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The schmickest | 3 neat messenger bots

Breaking down the barriers between man and machine, chatbots are mediators between customers and brands.

In breaking down the barriers between man and machine, chatbots are at the same time becoming incredibly handy mediators between customers and brands. Here, we list three messenger-based bots that nail it on both functionality and tone.

There are millions of apps available on Android and iOS devices, with many of them not charging a penny to download. The majority of us, however, regularly use just one kind: messaging apps. On Facebook Messenger alone, there are 1.2 billion users globally, with thousands more on WhatsApp, Kik and Slack. As the age of the apps comes to an end, chatbots are surging forward – hijacking and infiltrating these messenger streams to coordinate one-on-one customer exchanges and (in sometimes the humblest of ways) improve our day-to-day lives.

Spotting a star worth following, an increasing number of future-focused brands are investing in these nimble little AI servants. Built around discrete, simple functions (like recommending hair dyes, alerting users to breaking news, or filling out stationary supply forms) chatbots are valued for their ability to build ongoing relationships and respond to enquiries quickly, efficiently and around the clock. They are, as one pundit puts it, the “sheepdogs” of the digital world – not up for a discussion on existentialism, but brilliant at one task.

It isn’t the ‘chattier’ chatbots that are engaging audiences most though, generally speaking. As Greg Nicol pointed out at the recent Mumbrella MSIX conference, people don’t want banter from an automated interface. For one, even though a robotic tone is boring, a too-human tone kind of creeps them out. But more importantly, their motivation for engaging in one is goal-driven – they’re out to satisfy whatever need they’re experiencing with as little friction as possible. And in this context, “friction” means excess pleasantries and prattle.

Evernote founder Phil Libin puts it aptly. People “don’t want to mimic a human experience,” he said. “[They] want to have a much better experience.”

Here, we give three examples of branded messenger bots that put utility as their first priority of service, yet without rejecting outright a distinctive character voice.

ABC News’ messenger bot

Head over to the Facebook page of ABC News, and you’ll see a little button on the right-hand of the screen called ‘Get Updates’. Click this with your cursor or jab it with a finger and the ABC News messenger bot will pop up in a window. This is your smart companion for getting wind of your choice of the latest news and events. According to Flip Prior, the publisher’s social media strategist, the bot has seen “enormous traction” with users since its launch in November last year, despite having no advertising behind it beyond word-of-mouth.

Interacting with the bot is enjoyable for several reasons. It strikes a tone between polite and casual, unabashed to engage its Aussie readers with “G’day”. And it wastes no time in specifying its role and function, with in-built message cards and menu options so that users can freely and easily manage their subscriptions.

I myself chose to sign up for the ‘Morning Briefing’. Asking for this to be delivered at 7.30am (my cereal-munching time) I was assured that “This is for weekdays only, we’ll send it later on weekends, so we can all get some extra”. The user can also “conquer their fear of FOMO” by receiving alerts on breaking news across their choice of topics.

The guided choices design paired with the chipper-yet-savvy tone make the bot an agreeable creature to spend time with. You do run into trouble, however, when you try to hold up your side of the conversation without those message card prompts. After typing in queries like “when were you created?”, “artificial intelligence” and “what’s Clive Palmer up to nowadays?”, to all of them, the chatbot just shrugged.

I did not go so far as one user, who last year apparently asked: “What does Antony Green smell like?” (If at any point in the future it can give an answer, that will be the day that artificial intelligence has gone too far.)

Hewlett Packard Enterprises’ Hugo

Quartz Hugo

Programmed for Hewlett Packard Enterprises by Quartz (a frontier publisher brand when it comes to innovative tech), Hugo is the robot nerd keeping readers up to date on all the trends going on in tech. Residing in its first phase of life on the Quartz website as part of the “Machines with Brains” series, Hugo’s interface here fills the screen in a gorgeous retro-future aesthetic of geometrical shapes, glowing green lines and murky purple. It’s gorgeous.

In just six weeks, the bot served up 117,155 messages, with customers totalling an average of two minutes interacting. Hugo has since been rolled out as an integrated function of the Facebook messenger on HP’s Facebook page, where it performs much the same function yet without the distinctive design.

Hugo is a grand example of sponsored content and brand collaboration. The bot dishes out information from over fifty news sources, yet intercut with insights from the brand’s case studies and enterprise reports. What’s more, as Hugo often reminds us (perhaps too often), the more that users interact with the bot, the more it is able to intuit and answer the kind of topics that interest its users most. Machine learning for better content relevance should be enough to send a small shiver of delight up and down any content marketers’ spine.

Hugo also seems a more thoughtful chatbot. Unlike others which presents users with a limited choice of message cards, it actively encourages input. For instance, after I hit a message card to tell me more about Security, Hugo gave me a bit of background (with link options to explore the topic off-site), then hit me with: “What is the biggest hacker threat for businesses?” No message cards here. This is a test. The invitation to flex some intelligence and exercise some agency is a welcome one (as is the option: ‘Skip’).

Foxtel’s The Wentworth Rat

the wentworth rat foxtel

Foul-mouthed, sly and an absolute low-life, the Wentworth Rat is the messenger chatbot built for fans of the Australian Foxtel prison drama series, Wentworth. The first of its kind for Australian broadcast TV, the Rat dishes out gossip and exclusive content for loyal watchers through the Facebook messenger app. Insider images, GIFs and intel were smuggled out fresh by the prison ‘inmate’, building a clandestine community among those hungry for updates.

Foxtel was well pleased at the results. The “activation was the perfect match for our content and our very loyal and engaged fans,” said Gina McGrath, Head of Marketing – Entertainment. Perhaps not an overstatement either: some users were having longer sessions with the bot than the 48-minute episodes themselves.

This omnichannel, digital drip-feeding approach is arguably a great pairing with a broadcast TV program, which has to compete with the vast libraries on Netflix and Stan for limited viewer attention. It also captures incredibly granular information of the show’s most avid viewer base.

On Message, a sister agency of Sydney-based The Works, is behind the Rat’s creation. Speaking at the Mumbrella MSIX marketing science conference in November, founder Douglas Nicol dropped his own little insider insight into the making of the bot.

“We thought people wouldn’t want to engage with a chatbot that said f**k,” he said. “How wrong we were.”

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