking thought leader that can guide clients to success on the bot frontier.

The bot boom represents a once-in-a-generation paradigm shift that will redefine how brands and consumers connect for years to come. For agencies ready to embrace this new world, it offers a thrilling pathway to industry leadership, durable growth, and previously unimaginable creative possibilities. Where you‘ll go from here is up to you. Fortune favors the bots.