by Anne Fisher — June 14, 2016

Chat bots in mobile messaging apps have been getting a lot of attention lately as the next innovation in customer engagement and personalization.

Chat bots (or simply, “bots”) are computer programs designed to simulate conversation through responses to user prompts such as a question or set of keywords, with the best experiences designed to feel like having a conversation with a person rather than a machine. Bots are already in our lives in a variety of ways, such as Siri and the kind of automated text message exchanges you might have when banking or confirming a dental appointment.

What’s new is the introduction of bots in messaging apps as part of the emerging category of conversational commerce. With Facebook's recent announcement of bots for its Messenger platform, and with retailers like Sephora and H&M launching bots on Kik, it is easy to become intrigued by the possibilities.

Customers increasingly expect experiences that are immediate, simple and personal. Bots have the potential to deliver all three, from on-demand support (“when will my order be delivered?”) to tailored shopping experiences based on an understanding of a customer’s individual needs (“find me the perfect dress to wear on my summer trip to Tuscany”).

Why introduce bots to messaging apps?  For many smartphone users, especially Generation Z and younger millennials, messaging apps have become a major way to communicate -- the most popular chat apps are used by hundreds of millions of people each month. By connecting with customers through popular messaging apps, brands can enhance the immediacy and simplicity of the shopping experience, giving their customers access to what they need where they already are, and in fewer steps – no need to download a retailer app, search for a 1-800 number or log-in to a website.

The act of messaging can also feel more personal. The best bots interact in a manner that mirrors how customers might socialize with friends and family.  When they succeed, the exercise of chatting with a bot can feel a lot more like a friendly conversation than a transaction.

Looking to the future, aspirations for personalization are being shaped by the possibilities of artificial intelligence and machine learning. If bots can learn to become more attuned to the customer’s unique prompts and needs by tapping into a wealth of data and insights, marketers believe they have potential to create even more personalized shopping experiences and deeper customer relationships at scale. But bots have a long way yet to go before realizing that vision.

Are you considering bots as part of your own engagement strategy? Start simple and create space for learning and thoughtful experimentation. Don’t frustrate customers by overpromising what bots can do. For now, that perfect dress for Tuscany will likely be won through other sources of inspiration.