Quinn Brenner was living a nightmare. Her mother passed away. She was rejected from drama school. Then, as she was leaving an audition, she was hit by a car.
After flat-lining, Quinn managed to survive, waking up in the hospital with two broken legs. Throughout this grueling recovery, her phone was her only connection to the outside world.
If you happened to be texting with Quinn Brenner on Kik, the widely used messenger app with over 275 million global users, you would know Quinn wasn’t actually a girl. She was a bot.
As the protagonist of the film Insidious: Chapter 3, Quinn Brenner’s character was launched on Kik’s Promoted Chats platform so moviegoers everywhere could interact with the character before they even bought a ticket. In fact, Kik’s users chatted with Quinn 50 to 60 times over the course of two days.
This is pretty astonishing, considering millennials send 67 texts total on a daily basis. Sure, Quinn was captivating, but the bot’s success had more to do with the active audience: forty percent of Kik users are teens, the movie’s target demographic.
Quinn is just one example of a fast-moving product trend. Messenger apps like Kik are reviving bots for the benefit of both products and users everywhere.
As the first platform to launch bots about 18 months ago, Kik has since seen spectacular engagement from users when products build bots right.
To Ivar Chan, developer evangelist at Kik, the future of bots is limitless, and messenger apps are the key players: “There’s room for everybody in this bot market. For products, this is the new gold rush.”
If you’re a company looking to grow your product and find new distribution paths, bots may be the answer you’re looking for. But first, product managers and developers need to know how to make a bot.
To ensure that you don’t pan for gold and come up empty handed, Kik has distilled three rules of thumb for venturing into this unknown territory, so you have the best chance of striking it rich.
For heads of product everywhere, bots are getting on their radars as a new way to serve their communities in a personalized, direct and familiar way, especially within messenger apps.
“In a world where messenger apps have surpassed social networks, companies need to expand their digital presence to these greenfield pastures,” said Ivar.
Still, it’s early days. Creator of the Botwiki and Botmakers community, Stefan Bohacek told me, “While there are a few companies offering bots as a product, I haven’t seen that many success stories — yet. We need to wait for Facebook Messenger to join already open platforms, like Slack, and it may take a few more months to see if the landscape of ‘business bots’ is going to make an impact.”
While Kik is currently on a closed platform, the Kik team also realizes that the gold rush is only beginning.
“Products have yet to fully realize how messenger bots can rocket their engagement rates, community and build strong distribution channels,” said Ivar. “When done right, bots are wildly successful in entertainment, but bots can be of service for users in any industry.”
This means that bots have potential not only for massive movie promotions but also to spur engagement and drive revenue for anyone from e-commerce to SaaS and beyond.
And Ivar isn’t the only one. Growth and product experts all over the spectrum concur: Andrew Chen, from Uber, said in an interview in February, “I’m hopeful that messaging will create the next generation platform for mobile app distribution.”
But how does a product manager or developer even get started? First, you need to know your bot-history.
BACK TO BOT BASICS
Bots have existed almost as long as computers. While some bots have earned the rap of being spam, and some are fun, social experiments, like Eliza from 1968, post-Y2K’s SmarterChild, or the parody accounts on Twitter, bots have a rich history. And as of late, a lot of innovation.
The rules of how to make a bot have changed, but the magic of bots mainly boils down to reducing friction. Bots cut down the time it takes to get what you want — whether that’s a joke, news, ordering takeout, or getting the latest metrics from that analytics report.
Creating a frictionless experience via bots has been vastly overlooked by businesses, and herein lies the gold rush potential.
But don’t think there’s a one-bot-fits-all for brands and businesses in this revolution.
“In order to reach this ideal world of conversational commerce, where we buy via bot on messenger apps, developers must figure out the right experience that will bring users back and delight them,” said Ivar.
But, he continued, “Messenger apps are ripe platforms for these native experiences especially since these apps are the most used in the world if you look at engagement, sheer usage and download numbers.”
Today, if you want to go look something up or buy something, you’ll probably go to a browser and Google for a website. But that’s not the case everywhere around the world.
Communicating with bots for goods and services may sound foreign to most Westerners, but it’s already the norm in China.
“So much is done via bots on WeChat, the so-called ‘Everything App’ in China. You can even apply for a mortgage,” Ivar noted. From taking a quick mental break to chat with a movie character to making the most important financial decision of your life, bots are facilitating users’ needs at every level.
“Similarly, we see Kik as a portal to connect the world through chat,” said Ivar, “and bots are the next wave for building connections.”
Other leading chat apps like Facebook, Slack, and WhatsApp have successfully integrated bots in some forms, as well. Even Quartz, a media outlet, has recently launched an app that employs a bot to distribute curated news in a familiar text interface.
But if you’re a product manager or developer, there’s a major caveat: bots can’t be mere replicas of a product.
Bots need to improve upon what already exists, creating something that will ultimately feel irreplaceable to a user. In this new gold rush, companies can begin to reimagine what it means to connect with a customer in a very personalized, one-on-one, and yet automated way. A bot’s ability to deliver value, beyond a product’s original intent or promise, will increase brand loyalty, greatly contributing to the company’s engagement and growth goals.
For a product manager or developer, empathy and user experience will be a guiding force when figuring out how to program a bot’s behavior. It may be intuitive, but companies should survey which bots have been successful and which ones were unpopular.
For example, do you remember Clippy, the paperclip? The infamous Office Assistant bot for Microsoft Word was well known for being annoying as hell, tapping the desktop screen asking, “Are you writing a letter?” every chance he got. Well, don’t do that with bots.
Successful bots are predicated on past innovations and the audience’s needs and desires. So, here are Kik’s three rules of thumb for building a valuable bot, beginning with the Golden Rule.
NO. 1: Every bot is a creature unlike any other. Treat it as such.
Bots are unique to products and their goals, and they are only as successful as they are built to be. Teams, first and foremost, need to know what bot is right for their product.
“Bots live in one of four quadrants,” Ivar explained. “Your X-axis represents Engagement Time and the Y-axis represents Repeat Use. Each quadrant can be optimal for all different types of bots.”
“If your product bot is looking for low engagement time and high repeat use, that’s probably going to be a news bot where you get a daily dose of gossip or information.”
This is where Funny Or Die thrives on Kik. They’ve dished up hysterical content repeatedly in 3.5-minute snippets and created an evangelist following that also converts at incredibly high rates. (Keep reading to see those crazy results!)
“Quinn Brenner was a good example of a bot with high engagement time and low repeat use. Because of its drawn out narrative, the engagement time extended, but once a chatter finished the story, they wouldn’t likely repeat the bot experience. They’d probably go buy a ticket to see the movie,” said Ivar.
Then there’re the low engagement time and low repeat use bots, which doesn’t sound all that successful from the description. However, these could be one-off bots created for a concert or event. Ridesharing, e-commerce, delivery or even banking bots could also fall into this quadrant. It just depends on the product and what needs it fulfills for the user.
Let’s dare to dream and say you were going to a Beyonce concert.
As soon as you walked into The Staples Center, you could scan a Kik Code and start engaging virtually with the Queen B(ot). Whether backstage or in the nosebleeds, as a chatter, you could blast out gifs and videos shortly after they happen, slowly raising the FOMO levels to dangerous levels in everyone in your network.
“Sure, you probably won’t go to the concert again,” said Ivar, “it will only happen once, and you’d use the bot for only a couple minutes. But, it doesn’t mean it was a bad bot if it’s in this quadrant of low engagement time, low repeat use. It just means that it was a bot designed for that quadrant.”
What’s most exciting, however, for developers and product managers, Ivar told us, is that top right bot quadrant:
“Everyone wants high engagement time and high repeat use. Developers are trying to chase that. But, we are still in the early days of bot-making, particularly for products, so we don’t know exactly what’s going to be in that quadrant.”
NO. 2: Build a bot with just the right touch.
Just like when you first start texting with your crush, bots that play hard to get build stronger relationships over the long run than those bots that come on too strong.
When discussing the Quinn Brenner bot for Insidious: Chapter 3, Ivar illustrated how creating anticipation made a big impact on the bot’s engagement rates.
In order for product managers and developers to figure out that top right quadrant, they’ll also need to keep the second and third rules in mind.
“When you’d text Quinn Brenner, she would give you some hints of what’s happening, but after a while, the conversation would taper off just like a normal text conversation. You wouldn’t have the full experience in one sitting, rather over the course of a few days. Teenagers loved it.”
With this bot, the goal was to build suspense amongst audience members so they’d go buy a ticket to the movie. In building anticipation, the Quinn bot also had high engagement rates. As mentioned before, the text exchange, compared to typical bot conversations, was 10x higher than usual. In the case of Quinn, a bit of patience paid off big time.
For product managers and developers, the hurdle will be figuring out the optimal frequency of human-to-bot interaction.
While you don’t want to be a Clippy, you also don’t want to play so hard to get that your users forget about you completely.
Let’s say a food delivery app builds a bot that allows a Kik user to ping in her takeout order. Tonight, she’s craving Chinese. Keeping the delicate balance of human-bot interaction in mind, our Kik Foodbot would ping the chatter with an ETA on the kung pao chicken delivery, but Foodbot wouldn’t want to ping the chatter every day after that with a reminder of delivery options.
Instead, Foodbot lets the user come to it. It holds out on directly reaching out to the user until there’s a reason to celebrate, say, a week later, with a promo deal to IHOP on National Pancake Day.
When your bot has just the right touch that works for your product and your audience, your bot will be well on its way to retaining its users. This brings us to the last rule:
NO 3: Bots must prioritize engagement above all else.
Because when you do so, community growth and conversion will follow.
When building their bot with Kik, Funny Or Die knew that if they kept their followers laughing, their users would keep coming back. The comedy website decided to concentrate on engagement in order to create a virtuous cycle. Serving laughs over ads proved to be successful for their engagement and community growth rates.
Funny Or Die found the typical chatter would engage with about 25 pieces of content in each session, lasting about 3.5 minutes on average. As a result, its memes spread like wildfire across Kik.
When Kik’s chatters shared the latest in-app gifs, those who shared not only looked good to their peers, but the crowds also started following Funny Or Die directly.
“It’s amazing how quickly we built up a following on Kik,” said Patrick Starzan, the comedy website’s vice president of marketing and distribution. ”It took about three months to get to 1.5 million chatters, compared to the two or three years it took to get the same number of people on social networks.”
By building a community that prioritizes user engagement above all else, Funny or Die saw higher conversions, too.
“When we send out broadcast messages to our Kik chatters – usually with links to new videos – we see conversion rates as high as 10%, which is pretty substantial,” Starzan said.
In comparison, Funny Or Die sends one broadcast message a week on Kik (note, rule No. 2 still applied here). In comparison, the comedy website pumps out content nearly five or six times a day on social networks like Facebook and Twitter and still sees lower conversion rates.
To learn more about the essence of a bot and what makes them successful, I sat down with Samuel Woolley, the lead writer of a botifesto in Motherboard, doctoral candidate, bot expert for Political Bots and former provocateur-in-residence with Data & Society.
“If I were a product manager, I would make sure to build a bot that was overtly bot-like. Name it Something-Bot,” Sam told me. “I’ve seen in my research that people love bots for their bot-ness. It’s when bots try to be overly human that people get frustrated with them.”
Similar to social networks, companies shouldn’t spam customers with bots on messenger apps. Rather, messenger bots hold the potential to serve customers more so than brands and products ever thought they could before.
“Whether we’re entering a Bot Gold Rush is still unclear,” said Sam. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm around bots, but to what extent it all pans out depends on the tech catching up. It’s still a bit clunky, and the capabilities of bots all depend on the algorithms that are built.”
But the fact is, bots aren’t going anywhere. They are going to continue to play a major role in web traffic, marketing, politics, news, and soon, how mobile products are distributed on messenger platforms.
Product managers and developers may feel hesitant to experiment with bots, but Kik is leading the charge. And with Kik’s demonstrated success with over 80 partners, the view looks pretty bright.
“Our ultimate vision at Kik is to connect the world through chat, and we see bots as being an integral way to do so,” said Ivar.
So at this major inflection point, where messenger apps like Kik give companies the platform to deploy bots to reach new customers, bot-makers need to agree on a code of conduct.
Because with great bot-making comes great responsibility. It’s time to avoid spam and scams, and invent new scaffolds of connection with bots, bringing the world closer together in useful, fun and interesting ways.
Are you in NYC? RSVP for our Mixpanel Office Hours where Kik talks to us about The Year of the Bot.