Why You Should Consider Semiotics Before Considering a Chatbot

In simple terms, semiotics refers to the study of signs. Behind every sign there’s a connotation, a signified, deeper meaning which elicits to our feelings and makes us think or feel a certain way. Semiotics is heavily entwined with culture, and how we as humans, perceive signs in accordance with our cultural context.

Semiotics harnesses human logic to infuse culture with meaning and gives brands their value.

Data's always a helping hand for a marketer. According to a study by PCW, aiming to explore the attitudes toward AI in a 2500 person sample group, while 42% of consumers used chatbots, 53% were millennials (PCW). While this indicates that the majority of consumers using chatbots are millennials, it also implies a disparity between the attitudes of older and younger consumers regarding chatbots.

What’s in a name?

By applying a semiotic scope we can understand that the term 'chatbots', remains more popular among younger consumers, while terms such as 'virtual assistant' and 'virtual friend', or giving bots a name like Harry or Sarah – known as ‘anthropomorphisation’ – is more appealing to older demographics like Baby Boomers or Generation X. This can be due to a series of factors, including a more conservative attitude toward newer technologies due to generational or environmental factors (having spent a large proportion of their lives without engaging in artificial interactions). 

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Age and cultural influences

Another thing to consider is the cultural significance of the word or 'signifier' chatbot – and what's signified: a robot or artificial machine capable of performing human-like tasks. So what are we afraid of? Could it be possible that a deep-seeded paranoia exists in generations continually exposed to the "immigrants will take your jobs" rhetoric? I'm not so sure, but a sense of the unknown or even fear definitely exists behind the lessened popularity of robots among older demographics. The New York Times claimed that “Baby Boomers and older Americans – even those who fought for integration – came of age in one of the most homogenous moments in the nation’s history.” This could provide a more simple reason for the cautiousness toward alternative workers – whether human or machine. 

And what about Generation X? According to survey results by SelectHub, a "Technology Selection Management" company based in Colorado, of the 41% of Americans who fear getting replaced by AI or automation, 46% of them were Generation X. This could stem from their position as a 'sandwich generation' – a demographic positioned between Baby Boomers who would retire early if they lost their job and Millennials who may be more open to career change.

In fact, the cynicism related to robot technology has also been amplified by myth, with films and art continually conveying the 'robots overruling humans' narrative. Dystopian films of the 90s and 2000s such as AI, IRobot and the Terminator series have done well to nurture this myth and encourage us to associate any words or phrases within the semantic field of artificial intelligence – and more specifically the 'threat' it connotes. There is clearly something in the term that alarms us on a deeper level and elicits the specific reaction that fear does. In truth, this sensationalism contributes to the cultural myth that AI poses a threat to human endeavour, and therefore helps to foster a heightened resistance toward AI technologies. This is especially impactful for Baby Boomers and Generation X due to the cultural factors discussed above.

Millennials and AI Acceptability

Millennials, on the other hand, have a more positive attitude toward AI and chatbots. With the evolution of the internet, users now have access and more importantly, opportunity to engage with such technologies – this goes a long way in demystifying the cultural frames mentioned previously. Millennials are tech-savvy, more likely to engage with the latest technologies, and are overall more attuned to jargon from technology-orientated semantic fields. The term 'bot' to the younger generation connotes cutting-edge technology, simplification, and efficiency ,while in older consumers the term can conjure notions of complexity, conversational rigidity and unreliability. 

Think about your audience

So before deploying your AI chat technology – or any other new technology for that matter, it is necessary to consider semiotics to ensure a seamless transition for your customers. More specifically, by considering culture it can help your language and design to match both the brand's image and your target market's expectations, which will truly optimise your chatbot's efficacy. You see, one chatbot doesn't fit all, behind every bot development there should be a well-structured team made up of brand managers or semioticians, designers and writers.

Want to learn more about how chatbots can help your business? Get in touch.