I’m trying to get some writing done at this coffee shop, but a bot keeps trying to sell me front-row tickets to see Rod Stewart and Cyndi Lauper.
I can’t really complain, because I brought this on myself; I opted into this persuasive exchange the moment I opened the Facebook Messenger add-on for StubHub, one of a handful of chat-based and social integrations recently launched by the massive eBay-owned secondary ticket marketplace. And if StubHub’s executives are correct in the bets they’re making, this is how a growing number of us are going to buy tickets to concerts and sporting events in the future.
“As a new platform—just like we had to embrace mobile apps 10 years ago—this is a place where our users spend a lot of time,” says Gary Kanazawa, who leads StubHub Labs. “And we know that they’re highly engaged people.”
E-commerce companies see conversational user interfaces like these as the next frontier in selling. That’s a big part of why Amazon rolled the dice on an artificially intelligent, voice-controlled speaker, a once curious-seeming gamble that has paid off enormously for the company. For all the neat tricks Alexa can show your friends, the Echo is really just waiting around for that moment when you remember what you wanted to add to your Amazon shopping list. In the meantime, Alexa is learning a lot about you.
It’s with exactly these motivations in mind that StubHub has begun pouring more money into things like chatbots, natural language processing, and other artificial intelligence technology. The company sees the technology as valuable beyond simple ticket transactions.
A new Facebook Messenger integration adds to a small arsenal of sales robots. StubHub also has an iMessage app, Skype chatbot, and voice integrations with Alexa and Cortana. The company is using these initial rollouts, built on Microsoft’s bot framework, to fine-tune its AI tech for future use cases like other messaging apps and voice platforms, says Kanazawa. “In terms of our vision for the future, it’s not just chatbots. This is NLP [natural language processing] and AI. It’s a critical part of the IP we’re building up.”
On Facebook Messenger, the premise is simple. You can ask StubHub’s bot things like “What’s going on in New York this weekend?” or “Show me tickets for events tonight under $200” and it will return event listings, complete with graphics. From there, the bot attempts to guide the exchange with pre-selected, tappable responses like “show more events” or by asking “yes” or “no” questions, but you can always take over with free-form text and put its natural language processing technology to the test (spoiler: the bugs are still very much being ironed out).
Once you tap on an event you’re interested in, Messenger will load StubHub’s mobile website, where you can buy tickets. Its more recent iMessage integration offers similar functionality, but with an inventive twist: You can share an event with friends, select a few different ticket options, and let everyone vote for their preferred choice.
It’s still early, and these new robo-scalpers haven’t been aggressively marketed by the company, but they’re already yielding results. Between Facebook Messenger and Skype, StubHub’s bots have seen 90,000 people start conversations, exchanging over 320,000 messages in total.
StubHub did not divulge how many tickets or dollars have gone through its chat-based interfaces, but a spokeswoman said the company is “encouraged by early sales trends,” even if they remain quite low compared to the company’s other platforms. The tickets that are selling via chat have a higher average per-ticket value than those sold elsewhere, StubHub said.
The company doesn’t expect that the chatbots and voice interfaces will replace its apps and website, at least not anytime soon. Rather, it’s another channel that works in tandem with all the others. If tickets to a given show aren’t available on its website, aspiring attendees have the option to get notified via Facebook Messenger if any tickets turn up later, for instance.
Where Bots Fit Into The Future of Buying
If anything, bots may disrupt email; early results show that more StubHub customers prefer these Facebook Messenger notifications over email. And as you might imagine, once those messages are sent, people are more likely to engage with them and, in some cases, they wind up buying tickets.
It makes sense: Our inboxes are overflowing with all kinds of garbage, while a push notification from Facebook Messenger is more likely to grab our attention when it lights up our phones’ lock screens. It also has a more personal feel, almost like a friend hitting us up to let us know they finally found tickets to see Rod Stewart and Cyndi Lauper. This social feel is an integral part of StubHub’s strategy. After all, as Kanazawa is quick to point out, what the company does is “inherently social,” as its end goal is to get people off their couches and into concert venues and stadiums.
Like many companies dabbling in chatbot technology, StubHub is eager to craft an experience that feels more personal than an app—and hopefully without crossing into territory that comes off as creepy or intrusive. Indeed, as more marketers and retailers flock to our most intimate digital communication channels, it’s hard to to imagine things not getting weird or annoying pretty quickly. For now, StubHub is dipping its toe into these waters carefully and watching the results closely.
Outside of StubHub, there’s already evidence that chat can be an effective way to sell entertainment to people. ReplyYes, a startup specializing in text-to-buy e-commerce, runs a virtual record store called The Edit that uses chat to recommend and sell vinyl records to people. In its first eight months, The Edit sold $1 million in music via its opt-in, semi-autonomous chat interface.
Meanwhile, Facebook is encouraging other companies to hop on the chatbot bandwagon. On Thursday, the company announced it was adding additional support for e-commerce bots in its Messenger Platform. According to a blog post, the addition of natural language processing capabilities will help brands scale their online chat efforts more easily.
“We’re Learning From Our Users”
For companies like StubHub, the value of the conversational UI extends beyond whatever dollar figure it may eventually yield; Like Alexa, its bots stand to learn a lot.
For years, e-commerce businesses have pored over ever more sophisticated analytics to try and understand who their customers are, what they want, what they don’t like, and what motivates them. Chatbot interfaces promise to tear down the walls of apps and websites and tap directly into customers’ desires, frustrations, and whatever else might be on their minds. All of this feeds back into the company, not only teaching its technology to get smarter, but potentially better informing its people as well.
“That’s the heart of the IP we’re building: What we’re learning from our users,” says Kanazawa. And unlike with websites and apps, this process is seamless and natural in one-on-one conversation. There’s no multi-step user onboarding quiz required with a chatbot. “We start learning about our customers at their pace, not a pace that we force upon them.”
And as all the data trickles in and makes the system smarter, StubHub—and every other company placing its bets on chatbots and AI—can only hope that all the predictions about chat’s place in the future of commerce continue to bear out.
“Maybe this becomes the new starting place, the new homepage,” Kanazawa says. “We want to be an early mover and have a position there.”