The CEO of a bot-building platform envisions the real impact of bot-based commerce.
Let’s assume that software bots continue to proliferate, grow more intelligent and capable, and even generate a bot-to-bot ecosystem, where yours talks to mine and they both talk to brands’.
The huge ripple effects on how products are marketed, priced and sold could be the real story, Gupshup co-founder and CEO Beerud Sheth told me recently. His Cupertino, California-based company, whose name is Hindi for “chit chat,” makes a bot and messaging platform for developers.
As a parallel, remember if you can (assuming you’re old enough) what the future looked like before social networks, when websites were the reigning dinosaurs. There were projections about how, in a few years, individuals might be talking to individuals directly through computers, maybe using video someday.
The tools were the focus, because it was difficult to imagine, say, the rise of cyberbullying, politicians who tweet or viral content. In other words, it was hard to imagine how actual humans and their interactions would evolve once the new tools were available.
This is typical for many major technological advances. The real impact of the car, for instance, was the creation of suburbs, road trips, polluted cities, drive-in theaters (for a while) and a more mobile workforce.
Sheth thinks the real story of a post-bot era will come from the central fact that marketers and sellers may rarely be dealing directly with a buyer, either business or consumer. Instead, intelligent bots will know our preferences, our interests and our buying history, and they will be making the decisions or conveying the best options to human buyers.
Plus, bots eliminate the key shortage that modern advertising and marketing address: humans’ limited attention.
Here are six ways that bots could change buying and selling:
- For one thing, Sheth predicts, this could mean the death of advertising as we know it. “Except for a few items,” Sheth said, “advertising [could go] away.” In a product category with hundreds of choices, today’s advertising tries to attract the attention of the consumer to one particular product. But an intelligent bot, an expert in your preferences and history, doesn’t have a limited attention. It can merrily go out, examine and analyze the thousands of product options/prices in a given category and make its recommendation.
- Stylistic choices based on data. I asked how bots might deal with decisions based on styles, or those that require a user to determine previously unknown preferences. For instance, I said, a family member in college recently needed a new laptop and had to decide whether to get a MacBook Pro or a MacBook Air. There were tradeoffs of USB ports, higher resolution, screen size and weight, as well as price. A consumer may not have thought about these alternatives until such a purchase decision had to be made. Sheth noted that the bot, of course, knows your purchase history and something about your lifestyle. But, he added, “the bot could tell you that most college students buy [this model].” And the bot could ask a few questions in order to determine which factors took priority. That is, data from your affinity group and from your answers could inform decisions that we might otherwise have pegged as stylistic choices.
- Then there’s pricing, Sheth suggested. Outside of eBay, car dealerships and flea markets, most prices are static. A key reason is that it takes time and a certain setup to bargain between two parties, but bots — which would be interacting on all levels with other bots — have a completely different sense of time. At the very least, bots could look for the best moments to buy, kind of like personal high-frequency traders. Hotel rooms and airplane tickets, for instance, are constantly changing, and the bots could watch those prices. It could be like Priceline, Sheth said, but for everything.
- And the way you pay could change. Sheth noted that there are anonymous ways to pay, like PayPal or bitcoins, but they take time. Bots might manage these kinds of anonymized payments for you, without using credit cards that can be tracked by outsiders.
- Plus, brands may have to rethink loyalty programs, which seek to maintain long-term customers with discounts, points and other benefits. But, if your agent is out there looking for best deals among the whole universe, maybe it isn’t in your best interest to get married to one brand.
- Hoping to represent other points of view, I noted that there are those people — I’m certainly not among them — who find shopping itself to be a pleasure, with its unexpected discovery of new products. Will an era of bot-to-bot layers mean that such shoppers won’t spend Saturday afternoon browsing a nearby mall? No, Sheth countered. The bots can enhance that experience, because they can tell you to go to Aisle 7 in this store to find the dress that’s perfect for you. At that point, he said, we will be experiencing what he describes as “filtered serendipity.”