The next big communication thing is plain text

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on the Holtz Communications + Technology blog.

The next big organizational communication frontier could be plain text, with an occasional emoji thrown in.

Chatbots—or just bots—are the technology behind these text missives that may—and should—become part of any company’s communication toolkit. I have grown increasingly convinced that bots will become vitally important.

Bots aren’t new. Twitterbots have been around for almost as long as Twitter has. Now, bot developers are employing Artifical Intelligence so the bots can learn as they’re used. (One example, Microsoft’s Tay, learned racism, mysogyny, and anti-Semitism from users who decided it would be fun to prank it, leading Microsoft to shut it down until it can be programmed to ignore certain classes of interactions.) If you’re worried that Cyberdyne will one day use AI to switch on Skynet, fear not. Bots are the short-term future of AI.

We’re already seeing bots employed in some fascinating and useful ways. The Amazon Echo is a perfect example. (I’ve had one since mid-2015.) You ask the Echo a question, and it answers in a pleasant female voice. The Echo doesn’t connect to your computer; just to your WiFi. The question is processed by the chatbot (in the cloud), returning the answer almost instantly. It’s the same bot technology that powers Apple’s Siri, Google Now and Windows Cortana. Microsoft is weaving Cortana into Skype, which will broker conversations with third-party bots. That is, you’ll provide Cortana some verbal input about a company or service, and Cortana will bring that company’s bot into the conversation. Some of that functionality exists now in Facebook’s Messenger, with bots accepting orders for pizza or Uber rides.

The audio applications are cool—I grew up with Captain Kirk and the Enterprise crew talking to the Enterprise computer—but what excites me right now are the plain-text bots. Using off-the-shelf software, you can start delivering information to people who want it and then enable them to tailor the content they see based on their interests.


Credit: Holtz Communication + Technology

I’ve read about this, but didn’t grasp the potential for business communication until I subscribed to Purple.

I learned about Purple from Jeff Jarvis during a recent episode of the podcast This Week in Google. Purple was co-founded by a recent graduate of the entrepreneurial journalism program at CUNY (where Jarvis teaches). Originally a website and email newsletter, Purple pivoted to a messaging service that functions over SMS. Focused on the current U.S. presidential election, once you sign up Purple delivers one update each day. Co-founder Rebecca Harris, an avid political junkie, writes these herself, so they sound human and genuine. Harris even injects the occasional emoji.

Some of the words in each message are all-caps. If you respond to the message with one of those words, you instantly get more information on that topic, including links. For example, Wednesday’s message read, “Happy Hump Day! The candidates have been talking about it a lot and the Obama administration took major action on the issue this week. I’m talking about the American DRUG problem.”

I texted DRUG in response, and got this: “In 2014, more Americans died of drug overdoses than an other year on record (more than 47,000). That’s more than car crashes and gun violence. This is a great explainer on the issue,” followed by a link to a Vox article. Each of these messages has been programmed into the messaging platform Twilio, enabling users to pick and choose the topics about which they want more information and ignore those they don’t.

Harris also sends updates during debates, town halls and other live events. You can follow her live by replying LIVE.

Harris plans to expand beyond politics to sports and other subjects. Once I signed up (simply by entering my mobile number on the Purple website), I was able to get started by texting ELECTION. No doubt getting sports content will be as simple as texting SPORTS. I can envision Purple getting robust enough that one day I may be able to text DODGERS to get a daily briefing from my favorite (and long-suffering) baseball team.

There’s more information about Purple in this Nieman Journalism Lab article.

In a media environment saturated with content, the bot revolution excites me because we are inclined to pay more attention to something we asked for and that notifies us when new content has arrived. Because I have an interest in politics, I find myself anticipating the arrival of my daily Purple message, and view it as soon as I get it.

The corporate communication connection

Most of us check our text messages within a minute or two of receiving them. We know they’re coming from someone we want to hear from. Why would it be any different for messages from companies we choose to connect with, especially if we can specify to a granular level the kind of updates we want?

I remember conducting a focus group a few years ago in which employees working in a production facility on the opposite side of the country from the company’s headquarters explained why they didn’t read news on the intranet: “It’s all about headquarters,” they said. “It has nothing to do with me.” I asked if they would be interested in subscribing to text messages that dealt only with their facility and the products they made there. The response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic.

Fast-forward to the bot revolution we’re seeing today. Imagine an employee sending a message to the company’s internal communications chatbot: CHICAGO. Now the employee will get a daily message updating her on the latest news from the company’s Chicago operation. Some of the words appearing in all caps can be used to reply for more information. (PICNIC, for example, or BENEFITS.) The messages the employee gets are relevant, and she has the option to dig deeper into the ones she cares about.

It would be easy enough to inject messages you want every employee to see as long as you don’t do it too often, reducing the relevance for the employee.

Public relations messaging could be equally compelling. A journalist could subscribe for updates on your company’s activities relevant to his beat, replying for more information on the updates that intrigue him. People interested in your sustainability efforts text SUSTAINABILITY to your company chatbot and get updates that elevate your reputation. If Zappos had a chatbot dedicated to its holacracy experiment, I’d sign up in a New York minute.

All this means for communicators is learning a new content system (programmable SMS) just as we once learned web authoring software, then marketing the bot’s availability to the target market.

Most of the chatbot implementation I see these days have to do with transactions and customer service, but it’s clear we can adapt this technology to serve our PR, marketing, corporate and internal communication strategies. The impact on audiences overwhelmed by content could be massive.

How could you put a chatbot to use?

Learn more about how plain text will affect corporate communication in Shel Holtz’s session, “The next big thing for communicators.”

Register today!

About the Author

Shel holtzShel Holtz, ABC, IABC Fellow, consults on the use of digital and social media for organizational communication. Holtz brings more than 40 years of experience to his assignments and has authored or co-authored six communication books and countless articles. He is a prolific blogger and a pioneer podcaster. Holtz is a Founding Fellow of the Society for New Communication Research (SNCR) and a Platinum Fellow of The Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media.