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Here Come the Marketing Bots

For years, social networks have battled spam bots. Now they’re preparing to welcome promotional bots with open arms.
April 7, 2016

Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter have always been in an arms race with bots—software that impersonates a user, often used by spammers. Twitter listed spam accounts as a “risk factor” in its recent annual report, estimating that 5 percent of active accounts are fake, but conceding it could be higher.

But social networks and messaging companies are now moving to welcome bots into their networks. Helping companies set up marketing or customer service bots is seen as a new revenue source.

Popular mobile messaging services Kik and Telegram have both set up “bot shops,” where you can find automated accounts. Most are very simple, for example providing horoscopes, or helping you send money to other users. But some companies are setting up more complex, interactive bots for marketing purposes.

Focus Features created a bot inside Kik to promote its recent movie Insidious: Chapter 3 that is capable of very basic conversation. The New York Times reports that corporate marketers believe Facebook is set to welcome in marketing and customer service bots to its Messenger service.

Some of these bots will probably get into trouble. As a warm-up to its announcement last week that it wants to help businesses build and deploy bots of all kinds, Microsoft let loose a Twitter chatbot called “Tay” that embarrassed the company by spouting offensive ideas. Part of the problem was that Tay learned bad habits from its interactions with humans online. But even aside from that, bots designed to converse can be easily manipulated into engaging or agreeing with outrageous statements. Conversational bots are as much an exercise in trickery as they are in technology.

Most of the bots heading for social networks and messaging services will be programmed to interact in very limited ways. But companies that get more ambitious could find their marketing bots turn against them.

(Read more: “Fake Persuaders,” "Microsoft Says Maverick Chatbot Tay Foreshadows the Future of Computing,” “Why Microsoft Accidentally Unleashed a Neo-Nazi Sexbot,” “How to Fix Microsoft’s Offensive Chatbot Using Tips from Marvin Minsky and Improv Comedy,” The New York Times)

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