Chatbot Technology Can Help Foster Engagement – If Done Right

Chatbots, an automated messaging technology that can respond to a variety of inquiries, have certainly given the news industry a lot to talk about. The emergence of digital and mobile apps has made a big splash—and a lasting impression—on the news business. Through utilizing these platforms, chatbot technology has the potential to create engagement and a new experience for readers. In April, Facebook gave developers the tools to build their own custom chatbots that can then operate within the Messenger app, making it easier for publishers to utilize this technology. With the proliferation of chatbots, publishers will have to determine how, and if, this technology will work best for them.

Typically prompted through a messaging app, a chatbot can helpfully assist users by performing tasks and offering more information in ways determined by the chatbot’s creators through programmed artificial intelligence. The technology runs the gamut across industries from news media-related bots by The Wall Street Journal to securing an Uber ride, both directly through Facebook Messenger. And their presence, and influence, is growing.

According to data from MediaPost, there are approximately 3 billion monthly active messaging app users compared to 2.5 billion users of social media apps. Consumers utilize these messaging apps, such as the ones through which chatbots can be activated, approximately nine times each day, which is five times the average for all mobile apps.

Chatbots and the technology behind them have certainly come a long way. One of the first “bots,” ELIZA, was created in 1966 by MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum and answered questions based on parsing inquiries and delivering back a matched, scripted response. ActiveBuddy’s  SmarterChild similarly provided both conversational dialogue and real data, such as weather and stock information, from partnered service providers.

Now, this technology has the capability to offer a lot more to the news industry, allowing them to learn more about their audience and fostering engagement.  Seeing what content users engage with or seek out gives publishers the opportunity to learn more about their users while utilizing that data to continue to provide a better, more tailored experience. Publishers could forward users links to related content while testing out new media initiatives or story forms and gauging feedback based on received responses.

Take, for example, the CNN “news bot” unveiled back in April. This chatbot allows users to directly communicate with CNN, requesting specific information on topics of interest while also receiving top stories daily and others news related to the user’s interests learned over time. Another example is startup ReplyYes, which helped online vinyl store The Edit sell $1 million in records by suggesting daily record recommendations via text while cataloging feedback for future suggestions. Users were also presented with links to easily purchase records depending on their feedback to the chatbot technology.

A key benefit of chatbots is that they are all housed under the same messaging apps. This makes it convenient for consumers to directly interact with businesses and industries without having to singularly download each app, a point expressed by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

Chatbots can offer an easy, efficient and personal way to reach and service users, yet only if makes sense for publishers and their audience—and if it’s done right. Microsoft experienced firsthand how this technology may not always create a positive user experience when its Twitter-based chatbot, Tay, began learning negative behaviors from other users based on its algorithm and soon began to tweet out inappropriate posts.

It’s important for publishers to consider if the resources and data they have would be best showcased using bot technology. The success of a chatbot hinges not only on how well built it is, but how well it services and resonates with users.

With chatbot technology, the news media industry has the opportunity to experiment with new ways of engaging with their audience—in both fun and useful ways—while streamlining processes and learning more about user preferences. As the relationship between technology and news becomes even more entwined, publishers must consider how these advancements best fit with their mission and journalistic product.


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