As the world is witnessing an unprecedented disruption due to Covid-19 outbreak, as consumers increasingly turn to digital, and as your agents and staff are forced to work from home, having a fast and accurate shopping assistance service via a conversational interface is becoming as important as having a solid ecommerce website. Businesses, across sectors, are racing to add AI-powered chatbot that can transact with consumers on the website and on other digital communication channels. (If you are wondering why chatbots, you can read the articles “why AI chatbots for your retail business” and “how AI chatbots will transform the retail industry in 2020” to understand more). Since WhatsApp is the most popular and widely adopted messaging channel in modern world, the obvious choice therefore will be to launch your chatbot on WhatsApp. But wait — So far WhatsApp did not allow businesses to launch chatbots on their platform and only in the recent past have they given access to their business APIs for automated messaging. Things work a bit differently in WhatsApp (compared to other messaging channels such as facebook) and in this article I will explain what you as a business need to know regarding launching your own chatbot over WhatsApp.
WhatsApp has emerged as the go-to messaging app for over 1.6 billion users around the world. Users find it simple, fast, reliable and convenient. Users can securely share texts, photos, videos, documents in private or in groups. For chatbots, a platform like WhatsApp makes a huge difference because most of the users will already have WhatsApp installed on their devices and they prefer it the most to communicate with friends and family. For interacting with their favourite brands, they do not need to switch to a different interface like a website or a new mobile app. Moreover, given the heavy usage of WhatsApp on a daily basis, it’s more likely that the user will open and read the notification messages sent over WhatsApp.
On WhatsApp, your business account is tied to one registered phone number with which you first create a profile of your company or business. This allows whatsapp users to know whom they are messaging to and are receiving messages from. You can then include this number in your marketing programs to get more customers to connect with you.
For small businesses where owners themselves (or with the help of a small team) resolve a small number of customer queries manually, they can install WhatsApp Business app, set it up with a number and can get going almost instantly. For medium to large-sized businesses where customer messaging has to be automated at scale, they require more than just an app. These businesses need to integrate with WhatsApp business APIs to receive, respond and push automated messages via chatbots over WhatsApp.
WhatsApp’s Business APIs are not open to the public in general but only to a bunch of carefully selected companies globally who are known as WhatsApp API providers. And unless you’re a large multinational firm or an enterprise scale company, it’s very difficult to get direct access. Some examples of WhatsApp API providers are companies like GupShup, Twilio etc and for you to get access you will need to work through these providers.
So what are steps involved for launching your whatsapp chatbot?
1. Pick one of the API providers first
2. Develop and test your whatsapp chatbot in a sandbox environment provided by your API provider.
3. Submit details of your company (phone number, email, company details, usecase, Facebook Business Manager ID etc) to the API provider for their approval.
4. Once approved, you are ready for production deployment and your chatbot will be able to receive user messages sent to your WhatsApp business number, respond to these messages as per the chatbot design and also notify your customer with push notification messages.
5. Once deployed, API providers will charge you on a per-message basis which typically varies from one provider to the other. Note that this is the base charge for API calls only and on top of it, you will incur the cost of development of the chatbot and that of keeping it running.
WhatsApp was built for messaging and WhatsApp wants to keep it that way. They do not want businesses to exploit this channel for marketing and annoy the users. Hence the API integration is quite tightly controlled and usage have multiple friction points that you should be aware of.
1. Approval process is tightly controlled and is rigorous: WhatsApp and its API providers are very cautious in approving business API integration. Before approving, they will review the phone number, authenticity of your business, use-cases your business is going to address via the chatbot and only upon sufficient validation will they approve usage of the APIs.
2. Enforces strict guidelines for automated messages: To prevent businesses from spamming user’s WhatsApp by automated marketing messages or ads, WhatsApp enforces some guidelines for automated messaging very strictly. These are called opt-in messages and template messages.
2.a. An opt-in is when your customers agree to receive messages over WhatsApp from your business by providing you with their mobile phone number through a different channel such as your website for example. It is your responsibility to store customer opt-ins and to ensure each customer that you choose to contact through WhatsApp Business has agreed to receive messages in the first place.
2.b. Template messages are messages of a specific format that your business can send to users proactively and not as a reply to the user’s message. Any message that your chatbot is sending proactively after 24 hours since the user’s last message is qualified as a template message. Template messages use placeholder values that can be replaced with dynamic content. The template message needs to be approved by WhatsApp before you start sending them. Any proactive message whose format is not approved as a template message by WhatsApp will be rejected.
3. Limited UI design elements in chatbots: WhatsApp has limited UI design elements for showing messages and accepting user inputs in the chatbot conversations. Unlike other platforms such as Facebook Messenger, it does not support rich UI elements like cards, carousels, buttons, etc. Only texts, links, images, videos, and documents are supported. This will limit your chatbot experience significantly especially if you compare facebook messenger or webchat.
Despite the above limitations, your chatbot on WhatsApp can solve use-cases that are impactful enough for your business and your customers. The most vital being Customer Service Automation. With the help of AI chatbot you can answer FAQs instantly, provide information on order tracking & ongoing promotions, guide users to the nearest stores and also accept customer service requests automatically. Taking a step further, your whatsapp chatbot can switch to live chat with your human agents only when necessary allowing them to handle 3X-4X more cases than they would normally do via phone or over instant chat service. WhatsApp chatbots can also help users discover the right products and cross-sell or up-sell based on AI.
(Attributed to my colleague Bhushan V)