American Eagle Outfitters and Aerie Give Customers the Gift of Chatbots This Holiday Season

Authenticity is an integral part of American Eagle Outfitters’ (AEO’s) marketing strategy. The clothing retailer’s intimate apparel brand Aerie made headlines back in 2014 for featuring un-retouched photos of women of all sizes in its “Aerie Real” campaign—a positive body image initiative Aerie still champions today.

But authenticity has to extend beyond campaign creative; it has to be a part of brands’ DNA and be exemplified through the ways in which they interact with their customers. This holiday season AEO is testing new ways to authentically communicate with its customers, and engage them via the channels that they frequent, by introducing chatbots.

“We hear back on a regular and continuous basis that the authenticity plays really well,” says Colin Bodell, chief technology officer of AEO. “We use the same language they use, [and] we want to meet them wherever they are. That’s what drove this bot work.”

The beginning of the bots

AEO’s target audience consists of people who are primarily in their late teens to early twenties, and messaging apps have become this youthful demographic’s new watering hole. Consider: 40% of all U.S. teenagers use Kik, the chat network reports, and more than 70% of the messenger’s users are under 25 years old.

So when AEO’s innovation project manager Heather Bell learned about chatbot platform Pandorabots at a conference this summer, the brand decided to give it a shot. After all, Bodell says AEO likes to approach new technology from a standpoint of humility and experimentation—letting customers inform the retailer how and where they like to consume content, versus having the brand determine this for them.

“We believe that we’re not all-knowing,” he says. “We have to have, again, a healthy dose of humility, [and] we have to try different things.”

Soon after, AEO’s creative, marketing, and innovation departments began working with the Pandorabots team to develop two new chatbots for AEO and Aerie, planning to debut them in November.

Two bots; two experiences

The retailer started with the Aerie Bot first and launched it on Kik at the beginning of the month. By engaging with the chatbot, customers can participate in real-time conversations and learn more about Aerie’s products and body image messaging. For instance, customers can choose to learn about bra fit and care tips or opt to see photos and videos shared among the “Aerie Real” campaign community. They can also explore the bot’s bra shop and browse products based on mood, lining and pushup levels, or through a “this or that” layout—one in which users are shown two bras and they can pick which one they prefer. Once they find a bra that they like, they can shop for it via Aerie’s website. In addition to shopping and consuming content, users can share their thoughts about the bot experience with Aerie directly.

Then, on Black Friday, AEO debuted its second chatbot: the AEO Holiday Gift Guide Bot. The chatbot, available on Kik and Facebook Messenger, prompts users to take a short quiz and then presents them with gift options based on their answers. For instance, the chatbot might ask users whether they’re shopping for themselves or for someone else, what’s the recipient’s gender, what kind of present they’re shopping for (e.g. stocking stuffers versus clothes), and what their interests are.

Participants can then shop their results on the AEO website by clicking a “Shop Now” button. Those engaging with the chatbot on desktop will be transported to the AEO website while those engaging with the chatbot via a messenger app can view the AEO website within the app through WebView. Participants can also share their results, shop for other items, or retake the quiz.

Customers can technically send any message to the chatbots; however, Bell says that AEO and Aerie monitor these conversations to ensure that the bots respond appropriately and that customers understand the bots’ intended use. For example, a customer who sends a message saying “I’d like to shop for bras,” may be directed to the bra shop, she says; however, a customer who sends a random note might receive a message saying “I didn’t understand that, but tap ‘Home’ to see what we can do.”

AEO wanted to have separate chatbot experiences for each brand, Bodell says, because not every customer shops both brands or would find information from both retailers relevant. “We wanted to make things as easy as we possibly could,” he says.

And while launching a new project in the thick of the holiday season may seem overly ambitious for some marketers, Bodell says that it was the best time for AEO to introduce these bots because people were already in the gift-giving mindset and the retailers could monitor performance. Indeed, Bodell says AEO and Aerie can track users’ engagement with the chatbots, as well as their conversion rates. And because participants can say whatever they want to the chatbots, AEO and Aerie have been able to collect qualitative insights that shed light on how they can make the chatbot experiences better, Bell says.

“We’ve gotten freeform feedback, which is just really, really valuable,” she notes.

The successes and the future

Bell admits that discoverability in the bot world is “pretty poor right now.” So in addition to promoting the bots through the Kik bot shop, AEO and Aerie have been promoting them through Facebook ads, contests, and email marketing. There’s even a remarketing element to the chatbots. Once a customer starts chatting with a bot, Bell explains, AEO and Aerie can send that customer a broadcast message. They can even segment users for more targeted communications, she notes; although, the brand has yet to do this. For instance, if Aerie discovers that a certain customer has an interest in new bra releases through a chatbot conversation, she says, Aerie can send them this kind of relevant content.

To measure the success of the chatbots, AEO and Aerie have been benchmarking their performance against social metrics. “The premise is that people are on these messenger apps more than they are on social networks,” Bell explains. Since launching the chatbots, the brands have acquired “a lot more” users via the chatbots than they have via social, she says.

“Within weeks, our chatbots have acquired more than double the average number of users we add monthly across all social channels combined,” Bodell stated in a press release. “We’re thrilled to see the high rate of adoption of our chatbots and the benefits they are bringing to our customers.”

In addition, Bell says that the brands have exchanged “millions of messages with hundreds of thousands of users.”

Given its specific use case, the AEO Holiday Gift Guide Bot will be taken down after Christmas; however, the Aerie Bot will remain past the holidays. Nevertheless, it seems like both projects provided key brand insights—mainly the importance of experimentation and data.

“I’m a big fan of releasing early, releasing often, getting that feedback, and then tuning rather than getting months and months of analysis, huge engineering projects, and then putting things out,” Bodell says, “because then, invariably, you wind up building things that [don’t] have the flexibility built in [them] to listen to what your customers have to say. I want to remain, always, very flexible and very thoughtful about the feedback and the responses that we’re getting from our customers, so that we can adopt and meet their needs and their wants.”

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