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Harnessing the Power of Chatbot Social Conversations

Artificial intelligence (AI) is here to stay, with chatbots as a particularly ubiquitous form of it. Chatbots are automated virtual assistants that can be programmed to interact with humans in various settings, and even show empathy and respond to human need. In the past, chatbot functions were largely utilitarian. More recent chatbot design incorporates an enhanced customer experience, including more social conversation.

Given the increasing use of chatbots for public interaction, University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications Public Relations Professor Linjuan Rita Men and colleagues wanted to explore how well chatbots can be used for public relations purposes. Specifically, their study examines how social presence and conversational human voice can affect public perception of the organization using the chatbots.

The researchers surveyed nearly 800 adult Facebook users in the United States, who had a 5-minute conversation with a chatbot representing one of five pre-selected companies (Domino’s Pizza, Jobbot, Toni, Eddy Travels, and Swelly) on Facebook. Respondents were directed to type 10 scripted questions in sequence and then read and consider the chatbot’s response to each question.

Respondents were asked to rate both their perception of the chatbots’ social presence and use of conversational human voice. They were also asked to rate the chatbot’s listening capacity, perceived organizational listening, organizational transparency, and their own relationship with the company that the chatbot represented.

Results show that both prior relationships and knowledge of the company had an effect on the outcomes. Chatbot social conversation, including overall social presence and conversational human voice, largely enhanced public perceptions of the chatbot’s perceived ability to listen. That perception positively impacted public perception of and relationship with the chatbots’ respective organizations as well.

This study extends public relations research by focusing on an AI-enabled platform and shows that, when demonstrating social presence and conversational human voice, chatbots effectively create positive public perceptions and foster quality relationships between the consumer and the chatbot’s respective organization.

By highlighting the connection between listening and organizational transparency, this study shows that organizational transparency is seen by the public as a mutual, give-and-take process. Listening, or the perception of listening, is a key component of creating a positive human/chatbot interaction.

Chatbots can be leveraged to promote social good and wellbeing, with the potential to transform the communication landscape and reshape public relations practice. Going forward, organizations should equip chatbots with emotional intelligence and a conversational communication style. Public relations managers should be consulted in programming chatbot messages (determine use of humor, emojis, greetings by name, etc.).

Future research should include incorporating more of a social presences and conversational human voice in chatbot messages by testing more social cues, as well as conducting in-depth interviews or focus groups to understand the user experience with chatbots more fully. Future research should also include additional corporate communication factors, such as how the chatbot is aligned with corporate identity, character, and image.

The original research paper, “Harnessing the power of chatbot social conversation for organizational listening: The impact on perceived transparency and organization-public relationshipsappeared in Journal of Public Relations Research, June 15, 2022.

 Authors: Linjuan Rita Men, Alvin Zhou, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and Wan-Hsiu Sunny Tsai, University of Miami

This summary was written by Marie Morganelli, Ph.D.

Posted: August 8, 2022
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