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How COVID-19 helped MSF enter the world of chatbots

Published by Cat O Broin on

Nick Scott, Head of Digital at MSF Spain, writes about how the organisation had great success with the implementation of chatbots as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world. Along with Toni Matas, director at Persualia, Nick spoke about their experience at #FRO2021 from The Resource Alliance.

Hand holding a mobile cell phone displaying an image of a chatbot conversation

In March last year, our world changed from one day to the next. At MSF Spain, we knew that the lives of our confined audiences had changed hugely. Their days lived online. Work online. School online. Even parties online.

It was a chance for us to try a new marketing strategy: inbound marketing.

COVID-19 would require us to launch digital-only marketing campaigns. Most of these would be campaigns based on interruption through ads, in which communication with a potential donor was quick, and the response we sought – a donation – was immediate. And we knew they’d work, because emergency campaigns do work well on digital. There’s urgency, the issue is well known, and the need is clear.

But there was also an opportunity to try something different. For the first time ever, the thing that most interests MSF – medical-humanitarian action – was also the thing that interested a majority of people in Spain. These were people who were living through a medical-humanitarian emergency in their own country, and these shared interests are the core of strong communication.

Four days after the first lockdown was implemented, we received something unexpected by email. It was an internal document, containing a series of tips to help staff manage their emotional and mental health in the face of the pandemic.

With the arrival of this document, we saw a unique opportunity. We already knew that mental health was a key theme for our audiences. A series of videos we’d released offering advice on mental health in a pandemic was getting reach we rarely saw with our content, being seen by hundreds of thousands of people. We saw the opportunity to create a campaign that doesn’t ask for something but rather offers  it. A campaign that doesn’t chase, but attracts.

A chance to try a new tool: chatbots

We also had a chance to test a new type of channel that we knew had the capacity to be highly engaging: chatbots. We were already in negotiations with an agency that specialised in the area of chatbots and conversational marketing and had been convinced of their potential. Why chatbots?

  • They’re very flexible. You can use them to adapt to the needs and responses of each user with different journeys, and work with different objectives with each chatbot (awareness, engagement, conversion, etc.)
  • Users understand the chat format. Chatbots feel similar to widely used tools like WhatsApp and, unlike with landing pages, users only have to process one piece of information at a time when engaging with them
  • They’re highly optimisable. Every click is a data point. It is easy to understand where people are being engaged and where they aren’t so that you can quickly and easily adapt and change every piece of text and every point of interaction
  • They can contain many forms of media and content. Users don’t need to leave the chatbot to experience everything from text and video to games, data capture, and more
Introducing our chatbot for mental health in lockdown

We launched our chatbot at the beginning of April in 2020. The “bot” was actually one of our team members: Maria Cecilia from our psychological support unit – we even included her picture to reassure users and make the experience feel personal. The content she delivered was based on MSF’s internal mental health support document, but rewritten as a series of stories in the punchy conversational text style of chatbots. It offered advice on eight potential forms of emotional stress, with lots of illustrations to break up the text and bring it to life.

Additionally, we created a downloadable lockdown kit that offered advice and guidance based on the tips contained within the chatbot experience, along with other resources. Users who give their contact details to download the kit are registered for a follow-up email journey, which is the inbound marketing part of the equation. Those who gave their details were also given an overview of MSF’s operations and the chance to make a direct difference by donating to support the fight against COVID-19.

We added the newly-created chatbot to our coronavirus web pages. Due to their high ranking in Google for the search terms “epidemic” and “coronavirus”, these pages were receiving thousands of unique visitors every day, ensuring strong initial engagement with the chatbot. We also posted about the bot on our social media channels, knowing we could expect huge reach on any content relating to mental health and COVID-19.

In addition to email marketing, we also developed Facebook ads to promote the chatbot and reach an audience beyond our most traditional supporter base. Within the first three weeks, we achieved very promising results:

  • Over 100,000 arrived at the point of first interaction
  • 71,000 saw one of the emotional tips
  • 7,700 leads (2,000 outside Spain)
  • 78 donors (€3,350 donated)
  • 33 regular donors

One of the bot’s greatest successes was WhatsApp, where it was shared tens of thousands of times. On one occasion, a message sent by me and another member of my team to school parents groups on WhatsApp went around the world; thousands of people from Guatemala and Mexico were reached by forwarded messages. Months later, we heard from our psychological support team that we’d had patients from a centre in Guatemala congratulate our doctors on the chatbot!

The chatbot has since been adapted into different languages and contexts. But, as lockdown has become less strict and the audience using the original bot in Spanish has dropped, the cost of ads has continued to rise. So, we have continued to optimise and now need to revisit our strategy to plan how we will use the bot in an always-on way, in a time when COVID-19 will not be such a factor.

A first (of many) forays into the world of chatbots

In our digital response to COVID-19, we didn’t stop at just one chatbot. Across 2020, we went a little chatbot-crazy, releasing multiple bots to meet a variety of different objectives: peer-to-peer fundraising, engagement, recruitment, regular donor acquisition, and more. During our talk at #FRO2021, we talked delegates through the seven superpowers of chatbots and how MSF Spain employed each one to test this latest tool in our arsenal.

During the pandemic, nonprofits and charitable organisations around the world have made huge changes to how they raise funds and engage with donors. Read how UNICEF stepped up its donor retention efforts as the coronavirus took hold.


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