DXL Taps Into "Authentic Intelligence" to Engage Customers During NBA Finals
If the 2017 NBA Finals was a movie, it would be terrible and fans would hate it. The battle to be the world's best player, the villainy of the super team, the ego vs. the band of brothers, and other storylines that have been buzzing about have captured the attention of the world. There is no screenwriter needed to enjoy the battle between Kevin Durant and LeBron James or Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving — the performance on the hardwood tells itself in 48-minute episodes and it is fun and powerful to watch because it's authentic.
Over the past year, my company has launched dozens of chatbots with the goal of changing how sports are broadcast on mobile; we want fans to watch the NFL, NBA, EPL, and basically any sport they love in their favorite chat platform. Like most companies in the conversational application space, we rely heavily on artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to both power our individual user experience and achieve scale. When one of our investors, Gary Payton, suggested that we make a brand-sponsored conversational application that would allow fans to enjoy the NBA Playoffs, we hit a moral crisis: how were we going to make something with branded advertisements as authentic as the Playoffs fun to watch in a format so fundamentally artificial as a chatbot?
Authenticity: the human touch
We were really excited when Gary shared his thoughts about building something cool for the NBA Finals. We looked over all the work we had done in the past 12 months and were struck by one of the projects that we launched with Sky Sports — the Jeff Stelling Premier League Bot. We noticed that when fans chatted with the Jeff Bot, they behaved differently than when they chatted with bots that were branded with a logo. It made perfect sense — chat is where people chat with other people — so we thought it would be a good idea to make Gary put his money where his mouth was and be the face of the bot. That was probably the most important decision we could have made.
Not only is the bot logo in the image of Gary but the automated responses the bot gives to fans are in Gary's unique and, well, spicy voice. When your nickname is The Glove and you are famous for your Trash Talk, you better have a bot that spits fire and picks pockets. That was what we set out to build. But no matter how much we made the bot sound and feel like Gary, we felt like we were falling short. We kept going to the whiteboard trying to figure out what machine learning we could improve, and then it hit us: authenticity. No robot can be The Glove. Gary is one of a kind — that is why he's in the NBA Hall of Fame.
So we decided to ask Gary if, during games, he would live broadcast via chat. Essentially, all we would have to do is send his thoughts to the bot. We saw he was already doing this with buddies and figured it shouldn't be any harder to send a text to a few friends than it would be to one location and platform, so that the bot could distribute that out. We now had a hybrid AI/manual mode product that we felt had the human touch needed to be authentic, with enough tech that 24/7 scale could be achieved.
Monetization: be here now
We've been striving to monetize conversational apps since 2014. We met with Sahal Laher, CIO and chief digital officer for Destination XL (DXL), at the Super Bowl in Houston and talked about plans to bring the world of apparel retail into the world of chat.
"It's really an innovative way to engage with our customers," Laher told Apparel exclusively. "The role of digital marketing is becoming more important, and chatbots can play a role in consumer engagement.
"We want to be more disruptive and look for new ways to interact with consumers, and sports is a great way to do that — it transcends all demographics and brings together people of all backgrounds," he adds. "We have customers who are 17 years old and customers who are 70. We cover the full spectrum in terms of household income and more. We continue to investigate strategies to attract new to file customers."
While driving sales and profit is top of mind for retailers, Laher cautions against focusing exclusively on the bottom line. "Every single engagement a brand has with a customer or prospect shouldn't just be about pushing product. It shouldn't be self serving in favor the retailer," he notes. "It's important to connect with consumers on the personal level, with things like sports that are important to them."
When we started building Trash Talk with Gary Payton, we asked the team at DXL if they wanted to be the first brand to try out a new ad unit we were building: a chat-based ad unit that would only live inside our bots. We called this the "be here now" approach. It didn't make sense to us to take display ads (a product in decline) and stick that into chat as a sole ad product. We wanted to make something that was inherently chat-based and took advantage of the unique user experience chat has to offer. So we worked with DXL to build just that, launching the Trash Talk chatbot at the start of the NBA Playoffs.
The bot is available on platforms including Facebook Messenger, Skype, slack, telegram and kik, with more to come. It's not integrated on the DXL website, as the goal of the project is to reach new customers in chat-based environments. Integration is through the GameOn platform, which connects back to DXL commerce webpages when fans engage with the bot.
Says Laher, "Retail is an evolving space. Contrary to popular belief, [chat] is not just how to engage with Millennials. All consumer expectations have changed. Research shows middle-aged and older customers are starting to use social media and these platforms more and more. The Facebook numbers alone are compelling.
"All of these platforms are largely untapped by retailers in terms of engagement with consumers," adds Laher.
So far the response to the Trash Talk bot has been staggering. To date, the bot has 20,000 to 25,000 daily active users and growing, and GameOn plans to capitalize on this initial launch with DXL to build additional bots over the coming months, especially with the NFL season just around the corner.
While the number of users may seem small, Laher says the figure is encouraging, especially since the chatbot wasn't marketed at all. "This is a brand new channel, so the alternative is reaching zero users. So zero versus 20,000 speaks for itself."
Basketball fans can control the pace of the Trash Talk experience and the data GameOn is gathering is changing how brands will identify and close customers.
What's more, DXL has bigger plans for chatbots, envisioning these platforms augmenting the role of the customer contact center and helping customers resolve frequently asked questions, from tracking products and gathering shipping information to understanding the returns process and getting size information.
"Style, size and fit are critical elements of how brands can differentiate themselves from the competition," Laher explains. "We're hoping to implement those into future bots to provide an experience to customers online to help them achieve the right fit."
Laher notes that this chatbot pilot is a part of DXL's ongoing innovation agenda that enables the digital team to test new initiatives quickly, without having to get buy-in from the executive team. Once a project shows success and is ready for primetime, that's when it's time to engage the C-suite, Laher explains.
GameOn plans to build more chat-based ad units and test out timing, pacing and other variables along the way.
Success at scale: artificial authentic intelligence
The rise of the chatbot between 2016 and 2017 has in many ways been synonymous with the surge in AI and machine learning. This surge has been bolstered by recent big-dollar acquisitions by Cisco, Apple, Google and Microsoft. However, AI is not really a new thing at all. Amazon has been using AI since it started suggesting things you might also like, and Netflix since it started guiding you toward shows similar in attribute to others you enjoyed. Microsoft uses it every day to power Bing, Hotmail, Xbox and more.
The 2017 NBA Finals audience expects the best. The best teams are playing and the best players in the world are on those teams, so it only makes sense that any broadcast of those games should toe the line. We have built chat strategies for some of the biggest brands in the world and have learned something very interesting: it is possible to remain authentic while benefitting from the artificial to achieve scale. As a result, we have started using the phrase "authentic intelligence." It serves as a reminder that chatbots have the ability to change how content is made, delivered and monetized, as long as we don't cut corners when it comes to preserving the integrity of the content and brands associated with the end result.
Authentic intelligence is the intersection of great software, properly implemented AI/machine learning and a solid user experience. Weaving those three together is not easy, but when done right, the outcome can be very sweet — and very lucrative.
Alex Beckman is the founder and CEO of GameOn, a startup providing a forum for authentic dialogue and revolutionizing the way audiences interact with content in conversational applications. Beckman previously was the founding CEO of EVNTLIVE, a startup acquired by Yahoo! in 2013. He has more than 10 years of experience in the media technology industry.
Jessica Binns is senior editor of Apparel.