Teaching AI to speak: Confessions of a conversation designer

A former advertising copywriter dives into the realities, and opportunities, of conversation design, chatbots and conversational AI.
By
Anna Ralph
March 14, 2019

I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I loved to write, I loved to make things, but I took a pragmatic, parent-approved approach to my future and tried to make a go of math and science… until I failed physics and calculus. I ultimately pursued a career in advertising as a copywriter which let me pursue my first love of writing while staying creative and playing foosball. But something always nagged me…

People don’t really like ads, do they?

Looking at ads, it seemed like they were everywhere but never gave me anything. Making ads, it seemed like creativity and utility were always at odds when they didn’t have to be. Of course the people who make the work like the work, but that’s not the hard part. Why did we keep talking at people instead of to them or with them?


Advertising is a realm where we constantly reinforce the importance of opening up a dialogue, of telling stories and creating engaging narratives. It’s also a place where it is extremely difficult (and rare) to actually create these types of experiences. We all want to make great work that resonates with our audience, but the reality is that customers are bombarded at every turn by ads they never asked for or wanted to see and given the opportunity, they’ll do anything to avoid them.


Be honest, when was the last time you didn’t press “Skip”?

“Why did we keep talking at customers instead of to them or with them?”

When I made the jump into the role of conversation designer, a LinkedIn title which has already garnered a few chortles from my former advertising colleagues, I saw a great opportunity to overcome some of the roadblocks of traditional advertising — to create genuine, efficient experiences for customers by talking directly with them, or rather letting them talk to us, on their terms.


Customers are smart, savvy, and impatient with sky-high BS detectors, and we are ultimately at their mercy. We’re there when they don’t ask, so the least we can do is be there when they do.


We live to please our customers, not the other way around because our power rests in their purchases. So, the million dollar question: where do chatbots and conversation design fit into creating more desirable user experiences? Gather ‘round, fellow marketers, and I will tell the tale of the magic, of the fountain of possibilities that is conversational AI.

Conversational AI marries creativity and utility

Whether you’re an ecommerce company, a brand or an ad agency, you are tasked with making work that is creative but also making work that works. We need to do our best to entertain and please our customers, but more importantly, we need to make ourselves useful to them. Conversational AI does it all at the same time. And when 35% of people are frustrated by hard-to-navigate company websites and an inability to get quick answers to simple questions, it’s a prime opportunity to leverage live chat and conversational AI to make sure your customers get what the want, fast.

The simple fact is that you need to be on 24/7/365 because your website and phone number just aren’t enough anymore. The good news is that a well-designed, well-trained chatbot can handle most of these questions quickly and intelligently, and can help create experiences that foster loyalty and trust among your audience.

Happy customers are the bottom line

Let’s not kid ourselves. We’re all in the business of selling, and we’re only in business as long as customers are buying. All our energy needs to be put on the customers — put them first and the revenue will follow. It’s also worth noting that our marketing efforts have little to do with the marketers that make them. It’s not about our preferences. It’s about meeting our customers where they are and surpassing their expectations.


Our success depends entirely on giving customers what they want as quickly and efficiently as possible, something conversational AI and chatbots are really good at. Also if you’re worried about your ROI, according to 3Cinteractive, 77% of consumers said positive interaction with a chatbot makes them buy more. Just saying.

People don’t hate ads. They hate being interrupted.

Whether you’re having a conversation at a party or trying to watch a cat video on YouTube, no one likes being interrupted. No one wants to wait 5 seconds to skip a 30-second pre-roll or frantically look for the X on a pop-up banner. Enter Conversational AI assistants: interruption-free and there when customers need them. They provide product suggestions for those shoes that customer was looking for. They let your customers know your opening hours or your return policy within seconds. They are always-on, at the ready.


The power is in the customers’ hands, and the conversation doesn’t start until the customer starts it. We’re there to entertain, problem-solve or both. And if it’s a sensitive or complicated question that needs a human touch, customer service agents can be looped in, creating a healthy balance of human and artificial intelligence, something we value particularly highly here at Heyday.

The future is conversational

A seamless customer journey is the new normal, and using live chat and chatbots in your campaigns and marketing efforts is a great way to give your customers everything they need and nothing they don’t. As AI-assistants like Alexa, Google Home and other Messenger-based chatbots continue to grow in popularity, “conversation designer” will no longer be a quirky LinkedIn headline and conversational AI will only become more common and more powerful, for you and for your customers. Plus, according to Facebook IQ and Nielsen, 56% of people prefer to text or instant message a brand instead of calling.


So when your customers start texting you, and your competitors start texting back, where will you be?


The emergence of conversational AI is rewriting the rules of communication and commerce. It’s up to us copywriters to create experiences that are as efficient as a machine and as empathetic as a human being. And as a newly-minted conversation designer, this is my only goal: to balance the best of both worlds, because one is nothing without the other.