Feature: Ottawa companies become early adopters of conversational commerce

By Michael Woods

The days of dialing 1-800 numbers could soon be over, thanks to the latest trend in artificial intelligence – and Ottawa companies are embracing the craze head-on.

The rise of chatbots means people can order food, hail an Uber, buy a plane ticket or even apply for a job by chatting with a bot on a messaging platform.

Part of the thinking is that younger, more tech-savvy customers are more inclined to use a chatting service than call an actual person for help.

Chatbots themselves aren’t a new phenomenon; they have been around in one form or another since the 1960s. But the rising popularity of messaging apps and breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and speech recognition have helped them become the hottest new tech trend.

At its F8 conference earlier this year, Facebook announced it was launching Messenger Platform, a new chatbot service. It has been a hit with developers so far.

“I think it just requires a little bit of awareness, and Facebook is creating it,” said Michael Golubev, CEO of Ottawa-based 3Dprintler. “In a year or two, people won’t even remember what it was like to call some toll-free number and be on hold.”

3Dprintler, founded in August 2012, helps connect customers with 3D printing service providers. Golubev has described the company as “Kayak meets TripAdvisor for 3D printing services, on steroids.”

3Dprintler launched a chatbot-enabled 3D-printing search engine earlier this year, which it presented at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in Brooklyn last month.

“Bots just became this huge door that gave us access to over two billion users combined on all those networks,” Golubev said in an interview. “Conversational commerce is this next big branch of commerce that we see being developed, and it creates huge opportunities for marketing, for delivering and ordering goods.”

By conversing with the bot, users can compare prices for local 3D printing services, place orders, track purchases and leave reviews, all without leaving the messaging app of choice. (It’s available on Facebook Messenger, Kik, Slack and Skype, among other services).

On average, there’s a 56 per cent better conversion rate using the chatbot than using the website, Golubev said.

“It’s such a different environment,” he said. “It’s almost like chatting with your buddy, and he’s helping you convert the file and get the best price.”

In April, Shopify announced it was building commerce bots for Facebook Messenger. A day later, it acquired the privately held startup Kit CRM, a company that helps businesses communicate with their customers through chat.

“We believe messaging apps are the gateway for the internet on mobile, and conversational commerce represents a huge opportunity for Shopify,” Craig Miller, Shopify’s chief marketing officer, said in a statement at the time.

While developers have flocked to Facebook’s new platform, the road to a chatbot-dominated commerce world won’t always be smooth.

When Microsoft’s Twitter chatbot “Tay” was released in March, it soon started spouting racist and sexually-charged messages in response to other Twitter users. Microsoft blamed a “co-ordinated effort by some users,” and the bot was taken down 16 hours after it launched.

But as messaging platforms continue to gain popularity and the technology improves, chatbots will certainly become more ubiquitous.

Golubev has a vision of the near future when everyone has a phone with a 3D scanner built in and local micro-factories manufacture 3D-printed products. That’s when he thinks the consumer side of 3Dprintler will take off.

But until that happens, the company is targeting the business-to-business market.

“The biggest thing we hear right now from Fortune 500 companies is they want to be involved in 3D printing, but they don’t understand how,” he said. “Until the market fully matures, that’s where the money is.”