In this guest post, GlobalWebIndex's Felim McGrath shares his thoughts on the potential of chat bots, and whether consumers will engage with bots in the future.

Facebook’s big announcements last month surrounding chat bot functionality on Messenger caused a flurry of online discussion. When the biggest social network in the world throws its backing behind such a new development, the industry takes notice. But is the rise of chat bots a foregone conclusion, and will consumers engage with these bots in the ways that Zuckerberg & Co. are betting they will? GlobalWebIndex’s 34-market research shows that the outlook for chat bots is promising, if they are implemented in the right way.

Certainly, the increasing centrality of smartphones to the digital habits of internet users means that every aspect of the purchase journey is being influenced by mobiles – and, by extension, social media. GWI’s research shows when they are investigating products that they are thinking about purchasing, it’s 1 in 3 digital consumers who say they turn to social media for more information. This means that, globally, social media is now the third most important product research channel (being only 2 points behind consumer reviews). And if we zero in on the ever important 16-24 year-old age bracket, then we see that social networks are the second choice for these consumers when they are researching products (behind only search engines).


In fact, looking at this age group (the most enthusiastic users of messaging apps) gives us a clear indication of the potential of chat bots. In particular, if we look to the young, digitally engaged internet users of Asia, we can see how chat bots are already making an impact. In China, not only is WeChat used by close to two thirds of 16-24 year-old online consumers, but the service has capitalized on its massive market share by offering functionality well beyond simple messaging by attempting to insert itself into as many stations along the purchase journey as possible. Chat bots have been a key tool here, providing feedback to users on purchases ranging from clothes to food delivery, with customer service agents on hand to provide further assistance.


So it’s clear why many brands will want to provide automated, round-the-clock assistance to consumers on messaging apps, even if – for now at least – most will want to retain the ability for a human to “intervene” in the conversation if needed. But there is one issue that could put the brakes on the march of the chat bots. Already, it’s 6 in 10 internet users who say they are worried about their privacy online, and over 55% who have concerns about how companies are using their personal data. Issues like these are one of the major reasons why GWI’s research shows that personalized purchase recommendations are yet to capture the enthusiasm of a large section of digital consumers. And as the ever-topical issue of ad-blocking shows us, internet users are fully capable of customizing their online experience as they see fit.

To truly make chat bots a major part of digital consumers’ purchase journeys and online lives, they will need to be non-intrusive, obviously beneficial to the user and, perhaps most importantly, present themselves as an honest assistant, not an advertisement in disguise.