“Alexa, where’s the coffee?”

This was the most commonly asked question at Marketo’s recent Marketing Nation Summit in San Francisco. And it’s a legitimate one. Coffee is important—especially at a conference.

Marketo recognised this and teamed up with Amazon and event agency, Freeman, to customise Alexa’s conversational applications for its annual event, which usually attracts more than 6,000 marketers and business professionals.

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David Haas, technology solutions director at FreemanXP, says his team worked closely with Marketo to better understand delegate needs and uncover what they were most interested in learning on-site.

“We had the challenge of building voice-powered skills [into Alexa], but simultaneously needed to make it fun and engaging,” he says. “We worked with Marketo to understand the ‘voice’, how to word responses, and how ‘fun’ each response could be.”

Essentially, a chatbot offers a way to automatically communicate with people in a personal, contextual way using artificial intelligence. They can run the gamut of relatively simple message-based platforms, to extremely sophisticated voice-powered machines. And the smartest chatbots incorporate machine learning—i.e. the ability to acquire knowledge and information beyond that which is programmed by developers.

For events, chatbots can provide a personalised concierge service for attendees, offer data-driven insight for planners, and even provide a cost-effective engagement platform for sponsors. 

Alexa in action at Marketing Nation Summit


According to Olivia Kosasih, senior digital strategy manager at Epicentro, there’s a real opportunity for event planners to harness chatbots for greater attendee engagement.

“The advantage of chatbots in this respect is their speed, accuracy and consistency,” she says.

“When used to respond to first-level queries such as event information, ticket purchases and the weather forecast, a chatbot is available around-the-clock, won’t make errors, can handle multiple conversations simultaneously, and won’t put the delegate on hold to search for information.”

At Marketing Nation Summit, 15 Amazon Echo devices were set up throughout the venue to act as intelligent information stations. To help things run smoothly, brand ambassadors were on hand to encourage attendees to interact with Alexa, and a list of sample questions was also posted next to each station—to help break the ice.

Alexa received more than 500 requests across the three-day event, which organisers hailed a success, but this needs to be put into context. More than 6,000 marketers attended summit, which means, only one in 12 engaged with Alexa.

“The greatest hurdle right now is not technical but human,” says Kosasih. “Many delegates still hesitate to rely on a chatbot to give them the information and help they need.

Include sample questions to encourage interaction


“A chatbot designed to handle first-level queries won’t necessarily have the capacity to tackle more complex things that require human warmth and empathy—like a delegate who wants to speak to the organiser about a rude staff member. For issues like that, it’s still necessary to have a second-level support team ready to deliver solutions on and offsite.”

Payal Chakraborty, co-founder of Bangalore-based chatbot developer Kontiki Labs, says a further challenge, especially in Asia, is language.

“Language, dialect and accents remain an issue for voice-activated chatbots,” she says. “The likes of Facebook and Amazon are currently pouring billions of dollars into R&D to try and overcome the language barrier.”

For the time being, message-based chatbots can fill the gap. Not only can they overcome (spoken) language barriers, but they’re also decidedly cheaper.

Chakraborty and her team recently developed Spikey, a chatbot housed on the Facebook Messenger mobile app, for this year’s Spikes Festival of Creativity in Singapore.

The advantage of mobile apps, says Chakraborty, is most users are already familiar with the chat interface.

“To create Spikey, we embedded our own AI-driven content management system into Facebook Messenger—an app most people already have downloaded on their phone and are comfortable with—so the user experience was simple.

“We then trained Spikey to respond to event-specific questions, but in a very conversational way. We also trained against abusive content. A bot needs to have self-respect.”

Popular mobile apps can be used to develop chatbots


Like Facebook Messenger, live messaging apps like Whatsapp, WeChat and Skype can be used to develop chatbots on a budget—and for attendees, avoid the hassle of downloading a separate ‘event app’ onto their device.

Chakraborty adds: “Tapping into Facebook also offers great insight into user behaviour, which helps us better understand our customers.”

Future predictions

Looking ahead, FreemanXP’s Haas says chatbots have huge potential to further impact the events industry.

“Both voice and text-powered bots will offer event attendees greater convenience (ask a question, get an answer), reduce waiting time (service and registration lines) and introduce new types of interactions that don’t exist onsite today. It’s a big step forward.”

Kosasih goes one step further to suggest chatbots could also assist with sourcing content for a conference programme.

“This hasn’t been attempted yet, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. One potential use could be the chatbot delivery of a pre-event survey to collect insights from a handful of audience members. This data could then be used for content planning,” she says.

“Also, if the trend of fielding chatbots at the first level of delegate support continues, it could result in a ‘leaner’ delegate support team overall.”