Research in Progress: Chatbots as an emerging social listening tool for organizations

June 26, 2020

Rita Men, Sunny Tsai Alvin Zhou, and

By Rita Men, University of Florida; Sunny Tsai, University of Miami; and Alvin Zhou, University of Pennsylvania

Social listening is not a new concept to brands and organizations. A quick Google search of social listening yields 496 million results in a split second. Many organizations, such as Southwest Airlines, have established social listening centers to monitor online conversations, listen, and attend to customers and employees’ voices in order to engage in dialogues with publics in the digital space.

Due to the wide reach, synchrony, and interactivity of digital media, social listening has emerged as an effective tool for organizations to glean crucial audience insights and build meaningful connections with stakeholders.

In recent years, the evolvement of new technologies such as big data analytics and artificial intelligence applications have offered organizations and brands unprecedented opportunity for large-scale listening. Especially the use of chatbots (i.e., a conversational system that can automatically generate responses for user requests on social media, can create a smarter environment and an open and interactive system for organizational listening).

The organization’s response via chatbots can be quicker, more precise, coordinated, controlled, and efficient. Considering more and more U.S. internet users are turning to social media for information seeking and interactions with brands, it has become a real burden for organizations to attend and respond to millions of users’ requests and comments. Chatbots, in this sense, can be an effective and cost-efficient tool for engaging users in two-way conversations—24 hours a day, seven days a week. Industry research has also shown that nearly 70% of customers prefer communicating with chatbots as they can offer speedy answers and solutions.

As an advanced form of social technology, chatbots are “social” in nature. AI allows the design of social chatbots to take into account of both intelligent quotient and emotional quotient and optimize the application for long-term use engagement and empathetic communication, where human feelings, intent, and needs can be recognized and responded to. Therefore, social chatbots bears huge potential for organizational listening.

However, current business applications of chatbots are mostly geared toward customer service. While a few pioneering brands are experimenting with using chatbots for social and relational purposes, there’s a lack of general understanding of the public relations implications of chatbots.

For example, can chatbots be designed to develop relationships with the publics on a brand or organization’s behalf? How can PR professionals use chatbots to effectively listen? What differences does it make having a chatbot embedded on the company’s social media page? What are some possible chatbot performance indicators? (i.e., How does one evaluate its effectiveness for PR purposes?) And what design considerations should be taken for chatbots to build relationships with stakeholders?

These questions can hardly be answered through one single study. To provide the much-needed empirical evidence on how effective social chatbots may serve as an organizational listening tool, our Page Center-funded study will represent one of the earliest exploratory efforts that seek to understand:

  1. Whether organizational listening via social chatbots matters for public relations outcomes (e.g., perceived organizational transparency, organization-public relationships).
  2. How can organizations effectively communicate with and listen to publics via social chatbots.

To that end, we will first conduct an online survey with 1,000 social media users who will be instructed to chat with selected brands’ chatbots on Facebook and then evaluate their interaction experience, brand listening ability via chatbots, and overall brand perception. Then, an online experiment will be conducted to explore how the social chatbots should be designed to enhance publics’ positive engagement experience and perception with the brands.

We will focus on design features; for instance, using high vs. low social cues (e.g., informal, expressing emotions, using emojis, funny memes, etc.) and introducing itself with a human name or profile picture in their interactions with users could all potentially affect publics’ evaluation of chatbots’ listening and conversational performance. 

Emerging technologies such as chatbots are novel and powerful tools to be capitalized on for organizational purposes. For communication professionals, this new wave of AI technology represents an enormous opportunity to bring the brands closer to the publics in an efficient and potentially more effective manner. With the premise that chatbots could enhance the organization’s listening capacity, we hope to demonstrate that with strategic design and implementation of listening strategies in chatbot communications, organizations are able to “listen to stakeholders” in a more intelligent, efficient, and precise manner.

What will happen when AI meets corporate communication? We can’t wait to unveil the answer.

For more information about this study, please email Rita Men at, Alvin Zhou at, or Sunny Tsai at Results from the study will be available in 2021. This project is supported by a Page/Johnson Legacy Scholar Grant.