To chatbot or not to chatbot? That is the question


To bot or not to bot? It seems to be one of the biggest emerging trends forcasted by experts at CeBIT Australia 2017.

At a TechMix presentation on marketing and communication channel innovation, startup founder Giovanni Ravone battled his way through the flu to talk about bots, messaging and demand management.

In 2014, well before the likes of Uber Eats, Deliveroo and Foodora entered the market, Ravone and his co-founder Serg Metelin launched chatbot food ordering service HowAboutEat. It was ahead of it’s time. Everyday at 10am users would receive an SMS offering them a lunch choice with a delivery fee of $1. The user either replied ‘Yes’ or ‘Order Now’ and  by 12pm lunch would be at the office. Eventually they expanded the chatbot capabilities to work within Facebook messenger and Slack. It was the first service of its kind like this in the world, and Ravone joked that the high retention rate of his customers might have contributed to some people’s weight gain.

Before looking at interaction and retention rates of HowAboutEat customers, Ravone explained what chatbots are and why there has been such a spike in popularity.

He defined a chatbot is a computer program that conducts a conversation via auditory or textual methods. He said such programs are often designed to convincingly simulate how a human would behave as a conversational partner, thereby passing the Turing test. If you’re not familiar, the Turing test tests if humans can determine if something is human or artificial intelligence. If the human cannot determine a difference, you pass the test. Since being developed in 1950 it was officially passed once by Russian developers in 2014.

Ravone explained there are two bots; AI Chatbots and Single-focused rule-based bots.

  • AI chatbots - These bots understand the questions you ask and can answer subsequent questions. Think: Google Assistant.

  • Single focused rule based chatbots - these bots can’t think outside the box. They have one purpose. For example this could be a news bot. ABC’s Facebook Messenger bots give you a round-up of stories, but it won’t tell you tomorrow’s weather updates.

So why are bots becoming increasingly popular? Ravone said it’s because computer power is the best it’s ever been and AI capability is skyrocketing. Facebook Messenger has also opened up its chatbot capabilities to developers which is enabling everyone to try their hand at bots.

Giovanni Ravone

But bots aren’t for everything Ravone cautioned. While they can feel natural, fast and proactive in some industries such as news or ordering food, in others they can feel out of place, slower and too complex. He doesn’t see chatbots setting up our next mortgage anytime soon.  

Even more interesting are the stats HowAboutEat racked up through it’s chatbot service. They highlight the stats to use bots in business stack up. WhatAboutEat experienced an 88% retention rate. They had a staggering 130 orders from one single user in one year! Their NPS score was +63 and they had a 4.9/5 star rating on Facebook - the stuff marketers dream of and aim for. Ravone said it was because the service was convenient, easy to use and solved a common problem: being able to get out of the office to order lunch. Despite this, HowAboutEat has recently closed its doors due to investor’s fears of increasing competition from UberEats, Foodora and Deliveroo.

While now working on new and exciting projects, Ravone shared a few predictions about chatbots he anticipates to see over the next few years. He says Facebook Messenger’s chatbot assistant is only set to get better. Already the assistant bot’s AI can understand context. It will suggest for you to set a date in your calendar when you write to a friend saying, “let’s go bowling tonight” or “let’s grab dinner next Tuesday.” Ravone predicts soon Facebook Messenger’s assistant’s AI capability will enable you to get suggestions like, “there’s a table available at your favourite restaurant in 1 hour” .

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