My first experience with smart messaging was SmarterChild, a chatbot you could talk to on AIM. “Hi, I’m Smarterchild, a virtual chatterbot meant to give AOL users instant access to news, weather, stock information, movie times, trivia, yellow pages, listings, sports scores and more!” the bot would cheerfully announce when you sent him a message. “What can I help you with today?”
At the time — roughly 2003 — few people used SmarterChild for anything practical. We’d just bombard the poor chatbot with bizarre questions, hoping he’d say something funny. (The result was usually “I’m sorry, all my circuits are busy right now. Please try again soon.”)
We’ve come a long way since then. Consumers have embraced intelligent, automated messaging as more than just a gimmicky way to pass the time: it’s woven into the fabric of our lives, reminding us to complete tasks (thanks, slackbot!), notifying us that our prescriptions are ready, and giving us live updates on the presidential debates (more on that later).
There’s a use case for nearly every kind of B2C company. For inspiration’s sake, we’ve listed some of the most interesting ones below.
Quartz: News as a Conversation
The news can be overwhelming, but the Quartz app is anything but: it shields users from information overload by covering the highlights with an extremely simple chat-like interface. When you open the app, it tells you a little bit about something newsworthy and gives you two response options. They’re different every time (and often funny), and they boil down to “tell me more” and “skip to the next story.” Quartz adds a little pizzaz with gifs and emojis; it even delivers daily stock market updates in haiku form. Want more in-depth coverage? The speech bubbles often redirect you to a full-length article (you can tell by the blue arrow).
Takeaway: less is more.
Uber: Smart Messenger Integration
Want to encourage a particular action? Make it really, really easy. Uber encourages people to order more rides by integrating into Facebook Messenger; since people already make plans to meet up through Messenger, arranging transportation through the app makes sense. Uber provides additional value by automatically sharing arrival times (no more “b there in 5 min!!” texts).
Takeaway: integrate with or replicate familiar experiences to elicit the behaviors you want.
Nordstrom: Beyond the FAQ Page
People often avoid new products and services simply because they don’t want to put in the time to understand them. Trunk Club, a subsidiary of Nordstrom that ships hand-picked clothing to men who (presumably) don’t like to shop, begets a lot of questions — for example, “who’s picking out my clothing?” and “what if I don’t like it?” Fortunately, live chat allows people scoping out the service to a) get answers without leaving the homepage and b) ask idiosyncratic questions that only a customer service representative (or great robot?) could answer.
Takeaway: just like in traditional retail, the best way to sell is to be helpful.
Keaton Row: Instant Shopping Advice
Keaton Row is a platform that pairs women with stylists. It works quite differently from Trunk Club: Keaton Row encourages you to chat extensively with your stylist, who, rather than shipping you clothes, makes suggestions you can purchase yourself. The speed at which you can start chatting with your stylist makes Keaton Row a little addictive: after you answer a few questions about your lifestyle, your stylist immediately sends you a lookbook, asks for feedback, and talks with you about your goals.
Takeaway: differentiate yourself by providing a concierge-like experience.
Treat: Nutritional Advice
Treat is a bit like Keaton Row for healthy eating: it asks you a few questions about yourself and connects you with a nutritionist, who gives advice as you complete challenges and log meals. Recipe sites, healthy living blogs, and food-oriented publishers can take a page from Treat’s book — not by hiring an army of nutritionists, but by automating content recommendations that correspond to each person’s nutritional needs.
Takeaway: got a lot of educational content? Use it to earn trust by becoming each user’s personal advisor.
Purple: Bite-Sized Election Coverage Via Real-Time Messaging
With all the primaries, polls, and debates, keeping up with the 2016 presidential election can feel like a full-time job. Purple, an SMS-based service, makes it a bit easier to stay on top of things. Along with letting you customize the timing and frequency of the updates (see the screen cap above), Purple allows you to delve into specifics by texting back words that appear in capital letters. An example from today: “Hey! The Democratic debate last night was a feisty one, check who WON that face off. Also a big deal for the climate TEMPERATURE happened last week. I also have some thoughts on TRUMP I’d love to discuss with you!” Even though you know the message is automated, the way it’s written — and the use of the first and second person — makes you feel like you’re getting updates from a well-informed friend.
Takeaway: drive loyalty by creating a sense of intimacy.