Maia Tekle is the Director of Strategy Development at Valassis Digital. In this installation of Design the Future, she talks about some of the biggest challenges she faces when selling clients on chatbot implementation. 

What does the design process look like at Valassis? How long does it take something to grow from an idea to a fully implemented feature?

I would say that the idea process begins in one of two ways. It could launch directly from our innovation team, where we build a chatbot that responds to a certain objective and find an advertiser either to sponsor it or be a part of the idea. More likely, an advertiser will approach us and ask to build a chatbot to reflect their brand or create an experience. So, if it’s a thematic chatbot about summer grilling, then an advertiser would sponsor this chatbot theme by incorporating their products versus having a dedicated chatbot about a ketchup brand.

From there, there’s usually some back and forth among the brand, creative and the sales team around the details of the plan. Once we get all approvals, it takes anywhere from two to four weeks depending on how intricate and complicated the chatbot development is. We then set it live.

We’ve developed our own software and basically, we use a Botsociety demo to show our template and convey how we would set up the chatbot conversation experience. I also use demos on kickoff calls to see elements we can change within the conversation to determine alignment on the goal of the chatbot. Advertisers send us the assets; we set it live.

I hope that one day we start to see a lot of organic traffic. It’s similar to developing a microsite; no one is going to find that on their own unless they’re actively looking for your brand.

We generally tie a chatbot campaign to a media plan, which is dependent on what the objectives are. If this is in conjunction with a print program, we have a scan code. Most of our bots are built on Facebook Messenger, but the way our software works we will have it built and function on other messenger apps. Based on Facebook’s scale and reach, it makes sense to utilize that platform. We package our audiences and send them to the client’s social team so they can still manage their social buys.

Chatbots and conversational interfaces are a very new technology. How do you navigate such a complicated and unestablished space?

It’s hard. I would say as we are testing and learning about chatbot consumer engagement, our team is also testing and learning how we approach the market.

What I’ve found helps a lot is huddling up with the seller that knows their client really well and, depending on their digital savviness, I can either jump right to what chatbots are or start in a rudimentary area where I ask “do you use voice activated programs like Siri or Alexa?” It turns into an AI 101. Having that initial conversation internally to make sure I understand their knowledge has helped immensely. If you start throwing buzzwords at them or language that they’ve never been exposed to, you’ll just get blank stares.

Why do you think using a conversational interface will prove to be helpful?

One of my favorite ways to explain a chatbot is to refer to it as Website 2.0; where there has only been one form of a website that is static and provides one universal experience for each consumer, chatbots puts control in the consumer’s hands.

It’s up to them what to seek, what they want to discover, what information they need, what’s relevant to them, and then that conversation can build a relationship with the brand.

What is something that has surprised you since beginning to work in this space?

*laughing* How few people don’t have Facebook accounts that are in advertising. I’ve been surprised with how expansive the technology can be with a chatbot.

It’s limitless in certain respects and I feel like that is incredible considering this new opportunity that brands have.

I initially believed there were only four functions a chatbot can do and that’s absolutely not the case. That was my misconception. It’s kind of amazing what some chatbot developers have developed.

Is there a certain song or playlist that inspires you when designing and building new chatbots?

Oh yeah! Well, you should know I’m the office DJ unofficially, officially right?

Coworker: Right.

Today we’re listening to a hip-hop jazz mix. It’s called hip-hop jazz on Spotify. We usually leverage Spotify. Shout out to Spotify, you got some good playlists and because I play a wide variety of music my daily mixes are really good.

We also have music like classic rock. I’d say we like reggae on Mondays. That’s a good vibe. We have throwback Thursday kind of stuff. Also, the Ludacris radio station on Spotify is on point. So, whoever built that algorithm, props to you.

Who else is involved with the project? Would you like to thank anyone in particular?

Yes. While my team is small but mighty, I’m just one person…the only lady on our team which is female empowerment. But a special shout-out to my boss Mike. He’s been awesome. An incredible leader but also he creates an opportunity to manage our own roles in business and create those swim lanes for us to go with it. Nutti, my counterpart, is our lead developer. We wouldn’t have a chatbot product without him, honestly. While I am sometimes the sales face of our product, he’s definitely the brains and the hands of the operation. Jim and Dave are also counterparts that are just incredible. They focus on certain verticals because I think that there’s a specialized talent that’s needed for certain ones – like Dave focuses on our auto vertical. And Jim on our health care and home services. So special shout out to all the guys on my team!

What is your approach to convincing a client to introduce a new chatbot to their users?

I like to ask them what they wish their website could do and start from there. Nine times out of ten, they have a specific need.

They want something out of their current website, or they wish that there was a certain type of consumer behavior that happened on their website that can also be executed in a chatbot.

Correct me if this wording is wrong, but as a marketing agency, what objections do you usually hear from clients or users who aren’t familiar with these interfaces?

I usually hear, “I don’t have Facebook” and “Do people actually use it?”

Is there anything else you’d like the world to know about the work you’re doing at Valassis?

When people think about Valassis, don’t just think of us as the coupon company. I want the world to know that we’re doing a lot of really incredible work when it comes to innovation, specifically within the chatbot space.

I’ve been really proud to say that I work on this team and I’ve loved our beta advertisers who have taken the risk with us to try something new. I do think it will help develop relationships with their consumers.

Also published on Medium.


Bianca Nieves

Digital Marketing Manager at Botsociety