Could Chatbots Unlock the Future of Direct Marketing?

If you've clicked a 'chat now' button looking for answers on an online shopping site, chances are you've encountered a chatbot. These AI-powered auto-responders are programmed to react and engage with human conversation in real-time. Most chatbots are programmed to respond to simple cues and queries, but as adoption of their tech becomes even more widespread, marketers are starting to wonder: is there direct response advertising potential in a bot?

The answer is yes, and it's already happening. Brands like H&M and Sephora use chatbots to act as their online stylists and makeup artists, recommending shopping picks and personalizing the shopping experience. Once the bots are able to determine the user's taste and preference using engaging quizzes, they're able to recommend specific selections to the shopper.

So why aren't we hearing more direct response media-via-chatbot success stories? In a nutshell, the consumer world may not be ready for the chatbot revolution. Experts have found chatbots that simulate humans too closely can seem creepy (the uncanny valley effect). And bots that know too much about consumers' personal info and preference (based on, perhaps, Facebook likes and activities) risk being perceived as invasive instead of helpful.

That isn't to say that direct marketers—particularly those with a digital direct-to-consumer presence—shouldn't take notice of the chatbot trend. Developers are working on perfecting the fine line between human-like and bot-like, and once they do, chatbots may be the gateway to understanding your consumers like never before. Imagine harnessing the ability to customize and display in-chat infomercials or product overviews? Or having the ability to accept payments via personal concierge rather than an automated terminal? Chatbots may, ironically enough, be the key to making the online shopping experience human again.