‘Accessibility and usability’: Why brands are turning to SMS bots

Facebook Messenger bots have fallen out of favor recently, so brands are turning to a decidedly more old-school way of communicating: texting.

“There’s been an uptick in the number of clients inquiring about bots on SMS,” said James Squires, vp of engineering at agency space150, which has built SMS-based bots for clients including Nike, 3M and a few large financial services companies in recent months. “For really efficient customer service interactions, SMS-based bots trump messenger bots for their sheer ease of use.” 

Fashion retailer Everlane and conversational commerce company Spring have both said that they will no longer be using their Facebook Messenger bots. Everlane said it would focus its resources on email instead; Spring said its customers wanted more personalization than the bots would allow. Facebook itself is “refocusing” its use of AI after its bots hit a failure rate of 70 percent, where branded bots could only get to 30 percent of requests without some sort of human intervention.

“When a platform like Facebook Messenger enables something like bots, there’s a rush to experiment, and there are a lot of people doing proof of concepts that have no real compelling value proposition,” said Kevin Skobac, svp of digital strategy and innovation at SS+K. “It’s natural for there to be a dip in usage because of this.”

Brands have realized that messaging app-based bots are not the best way to scale personalized interactions with their customers — especially when they have to download a whole separate app to interact with them. SMS, on the other hand, is close to universally used.

“SMS has benefits because it’s the lowest common denominator in terms of accessibility and usability,” said Skobac.

SMS-based bots also better address the common gripe about messaging app bots: That they lack the level of personalization consumers expect, according to Jason Herndon, senior web engineer at agency Rain. The space has evolved from the automated texts asking you to reply with “1” to confirm and “2” to cancel a reservation, for example.

“The addition of natural-language processing has made these bots much smarter,” he said. “The interactions are no more just notification-based and conversations, while still guided, can be a lot more open-ended.”

Take, for instance, “Insomnobot,” the chatty SMS-based chatbot that mattress brand Casper created last fall to keep insomniacs company. The bot was specifically designed for texting, focusing on conversation, with 2,000 different responses programmed into it to make it sound as natural as possible. According to Gabe Whaley, founder and CEO of Mschf, SMS enabled “seemingly real interactions” better than a bot on one of the messaging apps.

The fact that SMS is plain text and not as rich a medium for communication may have been a factor why it never had the initial takeoff that messaging app bots did. But even SMS is getting more interactive in terms of the media you can share on it, said Greg Cohn, co-founder and CEO of Burner.

“The UI and UX is really improving,” he said. “You can add GIFs and even buttons generated with markup language.”

Still, costs of messaging can be significantly lower on messaging platforms versus SMS, said Skobac, for both the business and the user. And brands should keep in mind that bots, whether on messaging apps or SMS, are ultimately opt-in experiences where users expect the payoff to be pretty great.

“Until now, the mentality has been that the marketer is the proprietor of the bot and the end-user is being marketed to,” said Cohn. “Now, it needs to be that end-user is proprietor and the bot is an agent working for that user.”

Hear from top brands on how they’re employing technologies like chatbots at the Digiday Brand Summit in Charleston, South Carolina, April 18-20, 2017.


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