#SFSNYC: How Bots and AI Are Transforming Local

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The march of artificial intelligence and bots continues across the digital marketing landscape, creating new ways to reach customers at local—however, these are still the early days.

That was some of the sentiment shared at this morning’s panel on bots and AI at the Street Fight Summit in Brooklyn. Perry Evans, CEO of Closely, a provider of social media and marketing tools to small, local businesses; Sherif Mityas, vice president of strategy and brand initiatives with restaurant chain TGI Fridays; and Mariano Medina Walker, director of partner development with Microsoft’s Bing joined moderator Adelyn Zhou, CMO of TOPBOTS, to discuss the innovation, effectiveness, and opportunities that AI and bots can offer.

Evans said he is exploring how chatbots can help companies get better integrated into conversations customers are having. TGI Fridays, said Mityas, also uses bots to engage with customers and even sees the technology taking over some the reservations and food ordering duties of its app.

As interrelated as bots and AI can be, there are distinct differences in the roles they play. “Bots are the vehicle, AI is the brains,” said Mityas, in terms of conversing with individual customers. A chatbot might open up a dialogue with a customer, but the AI listens and learns, he said.

It is possible to develop bots, Walker said, around the data businesses have collected including information gathered from frequently asked questions. “We’re in early stages, but the technology is moving really fast to enable every business to build their own bot,” he said.

The option to create their own bots, however, might not be the right fit for every small business, Evans said. “A business doesn’t wake up and say ‘I think I will go shopping for a bot today,’” he said. Businesses tend to focus on finding solutions and answers to problems. Evans did say bots and AI can give businesses the ability, or a more powerful means, to interact in more natural ways with customers and improve their marketing efforts.

Getting AI and bots to understand the context of customer interactions, Mityas said, can make those conversations more natural than transactional. “Then we’ll see the power of these vehicles open up,” he said. TGI Fridays even sees the potential for a day when customers no longer use the company’s app, but instead talk to its bot on platforms they are already using to place orders with the restaurants. “Apps are a transitory experience that will eventually go away,” Mityas said.

There are some misconceptions, Evans said, businesses should be aware of about what chatbots are and where the technology can go. “People make the mistake that this is a natural iteration of text messaging,” he said. “Not really.” The power of bots and AI, Evans said, represent a new opportunity to close transactions with customers as part of a natural flow of conversation. TGI Fridays, Mityas said, sees bots as a means to listen and engage with customers and through bots the conversations can help organization be smarter. Ultimately the technology is an enhancement, he said, that the company’s staff can benefit from. “This is not a replacement for a customer call center,” Mityas said.

Joao-Pierre Ruth is a Street Fight contributor. Photograph by Shana Wittenwyler.