Invasion of the chatbots

March 1, 2017

Invasion of the chatbots

Meet Jess Thoms, the quick-witted and sharp-tongued millennial introducing artificial intelligence to brands bold enough to enter the next phase of the business revolution – using chatbots to engage with customers and drive marketing campaigns.

“The young person is always given the social media work,” 21-year-old Jess Thoms says, taking a sip of her soy latte.

But instead of taking offence to this delegation during internships throughout her communication degree, Jess used it to her advantage.

Taking the traditional communication strategies taught in public relations and marketing, and applying it to social media, Jess opened her first business within six months of graduating from the University of the Sunshine Coast in 2015.

She launched a second business with two associates six months later, and has established herself as a pioneer of the high-tech ‘chatbot’ industry.

The technology agency, Xandra, specialises in the development of interactive chatbots – computer programs designed to simulate conversations with real people.

Xandra initially began as a side project, after Jess and her two associates identified trends in tech, and created a chatbot to book rooms at start-up incubator, Spark Bureau, in Maroochydore.

“It was very basic, someone would say, ‘I’d like to book a room at 12pm,’ and Xandra would book them in. But then people would come up to us and say, ‘I said thank you to Xandra and told her I’d buy her a coffee and she didn’t say anything back,’ not realising it was a chatbot,” says Jess.

“So we started programming in quirky responses and made it into a person, she had a personality and everyone really liked it.”

After the success of the pilot project, Jess and her team were contracted to design a world-first chatbot tour guide for the new Maroochydore CBD, enabling people to ask questions about the history, businesses, and future plans for the area using Facebook Messenger.

Using her skills as a public relations graduate, Jess says her role in the tech company is writing and designing the dialogue, user experience and personality of each robot.

Be open minded, there are thriving global companies on the Sunshine Coast, your location doesn’t determine your career success. You can make it happen from anywhere – the world is your oyster.”

“It’s taking their brand voice and what they’ve already put out there in their existing public image and thinking, ‘What would that brand be like if it were an actual person? What would they say, what would they do, how would they respond?’ And creating a personality around that, so users can have a conversation,” says Jess.

“Each chatbot has a goal; the room booking chatbot needed to be able to book rooms and do that quickly, and then it will be funny once it’s achieved its goal.

“The role of the one we’ve developed for the CBD is to inform and engage existing residents with the new CBD and because it’s a pile of dirt right now, its goal is to get people excited about what’s coming. It’s their main form of communication for the city project and we’re working on new features for the next phase.

“There’s a mattress start-up in the United States, their chatbot is an insomniac – it’s hungry and annoyed and is watching Netflix, and that was just a marketing stunt.”

Earlier in the year, Jess went to the ‘Silicon Valley’ in San Francisco to meet with the company designing the software used for their chatbots, where she underwent further training and learnt about the future of this technology.

“Every brand is going to have a chatbot in one way or another, whether it’s in customer service or for marketing,” Jess says.

“At one end of the scale you can have a simple question and answer chatbot that will tell you your company’s frequently asked questions, or lets you do bookings or e-commerce through Facebook Messenger, and then there are standalone marketing campaigns.

“But the future is in voice activation and smarthomes – you’re going to be able to walk around your home and say, ‘Alexa, turn on the lights’, and you’ll have smart refrigerators that will re-order food for you without you asking. There are already smart trash cans where you scan the barcode of everything you put in the can and it automatically adds it to your shopping list on your phone.”

This year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas dubbed 2017 the ‘Year of Voice Recognition’ after several car companies announced the evolution of in-vehicle voice activation.

As a result, Jess has been spruiking her skills in artificial intelligence, on behalf of a client, which could see her working with multi-million-dollar international car manufacturers in the near future.

Clearly in the driver’s seat and on the road to success, Jess has sage advice for other millennials chasing the next big opportunity.

“Be open minded, there are thriving global companies on the Sunshine Coast, your location doesn’t determine your career success. You can make it happen from anywhere – the world is your oyster.”

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