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Insight

The case for and against a chatbot personality

by Victoria Richards, Editorial Coordinator, 21 February 2019

Read Time: 4 minutes

Brands are continuing to jump on the bot bandwagon, with over 300,000 chatbots on Facebook Messenger alone. With that much competition, standing out becomes a rather considerable challenge. For some time, chatbot champions have lauded personality as the best way to achieve exactly that – but as more bots appear, others aren’t so sure. So, what are the advantages and risks involved in giving your bot a personality?

The perks of a personable bot

As someone who spends the majority of their time manipulating words for maximum audience appeal, I regularly wax lyrical about the importance of tone of voice. It positions your brand and guides your audience to relate to you in a particular way. It makes you recognisable in a sea of other brands. Why would it be any different with chatbots?

As an extension of your brand, users will likely expect a similar experience interacting with a chatbot as they would browsing your website, or engaging with you on social media. To take the classic tone of voice example, if drinks brand Innocent did anything other than be completely charming via a chatbot, it would make for a jarring experience relative to all its other channels.

There’s also something to be said for personality making conversing with a chatbot a more engaging experience. In an NPR article, Robert Hoffer, one of the creators of the wildly popular early messaging bot SmarterChild, suggested: “In order for your bot to be popular, it has to have a personality, and in order for it to have a personality, it has to have a soul.”

If souls and personality aren’t really your bag, then some statistics might convince you. A report based on a survey of over 1,000 adults between 18-64 in the USA revealed that almost a quarter of people would be deterred by a chatbot if it couldn’t ‘chat’ in a friendly way.

A bar chart showing 24% of survey respondents to be put off by chatbots that can’t chat in a friendly manner.

Credit: The State of Chatbots report

That’s significant. It suggests that alongside a need to answer questions and solve problems, there’s a requirement for bots to engage with the audience in a way that feels familiar and approachable. So with all that in mind, why not give your bot a name, a point of view and a defined tone?

Before you do that though, there’s a little more you need to consider.

The downfalls of a chatbot identity

I’d hazard a guess most brands aren’t creating a chatbot for the sake of giving their fans a chance to chat with them. With any luck, they’re usually trying to solve a business problem. Whether it’s customer service, providing quick details to free up their response team, or offering handy shortcuts on a platform they know their users love.

So imagine that you need to make an insurance claim and you’re offered the chance to interact with a chatbot. No matter how much you like your insurance provider, you’re probably not going to take kindly to a chatbot asking if you want to hear its favourite joke when your car is in bits. Similarly, a ‘cold’ tone may come across as unsympathetic, or it could make you feel reassured.

The point is that it’s very difficult to find the right balance for all your users. You may have in-depth audience insights that makes you confident your chatbot’s personality is spot on – but their experience could come down to their mood at the time. Worse, your chatbot’s quirky personality could quickly become infuriating when it fails to interpret your users.

Credit: Chatbotsmagazine.com

Consider also the growing interest in inclusivity, equality and stereotyping. Two of world’s most-recognised bots are Alexa and Siri. Even Cortana has a female voice. They’re all personal assistants. So aside from the risk of getting it wrong and giving your audience a negative experience, perhaps one of the biggest arguments against a chatbot identity is this thought from Paul Barba’s ‘A case for less human bots’ article on VentureBeat:

“By letting bots just be bots, we remove the risk of embedding stereotypes and making missteps arising from our own biases. When we take bots back to basics, all we have to worry about is solving the task at hand.”

So what now?

Ultimately, you need to have an in-depth understanding of your user before you go ahead with an all-singing, all-dancing chatbot. Alongside your audience demographics, consider the following:

• What problem are you trying to solve?

• What benefits does a chatbot offer over other platforms?

• Is there any data available about chatbot engagement in your sector?

• How does your audience interact with your brand on other channels?

• How could your chatbot account for mood and minimise negative experiences?

This list is by no means exhaustive, but should give you a better idea of whether a chatbot is right for your brand (and audience) and, importantly, how you might present it.

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