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The Rise Of The Bot Brigade: How Startups Are Leveraging Chat Bots To Gain Traction

The Rise Of The Bot Brigade: How Startups Are Leveraging Chat Bots To Gain Traction

Bots are the new flavour of the season in the Indian startup ecosystem as everyone is jumping on the bot bandwagon. Microsoft is building a Bing Concierge Bot – a new bot for messaging apps like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger which does what a human assistant would do. Similarly Google is working on Google Assistant – a new, conversational smart assistant that goes beyond its existing voice search feature, and Facebook is testing its personal assistant bot M, which was launched last year to disrupt the virtual assistance space.

Also, Facebook has just opened up its Messenger platform with 900 Mn users for bots. Messaging platform Slack announced an $80 Mn fund for startups developing bots on its platform. Two other messaging platforms—Kik Messenger and Telegram—also opened up their platforms for bots. In April, messaging platform Gupshup also launched its bot builder platform called gupshup.io to help developers test and deploy bots across all messaging channels. But why have these software programmes that are used to automate tasks suddenly gained so much prominence?

Rise Of AI, Fall Of Apps

There are a few reasons behind their sudden surge. Firstly, artificial intelligence and natural language processing, two technologies behind bots are now more accessible to developers and have vastly improved. Secondly, with the overcrowded app space, smartphone users are now downloading fewer apps than ever. In fact, as per comScore’s new mobile app report, most US smartphone owners download zero apps in a typical month. Comscore also calculated that 80% of a person’s mobile time is spent in just three apps. And that space is increasingly dominated by big players.  As of April 2016, nine out of the top 10 used apps were made by Google and Facebook.

And that’s why Facebook and Google, who want to guarantee that people spend most of their time in their apps, are betting big on bots to keep users active and engaged. Additionally, they also want to emulate the success of apps like WeChat in China, which initially started out as a messaging app but has transformed into a platform where users can do everything from sending money, booking a cab, interacting with brands and even finding dates.

Though there are always questions about how effective a conversation can be without some human intervention, brands and startups are experimenting big with them given the fact a Facebook bot throws open a field of 900 Mn users. Added to that is the fact that Facebook follows a very stringent policy and rejects one out of every three bots submitted to it. So, though the field is wide open, as per Romesh Khaddar, CTO of NewsBytes, which launched India’s first news bot, says, “The trick is to follow all the guidelines issued by Facebook and think out of the box to give the best user experience in the limited options provided by Facebook and then keep adding features to it.”

Here’s a look at how the bot brigade has invaded the Indian startup ecosystem and what all are they doing for you.

They Will Be Your Morning Newspaper

Those days of scouring through newspaper pages with your early morning cuppa might well be on their way out with the launch of India’s first news bot by NewsBytes. The Gurgaon-based news technology startup NewsBytes launched its automated bot on Facebook Messenger last month. The beta version of their cross-platform bot is a part of Facebook’s Messenger programme revealed at F8 conference.

Available globally, in English, the bot lets users read latest news along with its timeline, search across the content and subscribe to the daily news digest. The readability is enhanced by the card-like view, further supported by appropriate images. One can decide to read just the headlines or the entire story behind that particular news item.

Here’s a snapshot of my experience with the news bot which gave us the day’s news in a couple of seconds.

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Interestingly, when someone likes the news items, the bot responds – “Thanks, I like you too.” And a newspaper that talks to you, and responds like a human, is a big draw!

In the words of founder Sumedh Chaudhry,

“In simple words, it does not feel like that you are reading news; your mind perceives that you are talking to a friend who knows a lot of news.”

Meanwhile the technology behind is fairly complex because on one hand the data is being fetched from our home grown content management system, and on the other, Facebook’s API has to be integrated. So, it is a combination of PHP, Mongo DB and Facebook’s API; with some natural language processing. With Python and Java services running the background, it provides other ancillary functions like search. Currently, it is in the beta stage and a whole bunch of features will be added into it.

As far as increasing traction is concerned, Sumedh points out, “In our one year of existence, we have seen that our unique content—timeline based news—has been appreciated by a lot of people. We have more than 40K downloads on PlayStore, and rated 4.8 there. And all of that has happened organically. Till date, we have not spent any marketing dollars to get any downloads whatsoever. However, India faces a unique problem – not only are Indians “kb sensitive” but also a lot of cellphones are pretty old. So, every time someone has to download a new app, he/she is forced to uninstall the old ones. And, added to this, there are so many apps available in the market today. There is a lot of app download friction in our country. Thus, as an app company, even when you are accepted and loved, you face a lot of challenges to survive.”

They knew if they had to thrive, they needed some magic. So they started exploring other options – where they don’t ask the user to change his online behaviour, be mindful of his data consumption and space limitations on his mobile. And, then they found their answer – they needed to override on the networks of WhatsApp, Facebook, Slack, Telegram and others. So, even before Mark Zuckerberg made the announcement of FB messenger bot at F8 conference, NewBytes’ bots were already present on Slack and Telegram.

Adds Sumedh, “In our experience, getting a user activated on the bot is at least 3 times simpler than asking him/her to download the app. But, the issue is that a lot of people either don’t know about bots or have a very different expectation from the bots. So, we face the daunting challenge of educating them. That said, every first mover in any industry is supposed to do it. The first mover advantage comes with a lot of responsibility.”

As it is, getting Facebook to approve a bot is also not that easy, given their stringent guidelines around it. Since it is Facebook’s platform, they can control it very tightly. To begin with, the user interactions are limited, given the nature of the platform. Additionally, if one doesn’t adhere to the guidelines provided by Facebook, one would surely be rejected by them. They are extremely quality conscious and test each and every bot submitted to them.  For obvious reasons, they want to keep the platform spam free. So, if ‘x’ percentage of users mark your bot as spam/block you; there is a very high chance that your bot would be removed from the Messenger.

They Will Book Your Cabs And Autos!

The next thing bots can do for you is book your cabs in a couple of seconds. In May, Meru Cabs announced the integration of their cab booking system with Facebook Messenger to provide automated cab booking facility. Meru’s entire range of taxi services is now accessible to Facebook users via Facebook Messenger and will allow them to book cabs through keywords, intelligent chatbot and conversational questions through Meru Messenger Bot. With this new development, Meru Cabs became the first cab services provider in the world to implement Facebook’s Bot service.

Facebook messenger users can simply search “Meru Cabs” on Facebook Messenger under ‘Bots and Business’ section and begin interaction. After the initial mobile number verification (one time), a user can start a normal chat with Meru Messenger Bot to book a cab. I tried this and it was a matter of 5 seconds.

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Once the location is shared on the chat box, the user is then directed to choosing sedan (Meru) or hatchback (MeruGenie) cab available for the trip, with the ETA (Estimated Time of Arrival). Once confirmed, the Meru Messenger Bot responds on real time basis with the cab details along with the chauffeur’s mobile number. The bot enables the user to locate his/her cab & check the fare details.

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No wonder it is easy to agree with Nilesh Sangoi, CTO, Meru Cabs, who stated that the bot will “de-clutter our users’ lives, ensuring convenience & accessibility of our services to them.”

On similar lines, auto rickshaw aggregator Jugnoo also launched Jugnoo Bot, which enables users on Facebook to book a ride through Facebook Messenger, Jugnoo’s website, or its Facebook page. The Jugnoo Bot enables users to book a ride by typing a text message in Facebook Messenger or by clicking on ‘Book-a-Ride’ option. Jugnoo automatically authenticates users through their Facebook login details, thus eliminating the need to login into the Jugnoo account separately.

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Jugnoo’s AI-based engine then detects their ride location and suggests nearby multiple locations to choose from. Users can also share their location by using the FB Messenger location button. The Jugnoo Bot then shares ETA and fares with users to confirm their ride. Once confirmed, a Jugnoo driver is assigned and the driver details (name, phone number, vehicle number, and a driver picture) are shared with users. The bot also allows real-time tracking of the ride by users.

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They Will Also Answer Your Health Queries

Not to be left behind, online doctor consultation platform Lybrate also launched its bot in May, which allows people to make health-related queries, get tips on health, and take a health quiz. For now, the service does not allow booking of doctors through the messenger chatbot.

However, it shares links and excerpts from articles on its Q&A portal on health issues and has also integrated its Health Quiz feature in the Messenger bot to drive engagement and awareness about health issues.

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Through the bot, the startup aims to address use cases that are much more common, as messenger as a service is always on in a user’s phone. Hence, the decision to not integrate booking appointments in the bot’s functionality as it’s not a frequent use case.

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Similarly, another online consultation platform iCliniq, has launched its bot on Telegram (an instant messenger app). With the help of the iCliniq bot, users can send their health issues with pictures and medical reports to doctors. iCliniq is also available on Slack, a team messaging platform for working professionals and is planning to launch their bot on Facebook messenger as well.

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The startup claims that more than 10% of their business is coming from bots and they are expecting it to grow in folds soon.

Says Dhruv Suyamprakasam, founder & CEO of iCliniq,

“Companies with a small marketing budget may notice that getting discovered organically in the app stores is difficult as both iOS and Android ecosystems are overcrowded. For such companies, making a bot would help get more users than app downloads as the bots ecosystem is less crowded. The main reason for people to go for bots is because it’s lightweight and doesn’t need any storage like an app. The only difficulty is that making a bot needs clear planning with data points than making an app.

They Will Be Your Style Advisors!

When it comes to shopping, it is a social experience for many. People tend to reach out to friends for shopping help or product reviews. Keeping this is mind, Shopsense, a Mumbai-based retail technology startup behind the online fashion shopping app Fynd, launched Fify – a fashion shopping “bot friend”. Fify is a conversational commerce bot for discovery and transactions, assisting users with all their style dilemmas.

Fify is in public beta on Facebook Messenger and will soon have presence across SMS, Whatsapp and Telegram, among other platforms. The bot will resemble a 20-something stickler for all things in ‘vogue’. Her mission is to make the world a beautiful place where everyone is well-dressed and looks their best. She comes alive at the mildest opportunity of discussing fashion, styling & shopping!

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Initially, Fify will talk only about Fynd Fashion, and eventually do all sorts of things related to fashion – discuss trends, alert you about new arrivals, and even gossip about the latest fad of a movie star. The app will also integrate with nearby store inventories allowing users to discover and follow brands they love, order products and get it delivered within hours.

On how the bot has affected traction, Farooq Adam, co-founder of Fynd, states,

“Launching the bot has increased the company’s visibility across the world greatly.” The startup has been listed across all major bot lists as a result.

When we tried the bot, it did well with certain basic things as a white shirt. But when I said white lace top from Zara it responded “Zara is nice” and fetched me a T-shirt from Pantaloons instead! :p

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They Will be Your Legal Advisors

Besides style, bots can also advise you in complex legal matters. This is what Chennai-based Acumenist Analytics Pvt. Ltd had in mind when they developed Lawbot last year. The bot that can analyse legal contracts and point out potential risk areas, and suggest how the terms can be improved. One of the five startups in the current accelerator programme of Target India, the bot is looking to help legal teams at large corporate firms who have to review an enormous number of contracts. The bot will help lawyers with drafting contracts by suggesting relevant clauses.

Developed by Manaswani Krishna and Krishna Sundaresan, the platform is essentially an AI-powered engine that helps in drafting and reviewing contracts. Once a contract is uploaded onto the system, the platform checks for any common errors and loopholes, also  pointing out missing obligations and restrictions. In addition, it also focuses on drafting. Lawyers can search for a certain clause and insert it in a contract.

They Will Schedule Your Meetings!

Coming very close to being your personal assistants, now bots can also schedule meetings for professionals. That’s what Skedool.it, which has offices in India and the US, does by offering an AI-powered bot assistant for professionals to schedule their meetings. Founded by Deepti Yenireddy and Naveen Varma, the company services customers in the US and Europe and charges $100 per user per month.

Users can copy their bot’s email address whenever they have to schedule a meeting, and the bot emails the other person to set up a meeting at a convenient time and place. Skedool.it uses natural language processing, a method that facilitates human-computer interaction, and machine learning, wherein a machine self learns through previous data; supervised by humans to enable customers to communicate with the service via email. The offering is currently available for Gmail and Outlook365 and integrates with leading customer relationship management (CRM), marketing and recruiting tools.

The user does not need to install an app, or a plug-in to use the product; they just need to share their calendar with ‘Alex’, (that’s what the bot is named) mentioning a few specifications, like favourite meeting place, preferred contact number and ‘cc’ Alex on any e-mails that include the scheduling details. Alex takes care of all the communication, back and forth, with the client, based on your specifications and preferences. Alex, uses LinkedIn and Google maps to ensure that the proximity and even the time-zone difference are considered while fixing an appointment. It also sends a daily summary and also follows up on outstanding meetings as well!

They Will Recharge Your Phones

Now bots can also recharge your phones, give you reminders when your balance is running low, and do all this in not only English but also in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada. Fintech payments startup Payjo has launched its product Recharge Bot, an application virtualisation platform for recharging prepaid phone accounts through Facebook Messenger. Payjo has also launched multi-language support for the first time in India to make basic services like bill payments accessible to people in tier-2 & tier-3 cities who don’t speak English.

To start the bot, users have to open up Facebook Messenger, look up “Recharge Bot” and launch it. At first, the bot will prompt users to pick a language. Alternatively, one can also type “Hindi” for example & the bot will start replying in Hindi.

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Once the user selects the preferred language, it asks for the user to input his number and asks him if he needs reminders when the balance is low. The user is then suggested recharge plans depending on whether he wants a full recharge or a top up.

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Once he selects the plan, he is redirected to the PayUbiz payment gateway.

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Srinivas Njay, cofounder of Payjo, had this to say about how the idea of building the bot came,

“It was not about simply getting traction but rather about building a product to help tier-2 and tier-3 cities to do transactions in a more natural way. We realised that everything before you reach to payments part in an app is tough – finding the app, downloading it, figuring it out. So our idea was to empower people who have gotten used to messaging. Think of it as an ATM in your pocket – as people are familiar with an ATM experience, we wanted to build a similar experience for people in the languages they are comfortable with.”

In fact, the bot itself learns over time. For instance, in the following video, one can see how even on changing language preferences in the middle of the transaction, the bot is successful in completing it!

They Will Make You Exercise!

If you are in need of a fitness buddy, you don’t have to look further than FitCircle’s chat bot which helps users get personalised daily workouts and monitor their food habits. It caters to masses in real time through Facebook by providing 5-minute workouts for weight loss, weight gain, muscle toning, nutrition and health advice at the touch of a button.

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One can explore many options, and on deciding the workout you want to do, you simply press the button ‘Do’ and it will show you videos of how to go about doing the workout. All in all, a simple easy to use guide!

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Aarti Gill, co-founder of FitCircle, had this to say regarding how the bot will improve traction,

“We plan to build 10 Mn+ strong community by 2020 guiding and inspiring people to live a healthy life. Chatbots are far more convenient to use and offer a more personalised experience. In our category, we have realised that 90% of the queries that people have regarding weight loss, weight gain or any other fitness goal can also be handled by expert trained bots. This ensures that we can provide quality advice to many users at no cost to the user.”

They Will Be Your Concierge Service Or Basically Do Whatever You Want!

And then there are bots that will do whatever you wish for, be it fulfilling a laundry request, booking a cab, booking a concert ticket, finding a yoga instructor or an electrician, or ordering food, flowers, groceries, or medicines! One such startup is premium concierge service Wishup, which has launched its chatbot Wishbot. Available on Facebook, the bot features some amazing elements that will make digital servicing of clients a seamless experience.

Currently, fulfilling laundry and cab requests of clients in six major cities, the bot is learning aggressively. Very soon, customers will be able to book everything from bus to concert tickets.The bot understands query intent and acts upon it for certain categories. All you have to do is type ‘laundry’ or ‘Uber’ to begin. After you have made a selection, you can enter a pickup and delivery address. You can further choose a convenient time slot and opt to cancel your request.

Very soon, Wishbot will be equipped with an array of impressive features. It will find and book live events, get your phone recharged, tell you about interesting offers, look up stuff for you on Wiki and perform simple mathematical calculations too. Very cheekily, its tagline says, “I can do more than just talk.’

We checked it out for laundry services and it enquired about the kind of laundry services required, the area and time slot when they were required, and sends a confirmation to mobile for the same.

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On similar lines is Ratan Tata-backed artificial intelligence (AI) based chatbot Niki.ai that lets users order anything through a chat interface. It leverages the technology of natural language processing and machine learning to converse with the customers over a simple chat interface, and places their orders within seconds with the partner businesses. Currently, Niki chatbot offers bill payments, cab booking, recharge, food ordering, home services, and cricket scores.

On similar lines, Bangalore-based messaging service app Lookup is using bots to disrupt local commerce in India, which as per founder Deepak Ravindran is a $750 Bn industry. Working in a similar space is Times Internet-funded Haptik, which is also trying to find more ‘use cases’ for assisting users on its chat platforms through human-supported bots, as well as Yana AI, a completely automated chat-based engine to get groceries, cabs, services and contacts. Similarly, Bangalore-based MagicX has also launched its recharge and bill payment bot two days after Facebook released its bot APIs. The app enables users to carry out day-to-day tasks like grocery shopping, bill payments, recharge, order food, book flight tickets, and other utility services via a chat enabled, artificial intelligence platform.

Also in the list is @cookbookai bot which allows you to search for recipes!

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But Are Bots Really The Next Apps?

So, while the Indian startup ecosystem is tripping on them, the questions about their effectiveness stare us in the face. And not all is hunky dory on that part. Case in point is the recent shutdown of Helpchat’s chat wing, which was also on account of the inability of the chatbot to significantly increase engagement.

Helpchat founder Ankur Singla had explicitly stated in the blog, “The chatbot irritated the users to no end (our data science team built a large set of training data, but coping with Hinglish, SMS lingo, vernacular language to write a general purpose chatbot becomes a 5 year science project very quickly). Breaking up across different channels didn’t make the task any easier.”

Says Shubhankar Bhattacharya, Venture Partner at Kae Capital,

It is prudent to remember that the best validation for any startup model is when its users/customers accept it as the best solution. From a customer perspective though, the reality is that they will only adopt a new solution if it is significantly better than the other alternatives, and not merely because it is a “hot trend” (at least in the long term). The question to ask Facebook/chatbots therefore is ‘How is the company’s bot-enabled solution significantly better than the alternative, say an app-based approach?”; which is different from stating that ‘A bot is more convenient than downloading another app’.

Also, the companies that offer bots for highly standardised recurring purchases are likely to face a stiff battle against ecommerce companies and wallets that have already made it a convenient and seamless experience. However, a clearer opportunity is available in areas where there exists a significant knowledge gap and where bots can empower consumers in their decision-making. Education, healthcare as well as commerce segments that are non-standardised and discovery-based come to mind as applications where bots can be very potent.

He added that the most revered apps, such as Whatsapp & Uber, became as valuable as they did because they built their proposition and business model around smartphone technology, and not merely because they happened to be apps. In many other business models, the web has continued to co-exist with apps. This will also be true in the case of bots, where the best bot companies will emerge because they are able to unlock value through the unique power of deep learning using artificial intelligence & natural language processing, and not just because they rode the current “bot wave.”

Though the technology isn’t advanced enough at the moment to capture all the nuances in language, yet over time artificial intelligence will be able to answer a larger amount of queries. As our tryst with some of the bots mentioned above points out that they might not be able to fully grasp everything but can get the basic stuff done. Needless to say, it is still very early but the potential for bots is huge. If startups have their way, there is a huge chance that bots will, in the near future, significantly affect the way we do things online. And you might probably be checking up with your botfriend rather than you best friend for fashion trends the next time you go shopping!

Author

Shweta Modgil

Inc42 Staff

Passion for writing and interest in the start-up space brings Shweta to Inc.42. She has prior experience as a Research Analyst in the venture capital/ private equity space and the auto industry. Fiction writing is her other forte and her first book titled One Hundred Days published by Tara Press debuted in 2014.

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