Monthly Archives: June 2018

Are Facebook Messenger Bots the Next Big Marketing Channel?

Does your online business need a bot? The first image that comes into my head is a robot that will make me coffee, bring me lunch, and clean my house when I’m too busy working. But, no, in this case we’re not talking about Rosie the Robot Maid from The Jetsons cartoon.

We’re talking about Facebook Messenger Bots. In a recent report by Facebook IQ titled “Why Messaging Businesses is the New Normal,” statistics show that people and businesses exchange 8 billion messages each month, a growth of 4X, year over year. The report also states, “While convenience and reliability are both important elements of a positive experience, response time may be the key that unlocks meaningful connections.”

When surveying people across 4 markets, Facebook found that 70% in Brazil, 66% in India, 54% in the UK, and 61% in the US expected a faster response when messaging businesses than if they had used another more traditional communication channel.

The report goes on to say, “The expectation of an immediate response may even help explain people’s rising in interest in bots: US conversation on Facebook around chatbots grew 5.6x in a year.”

So, given these statistics, bots could provide real benefits to your business and your clients:

Virtual Assistants and online business owners often serve an international audience. This means living in different time zones where we might be sleeping when a message comes in. If faster responses are expected, the 24/7 availability of a bot could help maintain a vital connection with your audience when it’s physically impossible to answer.

We might be busy working when messages come in. To manage time effectively, we usually recommend batching email and other messages instead of answering them as soon as they arrive. In this case, setting up a bot to take care of some of your immediate messaging needs can keep your audience engaged throughout the day.

Bots can be used to reach out to your audience. In addition to answering support questions, Facebook Messenger bots can market your business or your clients’ businesses through content marketing or sales funnels. We’ll talk more about that below.

Understanding What a Bot Is

Rob Mathison provides a good definition of a bot in his article, “Facebook Messenger Bots for Business: A Guide for Marketers.” He says,

“A messenger bot is a piece of software that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to automate tasks and converse with you. The more you chat with a bot, the more it will learn and the more useful [its] responses should get.”

He further explains that “Bots use AI technology to understand your question, find the right response, and deliver it in as conversational and ‘human’ a way as possible.”

Essentially, if you have a Facebook business page, you can set up a bot to send and receive messages on your client’s or your behalf, either through the Facebook Messenger platform, or with third party software. As in all cases when it comes to marketing, a bot is best used where it will add value to your target audience, and you should be prepared to step in and provide a live human touch when needed.

How Bots Can Effectively Target Your Audience on Facebook

In your business or your clients’ businesses, think about how people connect with your brand. Do they message the Facebook business page frequently? Do they often ask duplicate questions? Do they want a rapid response? Or do they infrequently message, and you’d like to increase their engagement through Facebook Messenger?

With those questions in mind, here are some examples of how bots can effectively target and engage with your audience on Facebook.

Customer Support

If you’ve been working in an online business for a while, you may find that you’re receiving the same types of messages with the same types of questions. When providing email support, you may create a series of canned responses to save you time, or a FAQ page to help people find answers quickly on their own. In Facebook Messenger, a bot can be programmed to automatically answer common questions in a friendly, personable way.

Alexandra Hayes has some great advice in her article “3 Uses of Facebook Messenger Bots to Improve Your Business.” She recommends using Facebook Messenger chatbots to provide automated customer service that’s available instantly 24/7:

“Generally, people ask the same questions again and again. Using a chatbot, you can write down all of the most frequently asked questions and program a personalized response for each. This way, every time customers ask a question that has been already asked, you won’t have to waste any more time or effort.”

She warns, however, that you should let people know they’re talking to a bot and offer them the opportunity to contact a real customer service representative. And she says, “You should create a customer service bot only if you believe it’s truly necessary.”

Content Marketing

According to Alfred Lua in his article, “7 Facebook Messenger Marketing Strategies You Can Try Today,” HubSpot decided to find out whether Facebook Messenger might be a better way than email to deliver content to readers. For four weeks, they tested giving people the option of receiving content through Facebook Messenger rather than filling out a form to receive it by email. Lua says that at the end of the test period, HubSpot discovered that using Messenger to deliver content resulted in a 242% higher open rate and a remarkable 619% higher click rate.

Although email is still a strong marketing channel, it makes sense that Facebook Messenger would be an effective way to deliver content. After all, how many times have you sat with your smartphone and chatted with people on your messaging app, or clicked on a video or article to pass the time. It’s a handy way to digest content during your coffee break or while you’re waiting for an appointment. And even better if you can enjoy the personality of the bot who’s delivering the content.

To provide value and encourage increased engagement from your audience, John Hall gives the following advice in his article, “How Chatbots Are Influencing the Future of Content Marketing”:

“You shouldn’t view bots as robot servants, blindly delivering content to users. Instead, treat chatbots as extensions of your brand — because a customer who has an experience with a bot, positive or negative, will remember that as an experience with the company. If your bot does what it’s designed to, then you’re better poised to stay top of mind with your audience and engage them with content over time.”

Options for Creating Facebook Messenger Bots

Although it’s possible to create a bot within the Facebook Messenger platform itself, a simpler way is to use free or paid software like the ones below:

ManyChat – https://manychat.com/

This tool has a visual builder that lets you drag and drop elements to set up your Facebook Messenger bot quickly and easily. You can set up an automated sequences that will be sent based on time delays or user actions.

Screenshot via ManyChat.com

And an important feature is the ability to be notified when you need to step in and answer a question yourself through live chat.

Screenshot via ManyChat.com

Chatfuel – https://chatfuel.com/

In the article above, Alfred Lua recommends Chatfuel as a great free option for creating a Facebook Messenger Bot.

Screenshot via Chatfuel.com

The Chatfuel site shows an illustration of how you can easily set up conversational rules to train your bot to recognize phrases and respond with answers predefined by you.

Screenshot via Chatfuel.com

Hope you enjoyed this overview of the growing popularity of bots and how they can be used to effectively target your audience and engage with them on Facebook. It’s an amazing technology that could end up being the next big marketing channel for virtual professionals.

One example of how realistic bots can be (or maybe how gullible I can be) 🙂 is when I mistook a bot for a human. I was on a website, and a chat box with a friendly-looking avatar popped up and displayed the text, “Hi there! Can I help you with anything?” Because it looked like a real person texting me, I thought it was a live chat.

Indignant that someone was suddenly interrupting me, I rudely clicked the chat box off to silence it. It wasn’t until later that I discovered these types of chat boxes are bots.

My apologies to that poor bot – but a good lesson that it’s important to let your audience know when they’re being messaged by a bot and when it’s a real human like you, your client, or a person on your team.

Now we’d love to hear from you! What do you think of Facebook Messenger bots? Do you use them in your business or your clients’ businesses? And if not, do you see yourself using them in the future? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Budgeting Success Strategies for Your Virtual Assistant Business

Budgeting – one of those things we often learn about when we don’t do it.

It’s not one of the most glamorous parts of running a Freelance or Virtual Assistant business, but it’s certainly one of the most vital.

My first experience with budgeting came during university. I lived on campus and paid for a certain number of food points in advance each year. Every time I went to a cafeteria, the cashier would swipe my food card, and points would be deducted depending on what food items I chose. Many of us didn’t bother to keep track of our food points, and by the end of the year, we realized we should have budgeted better.

Those who ate solely at the residence cafeteria got the most food for their points. Those who bought boxes of cereal and ate breakfast in their rooms had points left over at the end of the year. But those who ventured to the fancier campus eateries and bought nachos used up all their points and had to buy more.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.com

In my early days of self-employment, I approached my freelance business budget the same way… In other words, I didn’t have one. And when income tax time came that year, I’d spent too much and had to borrow money to pay my taxes.

It was a tough lesson to learn, but a good wake-up call. Whether you’ve been a virtual professional for a while or are just starting out, here are some tips and strategies on budgeting for your business:

1. What to Include in Your Budget

As with any budget, you’ll want to include the usual categories of estimated income and expenses. But since virtual work doesn’t always provide a reliable fixed income, it’s important to look at a variety of factors. We’ll break these down in more detail below.

a) Estimated Income

First of all, choose an easy method of listing your clients and how much income is derived from each. An Excel or Google spreadsheet template often works well for this.

Screenshot via Microsoft Excel software

Screenshot via docs.google.com

Categorize your clients based on whether they pay you a monthly retainer, one-time project fees, per-hour fees, etc., and how much you expect to receive from them each month and in total each year. In an article titled  “How to Budget as a Freelancer,” Alicia Adamczyk also recommends familiarizing yourself with when your clients tend to pay, and making note of how often they either miss payments or pay late. This will help you gain a realistic picture so you aren’t caught short at the end of the month.

If you sell products like e-books or online courses, also include how many items you expect to sell each month. Brainstorm all sources of business income, and include as many columns as you’d like so you can note any important information that will help you build your budget.

b) Planned Expenses

If you work from home, a portion of your rent, mortgage, and utilities may be considered business expenses. Consult an accountant or tax expert in your region for more information on how these expenses will be calculated at tax time. But in the meantime, simply record how much you expect to be paying each month throughout the year.

Here are some examples of expenses that typically apply to virtual work:

• Rent/Mortgage
• Property taxes
• Utilities
• Internet
• Telephone
• Insurance
• Office supplies
• Marketing (website, printing, etc.)
• Software subscriptions
• Education (courses, conferences, etc.)
• Any other business-related expenses

You can use a Google Spreadsheet template like the one pictured above, or one like this that’s available through Microsoft Excel software. These templates are often designed with corporate jobs in mind but can be adapted for freelance work.

Screenshot via Microsoft Excel software

c) Unplanned Expenses and Planned Savings

Many times as freelancers or virtual assistants, we encounter unexpected expenses. Your computer may suddenly break down, you may require new office furniture, or rent and insurance costs may skyrocket.

It’s a good idea to have a bit of a nest egg set aside for these types of expenses, as well as enough to pay your taxes next year. Consult an accountant or tax expert if you have any questions about how much you should save toward taxes.

In his article “How To Budget Wisely And Save Money As A Freelancer” Abdullahi Muhammed recommends aiming for “50/30/20 proportions,” that is, live on 50% of your income and devote 30% to flexible expenses and 20% to savings.

Depending on what stage of business you’re at, you may want to include how much you’re saving for retirement. You may also have personal expenses and savings, but for the purposes of this blog post, we’re focussing primarily on business expenses and savings.

2. How to Track Your Budget

If you like tech tools, you’ll enjoy this part because there are many cool apps and software that can be used to track your budget. In a previous blog post titled “Five Powerful Tools for Managing Your Business Finances,” we discussed some great software options that include income and expense tracking, as well as many more financial management features. Here are a few other options you might want to try:

Mint – https://www.mint.com/

Screenshot via Mint.com

This free tool helps you create a budget and track your bills. It can also give you tips for saving money and reducing fees, as well as alerts for low funds, unusual spending, and bill payment deadlines. Mint is available for desktop, iOS and Android apps.

You Need a Budget (YNAB) – https://www.youneedabudget.com/

Screenshot via Youneedabudget.com

YNAB provides bank syncing, goals, and debt management so you can see where you’re at and stay on top of your spending. Its graphs and pie charts help you assess your total spending and average spending for certain time periods. You can access this info through your web browser or on the go from any device.

Clarity Money – https://claritymoney.com/

Screenshot via Claritymoney.com

This free mobile app helps you stick to your budget by tracking your spending and showing where you overspend. It also suggests wasteful account subscriptions you might want to cancel and savings you might want to take advantage of.

3. How to evaluate your budget

Depending on how you’ve chosen to record and track your budget, you should have enough information to evaluate your progress periodically. Miriam Caldwell recommends reviewing your budget both monthly and annually in her article “How to Evaluate Your Budget.”

During the monthly evaluation, she suggests adjusting any categories that are consistently under or over budget. Annually she recommends doing a complete assessment of your budget and financial goals.

As a freelancer, your client load may have a significant effect on your income, so it’s important to take note of any clients you’ve gained or lost, as well as any late or missed payments.

Haele Wolfe has some great advice in her article “The Freelancer’s Guide to Personal Finance.” If your client income is falling short of your expenses, she suggests speaking to current clients about the possibility of long-term work so you can build a roster of “anchor clients” that will give you greater stability. She also recommends committing to frugality and making sure you’re putting away extra savings and higher than estimated income in a separate account each month to tide you over if you lose any of your anchor clients.

So, to summarize, here are a few things to consider during your budget evaluation:

• Are you reaching your goals?
• Do any categories need to revised?
• Are you spending too much on your expenses? (If so, how can you streamline them?)
• Is your income as expected? (If not, do you need to do more marketing, find more clients, or speak to current clients about more consistent work?)
• Are you able to contribute to your savings, or did you need to draw on your savings to stay afloat?

Many of the tools discussed above provide summaries that help you with the budget evaluation stage. For example, the You Need a Budget (YNAB) tool features graphs and pie charts that display your progress.

Screenshot via Youneedabudget.com

You can use tools like this to visualize your current situation and decide how to make adjustments and move forward.

So there you have it – some tips, strategies, and tools that make budgeting for your freelance or Virtual Assistant business pain-free and effective. Keeping our finances in check and planning ahead is one way we can reduce stress and enjoy the freedom of our virtual lifestyle.

If you have any budgeting advice that’s worked for you in your online business, please share your thoughts in the comments below.