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SxSW 2017: The Rise of the Bots

Mon, 03/13/2017

By Mark McClennan , SVP, MSLGROUP

There are three answers to almost any question at SxSW this year: AI, bots or VR.

Frankly, all three answers are interconnected along the same spectrum. Bots have become much more useful over the past year because of advances in machine learning, and machine learning and AI is getting us to the ultimate answer to life the universe and everything.

What do PR and communications professionals need to pay attention to this year? Bots and AI.

Bots are one of the driving themes at SxSW in 2017. The rise, breadth and scope of chatbots is still being explored and it has great potential.

As Dharmesh Shah (@dharmesh), co-founder of HubSpot, eloquently put it – Chatbots are the most important technology development since the advent of the Internet. Even more important than mobile. I am not sure I agree with him completely, but since I attended two bot sessions and discussed them in the healthcare tech meetup, my mind has been whirling with ideas of how to leverage this in communications. Keep this in mind:

  • The browser was about the click.
  • The smartphone was about touch (or swipe).
  • The bot is about the conversation.
  • I would add to that and say that VR is about the experience.

There is no one better suited to helping shape and engage the conversation than public relations professionals.


A few key takeaways:

  • The rise of conversation – The big four messaging apps now surpass the big four social apps. If a brand isn’t looking at the space in an intelligent way, they are missing an overwhelming opportunity. One telling data point – half of smartphone users downloaded 0 apps last month . Engagement is shifting and we need to move with it. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a binary solution set, but I believe every communications group should look at this for more than just customer service.


  • Bots don’t hinder participation, they encourage it – Kik has 300 million users, 20,000 bots and two billion messages exchanged. Bot users spend 32% more time chatting than non-bot users. The key is to start small and make sure bots are not a solution in search of a problem. Identify where they can help and go there.
  • Be smart – Bots are designed to engage in conversation and storytelling. Communicators will be injecting them into what was once just friends/family and flight delay spaces. One popular bot is Romance now – consumers can play through and experience romantic stories. Either as a first person experience or as a lurker. But the possibilities are endless for anything that appeals to consumers interests. I could see this with sports, gaming, fishing, and even financial services.
  • Plan for brief bouts of intense engagement – Some brands have developed murder mystery stories powered by bots. They found that people might engage with a bot hundreds of times a day for a few days, and then drop off. They want closure, don’t plan a yearlong campaign. Let me repeat that key point – hundreds of daily interactions from a single user.
  • Think internally as well – If you haven’t checked out enterprise productivity bots, you really should. Two I like are Slackbot and Growthbot, the marketing chatbot from Hubspot. Instead of wading through Google Analytics or waiting for a coworker to reply with a data request, you just post a simple question and get the answer. It’s fast, efficient, easy and addictive. I am already thinking of ways to enhance this for MSLGROUP. The good news is, there are free platforms that are available to make developing these easier.

I believe we are just scratching the surface here. Alexa is showing us what we can do with voice bots, and when I think of this combined with VR and AR, I am blown away. Every communications profession should spend the time getting to know this. I think much of it may be owned by marketing and customer service/operations – but the public relations and communications opportunities must not be overlooked.

If you have any thoughts about bots, I’m all ears @mcclennan .

This article was first published on .

Mark McClennan Mark heads the Consumer Technology practice and Business & Financial Services practice at MSLGROUP. He is a social media, privacy and fraud expert with over 19 years of experience in tech PR.
@McClennan |

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