MWC Americas 2017: Will AI Be Customer Engagement’s Secret Weapon?

From virtual assistants to chatbots to behind-the-scenes optimization, AI is poised to touch every part of the customer experience

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Every year, senior executives and mobile thought leaders head to Mobile World Congress to get a sense of which way the wind is blowing, technology-wise. But this year, mobile trade organization GSMA supplemented their iconic MWC conference, held each spring in Barcelona, with a brand new edition of the event in San Francisco. At MWC Americas, held September 12–15 at SF’s Moscone Center, tens of thousands of people gathered to explore emerging technologies from 5G to augmented reality to connected cars.

But one technology loomed larger than most.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has part of the public imagination for decades, and a marketing fantasy for nearly as long. But in recent years, we’ve seen something of an AI boomlet, with artificial intelligence emerging both as a notable part of the customer engagement ecosystem and as a powerful tool for optimizing audience/brand relationships. And at MWC Americas, how that split is playing out was a major focus of brands and speakers alike.

Chatbots: Beyond glorified phone trees

KIk's Fifth Harmony Chatbot

With a single announcement at last year’s F8 conference, Facebook took chatbots from relative obscurity and made them a major topic of conversations for brands. Since then, the space has evolved significantly. Customers have started to become comfortable using OTT messaging platforms like Facebook Messenger—which are traditionally used to communicate with friends and families—to engage with the brands they patronize. Facebook launched its Discover Tab, which functions like a sort of App Store for chatbots, making these tools easier to find and use.

And, perhaps more significantly, the tech giant has poured a lot of time, money, into efforts to address one of the biggest criticism of chatbots: namely, that they often seem too dim to provide the sort of conversational experience that they need to be successful. This spring, Facebook announced that their AI investments are starting to pay off, revealing that they’d developed bots that were capable of successfully negotiating with human users, setting the stage for a richer chatbot experience on their platform.

At MWC Americas, thought leaders expressed optimism about the space, but warned that we still have a long way to go. Avaamo Founder and CEO Ram Menon said, “It’s still day one in the conversational world,” a view echoed by Beerud Sheth, founder and CEO of Gupshup, who told attendees, “It’s early days. It’s like 1994, [19]95 was for websites … it’s exciting, but still early.” While chatbots now work well in a number of use cases, they haven’t reached the point where consumers engage regularly with them—and too many bots still function as glorified phone trees or search engines, instead of real conversational partners. Addressing that issue will require ongoing investment in developing chatbots’ judgmental capabilities and helping them learn how to better understand and respond to the complexities and subtext of human speech.

Over the long haul, however, there’s potential for brands to use chatbots to leverage the massive audiences and strong engagement rates associated with messaging platforms like Facebook Messenger to reach customers. And there have already been some success stories. During the event, Anand Chandrasekaran, Facebook Messenger’s director of platform and product partnerships, called out digital hotel booking brand SnapTravel for their smart use of chatbots’ conversational capabilities to provide a great customer experience: “They’re leveraging what’s native to these platforms,” he told attendees, “but also bringing universal experiences to them.”

Virtual Assistants: A big step toward ambient computing?

Smart Speakers

While chatbots have seen some early momentum when it comes to functionality and user adoption, another consumer-facing, AI-powered tool has swooped in and overshadowed them. Smart speakers—and the virtual assistants like Alexa and Siri that they leverage—have become a fixture in many homes, with the percentage of U.S. broadband residences containing one of these devices growing 140% during 2016. And while Amazon’s Echo line is still the marketer leader, Google’s Google Home and Apple’s HomePod have made this an increasingly competitive space.

There’s reason to think that virtual assistants are just getting started. We’re seeing a growing number of integrations between Alexa and Siri and Google Assistant, expanding the reach of these assistants to cover smart home devices, connected cars, smartphones, and more. And analyst firm Gartner is projecting that a full 30% of web searches will take place without a screen by 2020, suggesting that adoption of virtual assistants could play a major role in supporting the rise of ambient computing and a more seamless, frictionless digital experience for consumers.

To get there, customers will need to more fully embrace this new technology as part of their daily life—and that means that tech giants need to clearly communicate the value and limitations of virtual assistants to the people who they want to use them. After all, even an endless number of integrations won’t make virtual assistants a useful tool to customers who give up on using them because their experience wasn’t what they hoped. “We should ask ourselves why we present virtual agents as trying to be exactly like a person,” Angela Shen-Hsieh, Telefónica’s director of predicting human behavior, told attendees. “There’s a big opportunity here to start thinking about setting the right expectations” for virtual assistants.

AI: Optimization’s secret sauce

AI examples

But while chatbots and virtual assistants have understandably dominated a lot of the conversation in the tech world when it comes to artificial intelligence, there’s a case to be made that AI’s biggest impact will come in a subtler, more comprehensive manner.

The truth is, a lot of brands are already using artificial intelligence—not necessarily to support their chatbots or power their virtual assistants (though some are), but to optimize their customer engagement efforts. That’s certainly the case for Appboy clients, who can take advantage of AI to ensure that their messages are delivered to customers at the ideal time for their individual engagement patterns and (soon) in the channel that’s most impactful for each one. And both Apple and Google are taking steps to democratize access to those kinds of powerful AI capabilities: Apple by opening up a machine learning API to developers that will make it easier to use AI within their iOS experiences; Google by bringing cloud-based AI systems featuring pre-trained AI models to the Google Cloud.

These sorts of machine-powered optimization tools may never get the hype that consumer-facing AI receives, but they have the potential to touch a lot more people in the immediate future. Customers don’t have to have an Amazon Echo or use a brand’s Facebook Messenger bot to see the benefits of AI; artificial intelligence can make the emails and push notifications and app or web experiences that are already parts of their lives feel more enjoyable and valuable, without any effort on their end. That’s a major benefit, and one that can seamlessly improve each customer’s experience of your brand, assuming you have the right tools and the knowledge you need to use them effectively.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, artificial intelligence isn’t a product or one single technology—it’s an ecosystem, capable of supporting a wide range of uses cases, user experiences, and platforms. But as with any technology, AI has to be designed and used thoughtfully in order to reach its full potential.

Interested in learning more about how Appboy is leveraging artificial intelligence to help marketing, growth, and engagement teams provide more relevant, valuable experiences to their customers? Check out our post on Canvas with Intelligence and other recent product innovations.

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