Remember Clippy, an early yet quite advanced chatbot that lived in Microsoft Word and did much of what bots do today? According to Dan Gardner, co-founder of Code and Theory, bots have come a long way, but they still have a long ways to go in becoming truly effective tools for personalized conversations. His recent presentation at Social Media Week, New York, focused on how bots can enhance brand value and deepen user experience, particularly for media and publishing companies.

What exactly is a bot? As you read this, bots are still a relatively immature technology. Basically they’re artificial persons, creations that can converse with humans through text and conversation to assist people in living more productive and entertaining lives.

Clippy was a helpful contextual bot, with an element of human-like interactivity.  Since then bots have come a long way, becoming increasingly more human-like, more natural, more ever-present. “But to design bots, we need to break with traditional feature-driven thinking and consider ways to design the most efficient decision tree that will allow users to access information or complete tasks as simply as possible,” said Code and Theory’s Gardner.

Bots require a different spin

However, bots require a different spin than apps. The key question is how to program skills so a computer can deliver them to humans to make life better. Think the Matrix, where folks who needed new skills had them inserted directly into their brains.  Alexa already has mastered 10,000 skills, but when you look at them, like the early days of apps, they’re pretty rudimentary–play this or do this. We’re a long way off from fully exploiting their potential, partly due to the complexity of programming bots.

When we think about brands or media companies distributing content, programmers must look at the full spectrum. At core, it’s rule based—a response for every action—but so far it’s not much more. How do we make bots more conversational, more human-like and anticipatory?  Moving to the next layer, where bots will also be proactive, doing things because it understands one’s mood or needs, is a challenging proposition. Achieving the ideal combination of abilities seems a distant promise.

Looking at the skills that have been added to Alexa, we find that news is key and as a result, publishers have been rapidly moving here. Unlike other verticals, the media publishing world has led advancements in content distribution, whether it be in content management systems, metadata connection, or thinking about how bots should live on a publishing platform.  Other brands should heed publishers’ experiences because they demonstrate the likely market direction.

A bot first mentality

Today we’re approaching a bot-first mentality and we must ask how bots can become more human and connect more personally. In the past, programmers were limited by a bot’s technical capabilities, and that’s still largely true. The problem is the instinct to design for perfection, but with limited technology bots cannot yet fully meet consumer expectations.

Brand stewards must recognize bots’ current state of imperfection and experiment – they’re not Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha in Her. “This is the time to play off the personality of your brand,” said Gardner. “Siri is a good example. If you say ‘Thank you’ you get a somewhat on-brand response that’s still sort of in the master-butler style, but still there’s a tone.”

Happily, we’re now seeing a great deal of experimentation, especially in social networks. Take Facebook Messenger or the publication Quartz, which strives to deliver news in a human-style vernacular. Such bots seek to create emotional connections, acting almost like dynamic therapists; you have a problem, so how can the bot work you through it?

Back to skills. If you’re a content platform/media publisher, much of what you do is provide skills – read information – but another skill is improving the user experience. Typically brands provide a valuable product, but a fundamental shift from simply providing a good product to providing a service design layer is moving to the fore. The question becomes, how can a brand augment the experience to drive the funnel better or actually make the product more useful? One example is the Dominos bot that makes ordering simple on multiple platforms.

For publishers, bots have great potential. For instance, The New York Times’ 4th down bot provided analysis beyond a human’s ability by interpreting in real time whether a pro football coach called the right 4th down conversion play based on historical data and added a deeper level skill set.

Back to the bot future

Bots are only going to become more complex as technology advances, which in some ways will make things simpler, in other ways more complicated.  Bots will become easier to execute, but some things will become more challenging as brands try to reach people in innovative ways. There will be less of the master butler approach and more of a user–bot conversational paradigm.

“If you don’t move your brand ahead, you will fall behind. Companies that do not tackle new platforms early on find themselves in potentially risky situations where they cannot catch up or it requires too great an effort or investment to do so.” – Dan Gardner

For years on social media we’ve said, don’t just talk to users, have a conversation, be a part of their lives. It’s the same with bots. They should become a part of one’s lifestyle. “It will take more than natural language. Think about all those connection points with Alexa or Siri, the [Apple] watch and everything in between, social media channels, and how a conversational decision tree plays out to solve a user’s problem,” added Gardner. At the end of the day, skills are about problem solving, optimization, and relationship building. Bots will take CMR and engagement management to another level with much more robust data inputs.

Setting new guidelines for brand architects and creating a whole new level of brand style guides…similar to social media guides for cadence, brand voice, etc., are coming soon. What are bot guidelines, i.e, the Road Runner and Coyote cartoon characters where every action is bound by strict behavioral rules. Similarly, brands need to establish bot rules to match brand voice.

The scary thing, according to Gardner, “If you don’t move your brand ahead, you will fall behind. Companies that do not tackle new platforms early on find themselves in potentially risky situations where they cannot catch up or it requires too great an effort or investment to do so.”

In Sum

A systems approach to brand-bot communications is basically about infrastructure. That’s why media companies have a slight leg up, because they’ve been thinking about communicating in a systematic way from language processing to information distribution. All of the branded content one creates requires a central depository, and as bots become prominent, brands that can efficiently manage their content will succeed. Even if your brand is not experimenting with bots today, it is imperative to update the brand infrastructure to be ready for the bot age.

Finally, as brands move towards more humanistic approaches, bots represent the next step in creating one-to-one relationships that are more personal and subtly contextual. Such an info-framework will become increasingly important to bot creation as everything must come together or the brand will risk falling behind the inexorable advance of technology and the consumers’ ever inflating expectations