Christmas is a time for drinking mulled wine, eating mince pies, and panic-buying naff presents for people.
This year, a few retailers are doing their utmost to make the latter experience a little less stressful, by launching their own gift-finding chatbots.
The basic premise is nothing new – gift guides have been around on retail websites for years. However, they’re now moving into Facebook Messenger, allowing social users to engage and interact with brands and (theoretically) find the perfect gift.
But are they actually any good? Here’s a run-down of three new Christmas bots for 2017, from ASOS, Lego, and M&S.
ASOS’ Gift Assistant
With over 80,000 brands and tonnes of new products added to the site daily, shopping on ASOS can be an overwhelming experience. The new Gift Assistant bot is designed to combat this, asking users a series of questions in order to find the perfect gift for someone without spending hours fruitlessly browsing.
The bot begins by asking who you are buying for, i.e. your family, best mate, or Secret Santa etc. It will then ask about budget and a few more general and seemingly random questions relating to the person’s character or interests.
For example, it asked me what the name of my boyfriend’s autobiography would be, before giving me five (frankly non-applicable) answers. Of course, I had to pick one, so I ended up choosing “I run this show” because, well, he likes to go on a run every three to twenty weeks…
I soon realised that I wasn’t going to find the perfect gift for anyone, but I went through the motions anyway.
The rest of the experience was equally unconvincing, with the bot largely steering me towards certain products rather than actually asking intelligent questions to inform creative recommendations.
ASOS also seems guilty of stereotyping its audience here, boxing ‘millennials’ into number of predictable personality types. And while it could have come across as clever target marketing, the limited number of options means it just feels a bit lazy.
The design is a little disappointing, too. The images are large and overbearing in the messenger interface, and even when you’ve stipulated a category like womenswear, for example, the returned suggestions might show something else.
While ASOS is clearly going for a retro vibe with its use of emoji, some icons on desktop Messenger are confusing, such as these ones which attempt to highlight how my best friend might like to spend her Friday night.
Overall, I would have expected better from ASOS. The product recommedations I got seemed quite random, and I could easily do a much better job of finding a gift by using the main site’s filtering tools.
Ralph by Lego
Lego is another social brand that is using chatbot technology to help narrow down the gift-buying process. I was slightly baffled when I heard this, because I can understand it from the perspective of a multi-category retailer like ASOS, but just how many Lego products are there to narrow down?
After giving the chatbot a go, it became apparent that perhaps the point of Ralph is more to help customers speed up the buying process. This is because, instead of manually researching what products are suitable for what age ranges, etc, Ralph does the leg work for you.
The first question Ralph asked me was the age of the ‘builder’, plus whether they prefer to play with toys that create excitement, speed, are related to super-heroes etc. He also asked what kind of things the child likes to build, e.g. worlds and stories, wacky, or a ‘freestyle’ creation, before offering up a selection of four product recommendations.
I was slightly disappointed that the entire process centres around just these two questions. Surely Ralph could have delved a little deeper into the personalities of our young Lego-loving companions?
That being said, it offers a basic but functional chatbot overall, helping users perhaps unfamiliar with the brand to decipher between the dizzying array of Lego sets and figurines, and importantly, to determine what products are suitable for a specific age range.
One stand-out incentive is the inclusion of a free-shipping code at the beginning of the conversation, which cleverly prompts users to carry out their purchase through the bot.
M&S Christmas Concierge
Earlier this year, Facebook admitted that it had seen a 70% failure rate of brand chatbots on its platform. As a result, it launched the Facebook Creative Shop Christmas Hackathon – a competition for innovative use of Messenger at Christmas. Grey London’s ‘M&S Christmas Concierge’ was one of the shortlisted entries – a Messenger chatbot designed to help users plan the perfect festive period.
Unlike the ASOS example, which solely focuses on gifts, the concierge helps users find presents, plan food, and receive decorating and cooking tips.
So, does it do as promised?
Right from the get-go, I was impressed with the amount of choice presented to me. Do I want food tips or other Christmas inspiration? Going for food first, I was asked a few cooking-related questions, such as whether I want to be a top-chef or go for canapes or classics. The bot then returned a menu suited to my tastes, e.g ‘relaxing on Christmas Eve’ before the option to see all products or order from the M&S site.
The decision-process feels more natural here than on other chatbot examples, as there is no shoehorning users into specific (and often mis-judged) categories. You don’t need to be either a novice or a top chef – there are suggestions to suit everyone. It also helps that if you’re given a menu or a tip that you don’t think is relevant, you can easily choose another or move on.
One aspect I particularly like is the integration of video, which is not something I’ve often seen from chatbots before. When I asked for general Christmas tips, for instance, I was shown a video on how to create a festive wreath.
Another good feature is that the concierge regularly reminds users to subscribe for the tips they are interested in, clearly hoping to open up regular communication with customers rather than offer a one-time only interaction. What’s more, it allows users to choose what time of day they’ll receive these messages.
All in all, the concierge feels much more customer-centric than other chatbots I’ve tried. Instead of pushing consumers down a purchase funnel, it is much more geared around providing inspiration, and increasing the amount of time people interact with the brand.
While Lego offers a slightly better chatbot experience than ASOS, I can’t help but think both might be in danger of falling into the 70% of failed Messenger bots.
In contrast, with a focus on what users really want from this kind of brand interaction (rather than merely jumping on the bandwagon) M&S has managed to create a far more engaging example.
By widening it out to provide general Christmas inspiration, and also integrating video, it feels like a valuable and natural extension of the brand’s content strategy – not just a flimsy experiment.