Every Bot Needs a Storyteller

"Robot" by  Hugo Rodríguez, used by permission under Creative Commons License

This story originally appeared on Story Worldwide's Post Advertising blog.

As AI-driven chatbots and other technologies rapidly take over more and more conversations between people and brands, marketers’ most pressing needs will not for be for more fast coders, but for more gifted storytellers — especially scriptwriters who have mastered natural dialog.

Demand is soaring for bots, natural voice recognition and the automation of customer conversations. A year ago, Facebook Messenger’s head of product announced that “tens of thousands” of developers were building bots. This past April, Messenger unveiled a new tab to make it “easier for its 1.2 billion users to find businesses and bots, help groups chat with a business at the same time and order food with a virtual assistant,” reported The San Jose Mercury News.

private social messaging now far bigger than public posts

Messenger is just one of many bot-friendly social platforms, of course. And this is just the start. In late 2016, Business Insider presented a global survey that found private social messaging between corporations and customers has greatly outpaced public social posting. Where public posts were formerly the dominant way brands used social media, private messages with customers now typically run many times the volume of the public posts, which are dwindling. The dominance of private, one-on-one social messaging for customer care “suggests the market opportunity for AI bots is equivalent to a majority of the current market for social media customer care,” Business Insider said. Needless to say, that’s huge.

The move to social platforms is being driven by audience preference and a demand for faster responses. This is putting more and more interactions on social networks where automation is possible and desirable. Seeing the trends, most marketers are focused on the tech part of the wave, where the search for developers has more than exhausted the supply of people who known anything about bot-tech. Far too few are thinking deeply about the non-tech part — the highly talented humans needed to provide words for the machines to speak and tales for them to tell.

The desperate need for writers who know dialog, character and storyline becomes evident when you start messing around with any common chatbot. It’s immediately clear that the bots developed for and by entertainment properties to engage and entice bigger audiences are, hands down, orders of magnitude better than the bots laboring away on mundane sales and support tasks. To keep up in the future, ordinary bots are going to have to improve their conversational and storytelling chops. The bots will need to have personalities and the brands they represent will be forced to use consistent core narratives to shape all the automated back and forth with people.

Tech Sgt. Diggs takes only Multiple-Choice Questions

Tom Eck, the down-to-earth CTO of IBM’s Industry Platforms division, opened a recent panel discussion by observing that people who understand the construction of dialog and conversation will populate “a whole new job category” in the evolving world of bots and assistants. The discussion, focused on bots, digital assistants and machine learning, was hosted in early June in New York by Microsoft and the Meetup group Disruptive Technologists in NYC.

If you doubt the crying need for chatbot script writers and other creative people, try this simple experiment to see how you want your bots talking to you: Engage first with the war game Call of Duty’s initially successful sales bot on Facebook Messenger. (You’ll need a Facebook account, of course.) Then try Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” bot on your Skype app. (Skype provides instructions for adding bots.)

Call of Duty, no stranger to coded mayhem and gripping storytelling, still manages a chatbot that is totally reliant on self-serving multiple-choice questions that continually implore you to “Buy Game.” Despite claiming to be “Tech Sgt. Diggs,” the bot’s gift for gritty gab seems divorced from the game itself and barely reaches a micron deep.

Tech Sgt. Diggs, from Call of Duty, doesn't have much to offer.

Tech Sgt. Diggs, from Call of Duty, doesn't have much to offer.

Marvel, on the other hand, reportedly using the same writers who created the “Dr. Strange” movie itself, have fashioned a bot that makes each audience member a character in the story from the start. This intriguing tale is narrated by a seemingly complex and ironic personality — the carefully crafted persona of Dr. Strange — who possesses a natural knack for quirky conversation:


Dr. Strange's bot has the big personality of Dr. Strange on the big screen.

The rise of the bots, in effect, is erasing the formerly fuzzy line between marketing and entertainment — especially if you recognize that conversation is an art. Success in marketing and sales will depend more and more on the same skills used in movie-making and myth-telling. The only difference is that pure storymaking skills will need to be tied to a disciplined brand story, as well, so everyone always know what brand the bot is speaking for.

As you can see from the Dr. Strange screengrab included above, the risks and rewards of bot conversations may be far greater than those involved with old-fashioned human-to-human contact. Because the bots leave behind a record of all that’s said — a record that can be easily copied and spread on any platform — both magical engagement and offensive or merely stupid errors will undoubtedly get multiplied many times.

Bots, like their brands, will need intriguing, fast-moving dialogue that follows a differentiating narrative and remains consistently branded. Without these essentials, the result maybe merely boring or it may be actually dangerous as off-beat responses from the audience create (and demand) the potential for constant plot twists from the brand. Both these disasters can be avoided, but only with the liberal application of human storytelling talent.

Moral: Never shortchange your bot.