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Did you hear the one about the marketer wanting to be more human and friendly with its customers and using robots to do it? Well, it's not a joke. Welcome to "chatvertising," an attempt to update the chat bot idea from the old ELIZA (a natural language processing program) and Smarter Child days. Remember the hype? You could have a conversation with a computer program. Smarter Child was well named because talking to it, with its scripted responses to a short list of understood keywords, was both as fun (for the novelty) and frustrating (for the communication) as talking to an infant.
With all the advances in artificial intelligence that have led to, um, Siri, some marketers have decided to have conversations with consumers through popular messaging services like Kik. Users can now choose to "chat" with brands that have a Kik profile. But rather than the fun but pointless responses that Smarter Child might have shot back at them, a chatty brand will deliver relevant marketing content to their new buddy. And why wouldn't people love it? Well, the core fallacy here is the assumption that people want to have a relationship with a brand and, more so, that a brand is capable of having one.
You'd be correct in assuming that all of this is starting to sound like déjà vu. Brands have been trying to be our friends for years. As far back as 1936, 7-Up was trying to make friends with its consumers: "You Like It, It Likes You" -- an early instance of a brand suggesting it is capable of a social relationship. But let's take a step back and think through the goal of these messaging campaigns. Brands are trying to appear more human and friendly to their audience. That is worthy. No matter the medium, when people interact with your brand, the response should be friendly and helpful.
However, there's a fine line between being helpful and being overbearing, especially when it comes to the "human" element. For instance, the sunny and polite phone reps of Virgin America support Virgin's brand very well, but they are not the brand itself -- they are representatives. Kik and the other messaging platforms are also about interacting with humans. But they can only offer canned, mechanical responses, which isn't what consumers are looking for when they message a brand -- they are looking for help with a problem or information. Moreover, rather than making the brand more appealing, I'd bet people see this as evidence that increasingly, brands don't get their audience.
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Is chat a good place for a brand to be? It's probably a good place for a representative to be. Twitter has certainly proven that with its customer service capabilities (although they may see it as reputation management). I recently tweeted a complaint about my new car and it must have been sufficiently harsh, because instead of getting a tweet back, I got a phone call from the corporate office from a person who could solve my issue. What the Twitter case says is that, as consumers, we're not looking to be friends with brands on social -- we're looking for product support and customer service.
With a seemingly endless array of new digital platforms and fewer communication barriers between brands and consumers, the line between the two has become blurred. But seeing as brands are not people, we marketers should be making a concerted effort to make that line distinct again. Friends are almost always peers, but brands are far more famous, rich and powerful than we are. My friends can talk to me any time they want to. A brand cannot, because we all know that a brand's agenda in doing so is more about them than it is about us. A brand generally cannot be counted on to care whether I've had a good day, only whether I've inched closer to a purchase. To pretend otherwise is just awkward, and may make people less inclined to go out and buy your product, as they'll likely be turned off by your efforts. What a brand should want is loyalty, not friendship; what it should provide is service, not a BFF bracelet.
Chatvertising is the next logical step in the social media fueled notion that brands can behave like people. As we continue to experiment with new modes of advertising, we must remember the inherently unequal, dissimilar relationships between brands and consumers. When a new strategy comes up, our first question should be whether it honors or blurs those distinctions. If the latter, let's move on.