writing chatbot scripts

What does the future of copywriting look like? While the possibilities are endless, it’s safe to say bots and artificial intelligence will impact the future of how companies communicate, in turn impacting how copywriters work. Since Facebook announced the ability for developers to make apps on Messenger last year, the interweb has been abuzz with talk of the bot revolution. What does the mean for copywriters willing to learn about writing chatbot scripts? Opportunity.

Full disclosure: I myself am a chatbot newbie. I’ve been reading on the subject for a while now but only got the chance to play around with building a chatbot recently. That being said, I am beyond excited (read: maybe obsessed) with the potential for chatbots to create personal, meaningful customer experiences at scale. The potential is certainly there, even if the technology and implementation have struggled a little to-date. Still, there have been some successful bots introduced in a relatively short amount of time and most rely on humans to do some of the writing.

Deep Learning vs Decision Tree Bots

As bot technology continues to advance, there will be more bots that run on deep learning and natural language processing. There’s a lot to know about this technology but here’s the cliffs notes version. Bots that use natural language processing (NLP) actually learn from their conversations with you. It uses sentence structure and other language cues to figure out your intent instead of just acting on a specific keyword. In short, it knows what you want from it.

Most brand chatbots, though, currently function by using “if this, then that” logic that allows you to train your bot to respond to X with Y, for example. This type of bot will pick up on keywords in your message and respond with the programmed reply. Setting up these chatbots involves much less technology but if you want your bot to be successful and not frustrate the living crap out of your users, you need to do some planning. This is where writing chatbot scripts comes in.

What is a Chatbot Script?

Writing chatbot scripts is not like other copywriting assignments. In fact, it might not be for you at all. Word has it many of the writers enjoying chatbots come from fiction or screenplay backgrounds. But I have faith in my copywriter peeps and know copywriters are capable of being highly creative and not just marketing mouthpieces so I think there’s a good chance some copywriters will shift into writing chatbot scripts, too.

Think of the chatbot script as writing one side of an entire conversation before the other person has said a word. You need to think through how the other person might respond or interact with you and come up with responses to these hypothetical conversations. Sound complicated? It can be. So here are a few tips from my limited experience and other, smarter people from around the web.

Start With a Goal

One of the things I’ve observed about early bot attempts is a lot of them don’t seem to have a clear use-case. At least, as a user and chatbot enthusiast, I haven’t been able to detect what the point of the thing is. And that’s bad. Start by asking yourself, “What would a successful interaction with our bot look like?” And “Where do I want this user to end up when the conversation ends?”

There are a lot of potential use cases for chatbots. Companies are using them for customer service, conversational selling and to create personalized content experiences. The question of which one is right for your brand or project lies with the customers. Figure out what you could help them with quickly and efficiently by being able to reach them in a place they’re already spending time – a messaging app. If it’s not relevant and doesn’t provide value, don’t waste your time.

Write Like a Human

This one came up over and over again in my research. Chatbots are supposed to be an experience similar to (but not meant to replace or imitate) talking with a human. They are not designed to be boring reference guides or blah blah blah marketing speak. For this reason, experts recommend building out a persona for your bot. Give the bot a name, some swagger, an avatar (not a human face, though) and even a backstory. Develop a voice for your bot that jives with the voice of your brand but is hyper-conversational and low key.

Just as important, though, is understanding your user. What will they hope to get from the bot? Are they tech savvy? Horrible spellers? Since you are only writing one side of the conversation it pays to know your customer. How else will you be able to anticipate what they might say?

Another big part of writing chatbot scripts that feel human is using simple language. Cut out your jargon and long words. Focus on simple, concise communication while delivering value. Easier than it sounds, right? Short responses are also key. No one likes to read paragraphs of text in Messenger. Or anywhere other than a blog or book, for that matter.

Start With an Introduction

When a user first communicates with your chatbot, they may not fully know what the purpose of it is. Or they may be expecting a human to interact with them right off. For these reasons, it’s important to start off with an introduction, just like you would in a real world conversation. Have your chatbot say hello and give their name, just like any person would. Some bots ask for the user’s name, although I think if you’re on Messenger this is actually a bit condescending because your username is already on the screen.

After an introductory sentence, it’s good for the chatbot to tell the user what to expect from the interaction. Then, so that the user doesn’t sit there wondering what to do next, it’s a good idea to give them a call to action or suggestion of how to proceed. For example, “My name is George the chatbot. I’m here to help you order fruit. Would you like bananas or apples today?” (Sorry, I’m eating while typing this so that example seemed natural, even though it’s probably not.) Build these leading questions is as you are writing chatbot scripts to guide the user.

Limit Open-Ended Questions

One of the limitations of bots that don’t use NLP is you have to teach them to understand language in the many ways it can be relayed. For example, if your bot asks your user, “How are you today?” And the user replies, “Not worth a shit,” when you’ve only programmed responses for words like “good, fine, wonderful, nice, peachy, okay, not good,” your bot doesn’t know how to respond. If the bot responds to the unknown query with something like, “I’m sorry, “not worth a shit,” I don’t understand?” you’ve really diminished the experience of using the chatbot within the first few interactions. That doesn’t give you time to get to the good stuff.

Instead, when writing chatbot scripts, try to limit the number of open-ended questions and stick to specifics. “Would you like bananas or apples today?” Another option is to include buttons with a few options for the user. This is nice because it makes it easy for them to answer (no typing) and limits potential misspellings that could derail the bot’s conversation.

Use the Echo Effect

The echo effect, as it’s called in psychology, is the practice of repeating a person’s words back to them during social interactions. Studies show people like and relate more to people who repeat their words. It gives the feeling of being on the same page and it’s also an incredibly human thing to do so it’s a great way to help your bot feel conversational.

For example, if the user in the above example says, “I’ll take four bananas, George,” chatbot Georgie-poo might reply with, “Awesome! Four bananas it is. Would you like to order any other fruit today?” By repeating the order back to the user, George is showing that he understands, which can go a long way in removing any hesitancy the user has about ordering via chatbot.

Anticipate Users Dishing Your Bot Crap

One phenomenon noted in bot development so far is that users simply cannot help but mess with bots. If you follow tech or social media at all you’ll recall what the Twittersphere did to Microsoft’s Tay. But even if your chatbot lacks the AI capacity to learn to be a racist a-hole, users will still try stuff. For example, inserting a poop emoji instead of an email address. Classic. Typing jibberish “saeoijweoija” in as a response, just to see what happens. Calling the chatbot names or even trying to get frisky with good ol’ George.

All you can do about this when you are writing chatbot scripts is try to anticipate these instances and come up with a few responses for your bot. Try to inject some wit and humor if you can instead of the robotic, “I’m sorry. I do not understand.”

Build in Human Prompts

Let your user know they can reach a human if they need one and tell them how to escalate the chat to “bring in the human” so to speak. There are some questions a bot just won’t have an answer for and there are some issues too complex to be handled in a decision tree. For this reason, it’s good to 1. Give your bot a very specific use-case instead of an open-ended “I’ll do anything for you” agenda. 2. Have a human on standby to take over if the need arises.

Remember, It’s a Conversation

A chatbot I test drove recently delivered four multi-sentence responses and an image in a row, right on top of one another. This meant I had to scroll WAY up to find the beginning of the bot’s reply. It diminished the customer experience just a bit, obviously. When writing chatbot scripts, keep your responses short and involve the user regularly.

Have you ever been at a party and there’s the dude who only stops talking long enough to breathe and make sure everyone else is still paying attention to him? He doesn’t really engage anyone else in the conversation, just likes to hear himself talk. Yep, you know the guy. Don’t make your bot sound like that guy. Invite the user into the conversation on a regular basis so it doesn’t feel like you’re talking at them. Along with being concise (see above) remember that the purpose of your chatbot is to serve the user, not get all poetic and fancy with your words.

Remember, It’s an Experience

Using a chatbot should be more experiential than reading a blog post on your site. For that reason, try to inject some fun into the exchange when writing chatbot scripts. The level of fun will depend on your use-case, brand voice and ideal user persona. But if you can encourage the user to have some fun using and interacting with your chatbot plus solve a problem for them you will have created a big win in customer experience for your brand.

Bots are Your Friends

I know the question in the back of your mind is, “Yeah, but how long before this bot replaces me as a copywriter?” The truth is, that might happen but it’s a long way off. For now, I say embrace the bots. Make friends with them. Help them help your customers or your clients’ customers. At the end of the day, most of us work in copywriting because we value communication and chatbots are one tool that can help us be better at that. Happy learning.

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