It seems like barely a day passes without some notable mention of chat bots in the tech industry. Now one of North America’s most used chat apps has jumped on the wagon after Kik, the billion dollar mobile messaging service particularly popular with young people, opened its doors to bots.
First of all, let’s check on exactly what a bot is. They are automated accounts that follow specific instructions to interact with users. They commonly serve up content — like a GIF or the weather forecast — but can be programmed to do all manner of things. There’s plenty of hype around them because chat apps are so sticky that bots are easier to engage with than downloading apps, and could be an important vehicle for reaching consumers.
Bots for the youth
There aren’t too many examples of bots in the market right now, although Facebook is hotly tipped to throw its hat into the ring at F8. Currently, privacy-focused Telegram and fast-growing work chat app Slack are the highest profile services that feature bots, but neither has a particular stronghold among the youth, a demographic that is hotly sought after by brands.
That’s very much Kik’s domain. The Canada-based company says that 70 percent of its 275 million registered users are aged between 13 and 24, and that around 40 percent of all teens in the U.S. use its service.
That’s a hugely attractive segment, and Kik has already let some companies in to play.
In 2014, Kik it allowed selected brands to pay to develop broadcast bot accounts that could chat with users and serve up things like content or fashion recommendations. These accounts allowed brands — and particularly those in entertainment — to interact with users in an app they use daily and on an opt-in basis, potentially helping to forge a meaningful connection.
But they were one-way only, whereas bots can be added to conversations — if you want to pull up the weather while discussing a trip, for example — as well as one-on-one chats, and a whole lot more.
Bots for all
Kik has taken its first step into developing that potential after it opened a bot store inside its app, alongside the tools to allow any developer or brand to create their own bot. Users can access the bot store on the tab where they create new chats, while developers are able to go ahead and get started at dev.kik.com. (Kik is also working with developer shops that can help get bots off the ground.)
The Kik bot store is off to a rolling start today, with 15 bots from established companies ready and waiting for users. Those include entertainment, such as Vine, Riffsy and FunnyOrDie, games, like TicTacToeBot, and other specific use apps, like The Weather Channel and cosmetics store Sephora.
The Vine bot
Bots right now might seem basic, but there are a lot of smart minds who see the potential for them to do a whole lot more in the future. Kik CEO Ted Livingston — who will speak at our Disrupt event in New York in May — has heralded them as the new mobile apps.
That’s to say that, with fewer smartphone owners downloading apps these days and apps offering a bridge between iOS and Android, a bot that lives in their favorite messaging app could be a better way to engage with a consumer.
“Chat is going to be the next great operating system. Apps will come to be thought of as the new browsers; bots will be the new websites. This is the beginning of a new internet,” Livingston wrote recently.
Since Kik has long supported HTML5 websites, which are optimized for its in-app browser, a bot on its service can also be used as a trigger, perhaps to send users to a news story or website that has a feature-rich experience inside the Kik app? (Kik hasn’t shipped a payments API with its bot developer tools at this point.)
A new app rush
“This is just the beginning,” Livingston told me over Kik. “The deeper we go, the more we find.”
Right now, Kik is hoping to draw in developers who can help it build out many of the norms and standards for how bots should operate.
“It’s been a bit of a low start” for the chat bot industry in general thus far, Mike Roberts, head of mobile development at Kik, admitted to TechCrunch in an interview.
“We’re working with lots of partners… it sounds easy to get started but we are all figuring out what the UX will be like. It’s taken a long time for mobile [apps, it’s been] eight years since the iPhone launched, and we are still figuring that out, too,” Roberts added.
Initially, Roberts said that Kik expects the first wave of bots to be in the entertainment space, partly because that is what will appeal strongly to Kik’s young userbase but also, again drawing comparisons with mobile, those were the type of apps that drew early success when smartphone apps first took off.
Roberts expects brands to be particularly keen to translate their experiences to bots.
While the user experience is still up in the air, we also don’t know what users will think. Admittedly I’m not a heavy Kik user nor one of the average — I’m based outside of the U.S. and aged over 30 — but already my Kik contact list is full of bots I sampled. Roberts is wary that, though a novelty initially, users who overdose on bots might be turned off.
“It’s hard to say what the total number [of bots users typical have] will be,” he said. “We think this is another app store opportunity, but we want to grow carefully with the right kind of bots.
“Unlike app fatigue, developing a bot makes sense because they can sit in [a user’s] contact list until they need them. So we think there will be a core set of bots that users will interact with, and a small set of core bots that live in conversations,” Roberts said.
I tested a number of Kik bots and found them to operate much like those in Slack and Telegram — all bots are created fairly equally at this point. The Vine bot spewed out random clips, not always in a funny way, and the weather bot is limited to North America where I do not live. I don’t have a need for cosmetics, either, but the Sephora sized up my style for future suggestions and I can see how that could appeal to the right person.
The Sephora bot
Tech savvy people who are long accustomed to typing “/giphy lol” into Slack won’t be blown away by Kik’s bots, but that’s not really the point. Few of Kik’s hardcore users will be familiar with Telegram, Slack or others apps that are at the same stage of their botvolution as Kik. For them this will be a new experience.
How these Kik users react, and how developers use these tools to move things forward are the crucial elements here. Livingston is right, this is just the beginning.