I've been thinking about bots lately (who hasn't?) and it occurred to me that the landscape is fairly confusing. Sure Microsoft, Facebook, Slack, and Kik have launched bot platforms, but a platform doesn't answer the questions: What type of bot is good for my business? And do I even need to build a bot at all?

Luckily, with some help from a presentation by Josh Jacobs, the President of Kik,--one of the largest bot-platforms on the market--I was able to codify the types of bots that you'll be seeing a lot more of in 2017.

But first--what's a bot?

No, we're not talking about physical robots here, we're talking about ChatBots: computer programs that interact with users by simulating human conversation. Think of them as a non-fleshy friend that you can text back-and-forth with. Here's an example: rather than going to your favorite flight-aggregator app to find a sweet airline deal, savvy texters are asking travel bots to find them the cheapest flights from the comfort of their favorite messaging platform. It's all made possible by advances in Artificial Intelligence and natural language processing, colliding with the rise of text-messaging as a primary form of easy interaction, particularly for teenagers and Gen-Z.

So what types of bots are out there and why would I build one?

1. The Utility Bot

Utility bots are the most common bot out there. They help automate tasks and answer questions. They can be as simple as a calculator and as complex as a fully interactive AI-driven virtual assistant who will email people and book meetings on your behalf. One example that we recently built for Taco Bell is TacoBot--a bot that lives on Slack and helps you order food before you go to a store.

Reasons to build a utility bot:

  • First mover advantage: if you integrate your bot into a common platform (a la Uber with Facebook messenger) then your company's solution becomes the default choice for consumers.
  • To position yourself as helpful, or useful to your customers so that when they're ready to purchase, they think of you first.

2. The Character Bot

Did you know that Flo, the off-beat woman from the Progressive Insurance commercials has 4.95MM followers on Facebook? Surprised me too. But fictional characters are huge and bots are an excellent way to bring them to life and to drive engagement. Kik says that they saw over 86 messages exchanged between users and a bot they built to promote the movie Insidious 3. The bot they built was based on one of the movie's main characters, Quinn Brenner. That gives you more back-and-forth engagement with customers than say, a banner ad would.

Reasons to build a character bot:

  • You're in an industry (particularly gaming) and you want to create a deeper connection between fans/customers and your franchise or business.
  • Your brand has a fictional character that people love. e.g., Flo, the Progressive girl, and you want to create an ongoing relationship with customers that keeps your business top of mind when it's time to buy.

3. The Shopping Bot

Shopping bots are the future of ecommerce, or so they say. They are designed to make the shopping process simple, painless and sometimes even delightful. Think of them as a cross between a friendly customer service agent and a hard-working utility bot that can help you browse and decide what to should buy. Sephora's Chatbot on Kik does exactly this. Through a series of text messages Sephora gets to know the user's preferences and can recommend products or makeup application tips through images and video. With a click of a button user's are taken to the brand's website to purchase, though the future vision is to purchase straight from the chat experience.

Reasons to build a shopping bot:

  • You're in the retail space and are targeting a younger demographic--the majority of bot users are under 25.
  • You want to expand the channels where you are reaching consumers and driving sales.
  • You want to first-mover advantage in the bot space.

4. The User Generated Content Bot

User Generated Content Bots are 'middle-men'. They connect you with other humans who may have the answer to your question or can help you complete your task. This bot is more curator than conversationalist so the interaction is simpler and less technically complex. Sensay is a great example. Simply text the Sensay bot a question and it will connect you with other humans who have the answer. For example, if I text "where can I get great Sushi in Singapore?" the bot will send a message to users in Singapore asking them if they know and can connect you.

Reasons to build a UGC bot:

  • You're ready to dabble in bot-building but you don't have the time or money to program a fully-responsive conversational bot.
  • You're looking to build a community of like-minded fans or consumers and energize them around a particular topic.
  • You have a business model or campaign that is based on crowd-sourcing.

5. The News & Entertainment Bot

News and entertainment bots are content pushers. Repeat usage and engagement is lower than something like a character-based bot, but they are still a viable way to remind your fans and consumers that you exist. But watch out. There's a fine line between being useful and being annoying so finding the right frequency for interactions is crucial. In an attempt to reach a younger demographic, CNN is an early adopter of this type of bot. Available on Facebook Messenger and Kik, subscribers to the bot receive a daily digest of top stories. Users can also interact with the bot typing keywords to receive relevant articles. In turn, this helps the bot learn about user preferences and provide more relevant information over time.

Reasons to build a news or entertainment bot:

  • You're have a business model that is based on content creation.
  • You're looking for a way to strengthen a relationship between your brand and your fans/consumers.
Published on: Sep 19, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.