By Felix Rios

This is the first in a two-part series on chat bots, which enable messenger applications to facilitate automated interactions between machines and humans, and present major possibilities for the future of Market Research.

In April, Facebook launched a messenger platform to allow businesses to build chat bots that speak directly with their customers. Forward-looking companies that take advantage of this technology are already opening a new line of communication that will help them improve their services and better understand their customers.

There are currently more than 11,000 of these chat bots. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines jumped on the wagon early, and through their messenger chat bot, are sending passengers check-in information, flight updates, boarding passes, allowing users to ask questions 24/7, and dealing with queries such as changing a seat.

Another chat bot, MyKai, helps users stay on top of their personal finances. You can transfer money, check your account balance, and even ask questions like, “how much did I spend on travel in November” or “what was my largest hotel transaction last month?”

A service called DoNotPay shows how useful bots can be in real life scenarios. This is a lawyer bot, developed by a 19-year-old to help people to contest parking tickets. Since it was launched it has assisted over 250,000 cases and won 160,000 of them in less than two years.

All of these are examples of how drastically chat bots could change how companies interact with consumers; on a much larger scale, offering a new level of convenience, while gaining valuable customer insight.

The Changing Nature of Interactions

The recent evolution of human-machine interaction shows that things are changing quickly and points to bots as the next big thing.

A few years ago, the only way we communicated with businesses was by talking. You would call a company to ask for something, or you would walk into a shop and talk to someone. Along came the internet and shattered this paradigm. The conversations we were having by phone gradually moved onto emails and we realised we didn’t have to actually talk to anyone to get a lot of things done. Then websites allowed us to self-service information about products. Then we started to buy those products online.

Then the mobile revolution came, following the same principle above with a device that is always with us, but the websites moved to applications which are meant to be smarter and contain everything you may need from a particular company.

It was only a few years ago when the first app store was launched, and already in the mobile app world, the term “app fatigue” is being commonly used. It’s pretty much self-explanatory, but app fatigue = people not downloading your app. This is where we stand now, with brands looking for the next cutting edge way to engage their customers.

Bot is Short for Ro-bot

Bots are pieces of software that allow simple or complex automated interactions between machines and humans. Some of these bots come in the form of personal assistants. Right now, in all of our phones we have a bot that we may not use much, whether it’s Siri in IOS, Google NOW in Android, Cortana in Windows or, if you own an Amazon Echo, then you must have interacted with Alexa.

Other bots, and the ones we’re focusing on mostly, are chat bots. They live inside messenger applications, and are right now being used by millions and millions of people, mostly in china and Asia.

What type of interactions? Right now, through Wechat, China’s largest chat application, there are bots that allow you to book a plane ticket, movie tickets, book a table in a restaurant, buy shoes, etc.

If you think you would never chat with a robot to get things done, I can assure you that right now there a millions around the world successfully doing this. The most important players in the tech world already have their eyes on this and have started to put some considerable muscle behind this technology.

“Conversation as a Platform”

This is the name that Sathya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, has given to the rise of the bots, a trend that all the consumer tech giants are glomming onto. There’s Facebook’s new bot store, and Google’s new messenger app called Allo, announced during Google’s recent developer conference. Allo has Google’s bot built right into it, and can chime in to a conversation to help you to book a table in a restaurant if your wife messages you she wants to go out for an Italian dinner.

This brings us back to Market Research, where it doesn’t take much of a leap to start imagining how these sorts of interactions could give brands, products and services a newfound ability to refine and customize their services. In part two , we’ll delve further into some of these scenarios.

Felix is technology and innovation manager, market research at Ugam, a provider of managed analytics for retailers, brands and market research firms.