As the first cinema operator in Europe, Odeon has launched a chatbot for Facebook Messenger (FBM), designed by entertainment marketing tech company Gruvi. The platform allows you to navigate cinemas, films and showtimes, as well as click-through booking of tickets. This marks an important step in cinemas embracing social media and particularly messaging for creating frictionless transactions, though it is still not without its limitations.
Chatbots (or just ‘bots’) are way of communication on the Messenger platform, where conversations normally take place between you and your human Facebook friends. It allows for various levels of interactivity, though normally these bots are designed to enable you to navigate through pre-formatted and selected messages, rather than offering true interactivity. Think of it as the FBM version of “Press 1 for Billing; 2 for Promotional Offers…” only with less frustration.
One example of a FBM bot is the New York Times which launched an election bot that covered the last 19 days of the US presidential election. This combined automated updates by NYT journalist Nicholas Confessore that you could navigate, typically by pressing “Tell me more” in the conversation field options. Facebook claimed there were over 11,000 bots on Messenger by the middle of this year, from the likes of Burger King, 1-800-FLOWERS, Wall Street Journal, KLM Airlines and Zork. Most of these are geared towards consumption, whether of goods, service or information.
Odeon’s bot taps into the 562,000 people who have ‘Liked’ the Odeon Facebook page. While it can be used on a regular computer, the FBM platform is primarily intended as a smartphone platform. Going to the Odeon Facebook page gives you the option to ‘Message’ Odeon, which launched the bot as soon as you start interacting with it.
You can also have the bot identify your location by enabling it to use the location functionality of your phone, which is handiest for searching for cinemas and films near you. It will then tell you the films playing in your local area.
Selecting your film, you will then get the option of which cinemas nearby you would like to see it at, before being asked when you want to see it (‘This Afternoon’ or ‘Tomorrow’) and finally offered the showtimes. Clicking on the selected time will then take you through to the Facebook booking app for Odeon for you to buy the ticket.
The app runs well and the functionality is good, though it is not necessarily an improvement on booking through Odeon’s app or via the smartphone-optimised website. So why do it? Mainly to meet the audience on the platform of their choice. WhatsApp might be bigger, but Facebook Messenger is easier to integrate with the cinema operator owns Facebook infrastructure. It also allows for collecting more detailed customer data for the future.
Peter Waugh, Head of Digital & CRM at ODEON Cinemas, acknowledges as much in the Gruvi press release about the launch:
We’re always looking for new ways to give our guests a better service – and the ChatBot will help us to answer a wide variety of questions and give a lot of information, while also allowing our guest service teams to concentrate on providing more bespoke assistance to other guests.
The inspiration and benchmark is clearly China’s WeChat and QQ messaging platforms, which are the primary means for Chinese consumers to find films, select seats, pay for tickets and even book a ride to the cinema – all without ever leaving the messenger platform.
There are a few shortcomings of the Odeon FBM bot platform, such as movie artwork being optimised for portraits, whereas the landscape format the bot uses to display the posters means that the actors heads often get shopped off (see ‘Doctor Strange’ below).
You can also not have a true interaction or chat with the bot if you go outside the pre-selected replies of location/cinema/film/time. I tried to ask the bot what Tom Cruise film was playing in Glasgow, which stumped it.
Three-and-a-half hours later a real person (Jess) got back to me to tell me that “Jack Reacher” was sadly no longer playing in the Glasgow area. While it is good to have a human response, it is worth remembering that customer service teams have already been manning, monitoring and responding to Twitter queries for several years now, such as the Vue Help Twitter feed or even Odeon’s own Twitter help feed.
You could argue that it is asking too much for Gruvi to engineer a full-blown Watson-like artificial intelligence (AI) functionality for the Odeon bot – not least as it is probably cheaper to have a few people handling the various social media feeds for interaction. But the customer expectations are not just the prior limited cinema possibilities, over which these are an improvement, but increasingly also their AI interactions with Google, Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, compared to which it falls short.
The Odeon Facebook Messenger bot is a very good start, but it is not yet ‘Mission Accomplished’, which Odeon’s Waugh acknowledges: “We know that our guests’ needs will continue to evolve in future, so we will keep developing this service with Gruvi to add other features including film trailers – and of course will keep listening to our guests to understand what else we can provide.” So stay tuned.
Odeon/Gruvi are also not the first to have launched a bot specifically for cinema (“First in Europe”, as they correctly point out). Fandango launched one in the United States in April of this year, which is positioned as a “virtual concierge for moviegoers,” targeting Fandango’s two million Facebook followers.
Apart from offering tickets for multiple cinema operators, it does other things that the Odeon bot does not (yet) do, such as provide reviews and trailers for the films listed.
However, the Fandango bot does not appear to have a human to step in when the chat becomes more than the computer can handle.
Asked what Tom Cruise film is showing in Boston the Fandango bot retorted by offering me up showtimes for “I Am not Your Negro”. Perhaps this was the bot’s way of telling me that it might be my concierge, but it is not my servant or slave.