“What’s the Wi-Fi code?”, “Where are the bathrooms?”, “Where can I get coffee?”

How many times during an event do you get asked these questions? Does answering them, again and again, make you feel like a robot? Repetitively providing information is a job for a machine, not a busy event organiser, which is why event AI specialist Sciensio has created a chatbot to do just that.

Sciensio’s groundbreaking ‘Eventbot’ was crowned the winner of the Tech Watch Award in November (run by IBTM World), and was considered the technology most likely to change the status quo in the events industry.

Since its launch last year, it has been successfully deployed at nearly 100 events, including industry exhibitions IMEX Frankfurt and BizBash Live (whose robotic helpers were named Frank and Betty, respectively).

But before you get visions of C-3PO or R2D2 assisting attendees at your next event, let me explain how an eventbot works. To request its help, an attendee simply needs to send the bot a message using SMS, web chat, Facebook Messenger or Twitter DM – there’s no need to download a separate app. The bot is pre-programmed with information about your event and can answer questions automatically, without any human intervention.

Your bot can even help prior to the event by providing information about things like transport or parking, saving your inbox or phone lines becoming clogged with enquiries when you least have time to deal with them.

You might imagine chatting with a bot to be a bit one-sided, but Sciensio has trained its bot to be able to understand natural language and converse much like a human. It even has a sense of humour (check out the screenshot below).

 

According to Kristi Colleran, who created Eventbot alongside Chris Colleran, you can talk to the bot in exactly the same way you would another person. Thanks to 18 months of development, the bot is familiar with the many different ways people might ask for the same thing (there are 33,000 possible variations for Wi-Fi alone!).

“We start with a period of supervised learning, building out the different topics in terms of the synonyms people might use,” she says. “For example, we often get people asking if they can bring their dogs along to events and there are lots of synonyms for dogs; furry friends, four-legged friends, my guide dog, my service animal, my pet. We’ll train the bot on all of these, so if you ask, ‘Can I bring my furry friend?’ – it’ll know you’re talking about a pet.”

Provided you’re asking a sensible question, you’re likely to get an accurate answer. If you ask something off topic, however, it probably won’t be able to help (although the bot will redirect you to another customer service channel like a phone line or email support). While the bot is ‘intelligent’ and continues to learn as people interact with it, it is not drawing information from the internet like Siri or Alexa – all the answers are written by Kristi and her team.

She explains: “The space within AI that we’re in is called ‘natural language processing’. It’s made up of two elements; ‘natural language understanding’ and ‘natural language generation’. Right now, natural language generation is considered a hard AI problem. What that means is that humans have to write all the responses bots use to reply.”

While this sounds like it could be a lot of work – the odd “wacky question” aside – most people want answers to the same things. “What we find is that most attendees want details on the basics; more than 80% of questions to the bot are around 10 core topics,” says Chris.

Sciensio can usually garner this information from your website and other event materials, making the process easy for the event organiser. Maintaining control of the responses your bot can make also means you can avoid the risk of it going AWOL and causing embarrassment, like Microsoft’s Tay, which was issuing racist slurs after just 24 hours unattended on Twitter.

Introducing attendees to your bot

It’s all very well having a shiny event bot with a cute name, but how do you get attendees to use it? The most popular method of introduction is via SMS – planners send a text message to their attendees a week before the event (for BizBash Live, Sciensio built an API with Eventbrite to automatically pull in attendees’ mobile numbers).

Says Kristi: “We can directly integrate with an event organiser’s registration system to pull cell phone numbers or if they don’t have a registration system, they can give us a file with the customer data and we can generate a push or discovery notification.

“And it will say something like, ‘Hi I’m so and so, and I’m your assistant for the XYZ event.  Here are some things I can help you with.’ It will give some examples and say, ‘To get started text hi’. So it’s got that call to action.

She adds: “A second round of discovery notifications will be sent out the day before the event. The bot is smart enough to know if you’ve already connected with it and will send you a slightly different message.”

There are other, more creative ways to introduce your bot; an art festival Sciensio is currently working with has created business cards for its bot and sent them out with VIP tickets. Having a bot not only saves time for organisers, it can actually be quite a novel attraction for attendees. It makes finding the information they’re looking for both easier and more fun.

According to Chris, between 50-80% of attendees will use the bot and the average user asks more than four questions. This interaction leads to higher satisfaction levels and fewer complaints.

“The number of ‘Thank-yous’ the bot receives is much greater than the complaints by about 50 to 1,” he says. “Of the complaints we do get, most are about something else with the event like it being too noisy in a breakout session, food quality, and long lines at registration. The good news for the event planners is the complaints do not go on Twitter; we find by having another channel, public complaints have been close to zero.”

You can even use the bot in place of a post-event survey, asking attendees if they’d recommend the event to friends so you can calculate your Net Promoter Score. Or you can increase participation in a full survey by pushing out a link via the bot at the end of the day.

“It’s really successful for NPS but you wouldn’t want to do a full survey via the bot,” warns Kristi. “If you’re interacting with an event bot and it seems like it’s trying to pull information out of you versus answer your questions, that’s not a great user experience.”

Invest in a bot, save on an app

According to Sciensio, most of its customers use an event bot instead of an event app. With the answers to all their queries just a text message away, why bother to download an app and search for the information?

“For a number of planners they may not have used an app before and they like this option because it’s a little bit lower friction and a little bit easier. Other planners have used apps and have found that, for whatever reason at their particular event, they didn’t really see the engagement,” explains Kristi.

“Planners are asking us about the possibility of integrating the bot into their app. For events where the app usage is high, I think that makes sense but for events were the app utilisation is low, I don’t think that’s a great idea because the bot is so much more low-friction,” adds Chris.

If you’re running a multi-track conference with a complex schedule, you may wonder how a bot could replace your app – but according to Chris, it is possible.

“Our first event was a six-day, 18 track event, which had over 300 speakers and 280 sessions,” he says. “The bot worked very well, but that certainly is a more complicated bot.

“If we’re going to do something like that, the best thing we can do is to integrate with a service that is keeping track of your schedule. There are usually frequent schedule changes and sometimes it’s hard to remember to make sure that we get notified so that we can update the schedule in the bot.”

Having a bot that’s fully up to speed is not only a useful resource for your attendees, it can aid event staff too. Planners actually use it as a tool for untrained temporary staff, helping them find the information they need to deal with enquiries from members of the public.

“At BizBash Live we saw a bunch of people around a day employee asking questions and he was just typing them into the bot. It’s interesting how people find it helpful in different ways,” says Chris.

Looking to the future, Sciensio sees chatbots becoming increasingly pervasive in all areas of customer service. Research shows that people aren’t embarrassed to ask bots questions that they’d be embarrassed to ask other people. Furthermore, they place more trust in the answers they receive.

“An example I use of this is when you call your utility provider to contest something on your bill. When you hang up the phone, how confident are you that the issue got resolved? If you were talking to a bot how confident would you be?

“Almost universally people say, ‘If a computer told me the issue was resolved I’d 100% believe it.’  It’s a computer and it’s mathematics, right? But if I was talking to a person I’d be checking my online statement in two days to see if the credit happened.”

If the interest Sciensio is receiving is anything to go by, chatbots are certainly going to be big at events going forward.

“We have been contacted by over 1,500 companies in the last six months who are looking to integrate chatbot technology into their events. We inked deals for more than 60 events in January. There’s a lot of interest,” states Chris.

Kristi adds that what we see now is only the tip of the iceberg: “We’re really in those early stages with chatbots. In terms of where this tech’s going to go and what the capabilities are going to be, I think the future’s really bright. What we can do today is really pretty cool, what we’ll be able to do in the future will be amazing.”

To demo Eventbot on Facebook Messenger, go here, then come over and tell us what you thought on this thread on the EventTribe forum.

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