Move over, VR; there's a new buzzword in town. Dubbed "the new apps" by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella last year, and featured as a key digital trend for 2017 in Ogilvy & Mather's annual trends report (which was launched at last month's FutureBook conference), chatbots - computer programs designed to have conversations with humans - are set to be the talk of the book trade in coming months.
Ogilvy & Mather digital trends report 2017
The thin end of the artificial intelligence wedge, chatbots have histortically been focused on functional shopping and customer service, but since Facebook opened up its platform to bot developers last April more than 34,000 programs have been ready to greet the curious with a cheery hello. Chatbot use cases are exploding, evolving from the practical (see the cheeky Poncho weather bot or KLM's air travel bot) to the increasingly creative and emotive; Charity: Water has combined geolocation, media sharing, and rich storytelling to create Yeshi, a chatbot in the persona of a young Ethiopian girl who has to walk 2.5 hours each day to find clean water.
The opportunities for publishers and authors are huge, but the industry has been slow to invest in the bot pot to date. Digital agency BAM Mobile is hoping to lead the way with AuthorBot, a new service for book publishers, agents and authors that creates author bots on platforms including Facebook Messenger, Slack and Telegram, and delivers voice-activated book discovery and reading services for Amazon Echo and Google Now. The team has created a basic Alice in Wonderland bot as a demonstration piece, and is already working on a project with a major UK publisher, due to launch soon.
"Messaging is massive," explains co-founder Roy Murphy. "There are now more people using the main messaging platforms than the main social networks - around 3 billion, with Facebook Messenger (1bn users) WhatsApp (1bn) and WeChat (800m) leading the way. Analytics firm Comscore reported 50% of US mobile users haven’t downloaded any apps over the previous year, but messaging applications are already on billions of mobile phones and are used regularly. Chat and messaging is such an important trend because every publisher, advertiser and brand needs to embrace the underlying technology powering it – AI – or risk being irrelevant to their customers sooner than they realise."
Media companies such as The New York Times, CNN and Buzzfeed were leaders in the first wave of Facebook bots and The Guardian launched its own experimental effort in November. The pace of innovation is fierce.
"In the first chatbot wave brands like Domino’s and Uber simplified single purchase and ordering paths, testing and then improving the user experience," Murphy explains. "More recently bots such as Roll – on the kik messaging platform – have quickly gained a massive following. The mix of lower costs to develop (as compared with apps) and a large user base are helping to drive innovation. Chatbots such as DoNotPay, which helps contest parking fines and CV bot EstherBot have gained early traction and PR from being first to market as well as useful. In the music space, artist bots - such as our own Robbie Williams chatbot – can generate a million conversations in as little as a month."
So what's holding publishers back? Inevitably, budget, skills and mindset are perennial barriers when it comes to testing new tech, but chatbots also come with a bit of social baggage. Even at this most modest of levels, 'talking' to a computer program can still seem, well, creepy.
"Messaging has traditionally been one-to-one or private group communication between people you already know, and therefore is much more personal place to attempt to communicate," Murphy admits. "The ‘creep’ factor can be an issue, as with programmatic advertising - being followed across the internet by Dementors because you once clicked on a J.K, Rowling book link springs to mind. Brands need to tread carefully. Common sense should apply - not broadcasting notifications multiple times, being upfront what data the bot gathers and actually being transparent about whether or not a human is talking will help users feel more comfortable."
The good news is that, as with so much in the social-digital space, people in the book industry are perfectly placed to exploit this new tech. The combination of compelling characters, rich story-worlds and sophsiticated storytelling skills provide a brilliant opportunity for some best-in-class creative chatbots - fom a friendly discovery bot that leads you through a bookshop to a spin-off novella that unfolds by talking to an automated first-person protagonist.
"In our view, the ‘killer app’ for chat and messaging is still out there waiting to be made – a big opportunity for an ambitious brand," Murphy says. So the question isn't whether publishers, agents, authors and indeed booksellers will join the bot party - but who will do it first, and best.