Even if you haven't started using chatbots, get ready to hear a lot about them.

This futuristic sounding customer-service tool is already in use by some huge brands like Sephora and KLM--and its poised to become the next big thing in marketing.

Whether you're already thinking of unlocking a bot's potential for your brand--or just want to know what's coming in the space--here are the questions you may soon be asking (answered with the input of Daniel Ilkovich, founder of chatbot creation platform Dexter).

So what are chatbots, anyway?

Like Siri for brands, chatbots are quickly rising as a new "voice" in consumer communications. These chatty computer programs respond to texts or digital chats, effectively carrying on quasi-conversations with the humans (your current and potential customers) on the other end. Thanks to advances in Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), these bots have stronger conversation abilities than ever before.

How do chatbots work?

There are a couple of different ways that chatbots can be programmed. The most rudimentary form is rules-based. These rules-based bots are the most similar to automated customer service lines (think, "press 5 for technical support"), and guide consumers through a decision tree model.

Bots have evolved to incorporate NLP, which translates common language into a form the bot's system understands. "It extracts the user's intent out of a sentence and turns it into a command a machine can understand," explains Ilkovich.

Adding another level to NLP is AI, which enables the bot to "learn" through its interactions. Chatbot AI is still in its infancy, though, and has had some rocky marketing moments.

Why bots?

In short: Chatbots reach your consumers where they want to be reached. "People are now spending more time on their messaging apps than their social media apps," says Ilkovich. While we don't recommend deactivating your Twitter account, adding a chatbot into the mix gives you another channel and distribution method to reach your audience.

Whatever could go wrong?

Two words: Microsoft Tay. In a disastrous experiment that surely appeared on your newsfeed, Microsoft launched an AI bot named "Tay" that was programmed to mirror chatters' speech patterns. The problem was--due to some trolling users --Tay evolved to spout off Nazi rhetoric and feminist hating "banter" within 16 hours. She was quickly shut down, but the damage was done. The moral here is to be careful with this emerging technology, and always prepare critically for the worst way consumers may try to use it.

Why do bots make sense for marketing?

While rules-based chatbots were primarily designed for customer service triage, the evolution of chatbots makes them ideal for marketing or as an alternative way to distribute media. If they are scripted well, these bots can mimic a conversation with a customer in a tone that reflects the brand's identity.

This back and forth communication can lead to consumer surprise and delight moments, which was the case when Dexter client Fatherly.com released the Dad Joke Bot for Father's Day. Send this bot a message via SMS, Facebook Messenger, or Slack, and you receive a relevant dad joke in return. "The dad joke bot is very married to the brand identity with logo, voice, and iconography, and gives people a chance to relate to the brand in a different way that is more meaningful," explains Ilkovich.

How can I optimize my chatbot for marketing?

While chatbots rely on new technology to get the message across, it's still all about having conversations with your consumers. "In the chatbot era, writers are the new designers. They are becoming more and more responsible for the early impression a customer gets from your brand. ," says Ilkovich.

Professional writers at editorial content marketing companies like Masthead Media can script chatbots with dialog that not only reflects the brand identity, but also encourages consumers to continue engagement.

Another important component of optimizing your bot is to understand and work with chatbots' limitations. Ilkovich warns against entirely replacing utilitarian components of your website. Instead, chatbots should augment your existing offering. "It's still early days for chatbots and it's easy to get distracted by the shine of a new medium. Chatbots will get better in more complex areas like customer service and e-commerce, but until then, brands should be cautious when deploying them. " For these functions, bots are best used as a triage to get consumers to the webpage or human representative that can best help them.