Chatbots have become so popular that just about everybody is suggesting you use one. If you've somehow missed what they are based on reading, say, not a single tech or business publication for about 8 months, they're essentially a program that does a job by you talking to the computer with your keyboard. They can be really stupid - answering simple yes or no questions, all the way up to an AI-powered text machine that can access vast sources of information intelligently. In the end, most marketers need something far more blunt-force - a simpler way of doing things that they can access themselves without having to code, or hire someone to code for them.

There's also the discussion of what technically a chatbot is, but for me the real core is that it's an autonomous being that can answer questions or direct a user. I also question, as many others do, whether you actually need chatbots in your business. Nevertheless, with the amount of people talking about it, the amount of discussion around marketers and the general feeling in my head of "this is going to stay a thing, isn't it?" it seemed like a good time to round up a few of the most reliable and useful services I've found through my own research:

I hear lots of people use Facebook these days, and that's why I like ChattyPeople. It's built for people who can just about use a keyboard and a mouse to create a Facebook messaging bot, though with the knowledge that ease comes at the price of the complexity require for, say, a huge e-commerce company. The platform's simplicity makes it a good idea for entrepreneurs and marketers in smaller companies, though it does come with an enterprise option I hadn't got the chance to play with. It's fairly easy; you can make one that can answer simple customer service questions, and then integrate it with Shopify too. Ten years ago I'd have assumed this was impossible, and up until a few days ago I did, so that's yet more proof how horribly wrong I am.

Though it sounds like a K-Pop band, Flow XO actually lets you build and host surprisingly powerful chatbots for Slack, Facebook Messenger and other platforms. More surprisingly, though not quite as easily I found as with ChattyPeople, you don't really need to know how to code, and it has a ton of integration too. You can take a bot and (according to Flow XO) integrate it directly with services like JIRA, Buffer and GitHub, which is fairly useful for both outward communications but even internal situations you might have with bugs, for example.

MEOKAY, rather than being what The Hulk yells to let everyone know he's fine, is yet another multiple-platform bot builder. It's built to be a little less accessible with more tools for developers to tweak and check bots, but it's got decent support for non-developers too. This one can create much more conversational scenarios and build advanced dialog inside bots for far smoother, less robotic conversations. I'd say this is one of the more mid-tier complexity bot-makers - for those tinkering with coding but not quite engineer-level.

I found Morph to be, if anything, a lot quicker at simply launching a bot across multiple platforms, versus others that took despite their ease of use a lot longer than the few minutes it claims (correctly). What makes it is unique is the use of natural language processing and a bit of deep learning to create a far more natural conversation (and not give completely stupid answers). It's not cheap if you want to use it commercially, with the $199/month pro package really being the only option for a serious business (the others are limited to 30,000 messages, which sounds like a lot but really isn't). Nevertheless, it can integrate with things like Twitter, Slack, LINE and Facebook Messenger, as well as Shopify and Zendesk. Interestingly, it can also export leads to Salesforce, which will help a ton with inbound inquiries. Assuming you don't get trolled, that is.

Botsify is the cheap and cheerful bot-maker that lets you create a single chatbot free of charge for up to 100 users a month. It can be integrated with Facebook Messenger, and while it lacks the bells and whistles of, say, Morph or Flow XO, it's still really useful. Botsify's chatbots also support video, images, audio and other kinds of file.

BotKit is specifically a development tool which simplifies the process of creating and designing chatbots. While this is a great, all-round tool, the downside is that it currently only supports Slack at this time, but truthfully it's a great way to poke and prod at the idea of even having a chatbot, which I really really suggest you consider before investing in one.

According to Chatfuel, you can launch a bot on Facebook Messenger in about 7 minutes time without coding a thing, all through their own relatively simple user interface. Is it the best bot? That's up to you, but you can have a simple one off the ground on Facebook in a way that I found a lot simpler than Morph. It's also got the standard integrations (with some weird ones like JSON and YouTube), and it's also free, which helps if you forgot your wallet at home.

I like Recast as it focuses on making one bot - keeping it simple and focused one one great conversational experience versus many that suggest making 34 bots on 400 platforms (that's hyperbole, but it probably exists). It's probably one of the simplest I found, and it can go across a lot of the major platforms I've mentioned, including Kik (which was a nice surprise) and Skype.

I hear this Microsoft company is pretty big now, and their Cortana-Intelligence engine is a complex way to let developers utilize a plethora of tools to design their own bots to whatever specifications they need. It's inarguably one to not dip your toes into without the necessary understanding of the analytics, machine learning, and AI built into the framework, but the raw power that Microsoft is effectively giving away is pretty exciting.