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Building a Better Chatbot — A Play in Three Acts.

Building a Better Chatbot — A Play in Three Acts.

As the inbound marketing tools to build chatbots become more accessible to large and small business owners, it’s more important than ever to remember the rules of good storytelling. Doing so can make the difference between a ‘bot that engages site visitors and one that drives them away.


Those of us of a certain age will remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books of the 1980s. These books broke from the centuries-long tradition of linear storytelling with its pre-planned beginning, middle and ending stages. These books gently compelled readers to follow a certain number of pages, leading them on with an intriguing opening. Then, suddenly, readers could pick from a series of choices, effectively becoming participants as their decisions drastically altered the outcome of the story with each new reading. The formula proved a winner — the books sold in the tens of millions throughout the decade.

The Choose Your Own Adventure books didn’t depart from tradition in one important aspect: they continued to follow a classic three-act structure with an introductory plot setup and rising action, followed by a climactic conclusion. Sure, the reader choices created new outcomes, loopbacks to previous pages and go-nowhere cul-de-sacs, but all such events occurred within a classic literary framework that William Shakespeare would’ve recognized. The planners for these books knew that offering story choices, in themselves, wouldn’t attract readers and keep them coming back for more; the choices needed to build forward momentum, leading toward a definite end goal.

So it remains with today’s chatbots. It’s not enough to present a site visitor with a series of choices; a well-constructed chatbot must invite its users along on a narrative with a defined objective. For the site visitor, this means answers to their questions. For the site owner, it means building relationships with potential customers. Each side can benefit from the judicious, skillful combination of new technologies and classic storytelling techniques.

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In your chatbot’s opening act, your user must be asked if they have a question. This sets the stage for the rising action, in which they are asked for items like their name and customer status — either new or returning (although this is often determined automatically by checking the customer name against a database). Finally, your user is presented with a climax in which they may ask their question before sliding down the denouement in which they provide their contact information — a climax for the site owner — and are handed off to an agent.

In this way, we can see how a chatbot creates a closed architecture for its user. They can make choices, but only within constraints determined by the chatbot builder. After all, if a user has a question about their phone service which requires them to give their name, it makes little sense to let them leap backward to enter it a second time. Instead, the user follows a critical path throughout the chatbot that ultimately leads to the answer they’re seeking. Sure, they’re presented with alternatives along the way, but always with the intent of answering their questions in as thorough a manner as possible.

As you design and build your chatbots, keep the classic rules of storytelling in mind. Plan each engagement as a conversation that could potentially build into a relationship — a relationship between a healthy business and a satisfied customer.


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