After the initial hype, chatbots have been written off by many in the tech industry for failing to deliver on their promise. But one of the leading figures behind the early charge believes one missing component can spark the revolution: payments.
Initially viewed by many as replacements for apps, and a method to increase customer engagement, there are few early examples of tangible success to date, as a recent report from Marketing Land explained in depth.
“If I were looking at [chatbots] from the outside, I’d be saying the same thing,” Kik CEO Ted Livingston told TechCrunch in an interview. “Right now, it is in a holding pattern until we get payments [but] we’ve seen so many killer examples of unlocking the world around you that we know there is magic there.”
Canada-based Kik claims over 300 million registered users — it doesn’t disclose active user counts — and it is valued at $1 billion following a 2015 investment from Tencent, the Chinese firm behind blockbuster app WeChat that is generally seen as a messaging industry bellwether.
Kik opened its chat bot platform and dedicated store one year ago — beating Facebook to the punch. In fact, according to data supplied by Kik, since the launch more than 20,000 bots have built on top of Kik. That adds up to more than 2 billion messages being exchanged via bot.
While he is pleased with the progress on one side, Livingston believes that there’s much further to go.
“Bots as a format is working, we’re seeing the engagement and usage, but for me that’s not good enough, the question is whether we can turn bots into the next big platform. Can we solve a problem that hasn’t been solved yet?” he said.
While chatbots have been seen, and used, by many to automate conversations or service information up in a more conversation format, Livingston believes that the real value around bots comes from enable the offline world around us. Whether that is paying for items, ordering from a restaurant menu, or more.
“The question is often whether chatbots are app replacements? The answer is no,” he explained. “These technologies enable a new type of behavior that wasn’t possible before, interacting with the offline world.”
Livingston, who spoke on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt New York last year, likens the current state of chatbots to that of the App Store before Apple gave developers the potential to add payments to their apps.
“In those days, there were few useful or serious apps, and it was all but impossible to build a business within the App Store. A decade later, Apple pays billions of dollars to app developers every year, and multiple billion dollar mobile first businesses have been built,” he wrote in a post on Medium.
Kik is moving in the direction of scannable codes. That’s much like China, where QR codes are commonplace as a trigger for interactions, but rather than scanning to find a static website, the idea is to pull up a bot that can interact with a user in particular way and with real-world context.
“You see a code and scan it, you’ll instantly scan it and get value, we like the simplicity of the scan,” Livingston added. “It’s a very clear signal to a consumer that you can scan and interact with this place.”
Livingston declined to talk about Kik’s push into payments, including the size of its payment team, whether it has hired any payment specialists and if it is seeking partners to enable money transfer. WeChat’s peer-to-peer payment service is used by 600 million users in China, where it is more reminiscent of an internet portal than a messaging app. Livingston said he “trades notes” with his counterparts at the Tencent-owned service as part of the payments push which he aims to solve “soon.”
Soon had better be soon. Facebook added payments to its chatbots last year, and it has recently tweaked the format to make them more user friendly.