Chatbot Tohu helps take NZ education to the world

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Launched in January 2019 on the Study in New Zealand website and in May 2019 on Messenger, FAQ Bot Tohu aims to be a virtual assistant and an asset for the New Zealand international education industry. Tohu has already answered more than 10,000 questions from prospective students around the world interested in studying in New Zealand.

The Study in New Zealand website and Facebook channel are run by Education New Zealand (ENZ),  the government’s market development agency for international education. For the agency and for students interested in studying here the chatbot’s impact is significant, says Jamie Crump, ENZ’s Director Business Planning:

“With a social media team of two, it could take up to 24 hours for someone to get a response to their question. Now they can get an immediate response, and we know that Tohu can answer 80% of the most common questions. So the team can spend time answering the specific questions, and doing more of the strategic things for our Facebook channel rather than answering the same straightforward questions repeatedly.”

Education New Zealand has also noticed a change in levels of engagement when prospective students are interacting with Tohu. Jamie observes:

“We are seeing more in-depth conversations with Tohu than when replies had to be sent by a person on Messenger (with a delay of up to 24 hours). Our primary target audiences – Generation Z and Millennials – expect an immediate response, and with Tohu we can deliver that.”

Choosing a chatbot

Education New Zealand knew that international students needed access to factual, truthful, reliable, authentic information in a timely fashion, and believed a government-backed chatbot could help.

“For our target audience it’s got to be timely and chat is the channel of choice. A chatbot makes so much sense for us.”

ENZ looked at several chatbot vendors, and selected FAQ Bot, a NZ product on a global platform, backed by a team that already had a chatbot track record. 

“With FAQ Bot we got the best of both worlds. A local, supportive team plus all the benefits of a product built on the Microsoft Bot Framework, on Azure – things like stability, security, and the continuous learning and improvement that comes from being part of something much bigger.”

ENZ benefits from better AI every time an improvement is made to one of FAQ Bot’s underlying cognitive services from Microsoft – including machine translation, language understanding and QnA Maker.

It’s also now possible to plug in other translation services. ENZ is currently testing a new Baidu machine translation plugin, to improve machine translation for North Asian character-based languages, particularly Mandarin.

From FAQ Bot to Tohu – crafting an identity and personality

Tohu chatbot

ENZ started their chatbot journey by thinking carefully about the identity and persona of their bot. Chatbots with personality are the ones users want to interact with, and users will still assign a personality to a bot, even if one hasn’t been explicitly designed.

We worked with a range of ENZ stakeholders –marketing and brand specialists as well as the social media team, business planning, international, technology and education sector experts – to develop a prototype for the bot’s identity and personality, and some examples of how the bot might chat.

It quickly became clear that ENZ’s FAQ bot should be from and of New Zealand, aligned with ENZ’s new brand values, and incorporating aspects of Te Ao Māori – the Māori world. Hence the Māori name Tohu and some te reo Māori incorporated into the chat.

The name Tohu means ‘to advise or provide guidance’ and ‘to be a sign or landmark’ while its appearance is a nod to the word Aotearoa – ‘land of the long white cloud’.

Tohu chat intro

This process was the start of a close collaboration that’s delivering great results. Says Jamie:

“It hasn’t felt like an agency client relationship, rather – “ok, we’re a team, we’re working on this together”. I think you guys did a great job of setting the tone for that when we had that first workshop, where we were working on the persona, doing that together.”

Simple, fast and responsive

Tohu was quick to rollout once the groundwork was done, thanks to the simplicity of FAQ Bot. Says Jamie:

“The speed to stand something up has been really great. Ultimately it’s AI so there is some complicated stuff there, but FAQ Bot provides access to that in a relatively straightforward package – it’s not at all complicated to get going and start building conversations.”

ENZ’s clear vision for their chatbot and how it fits into the wider organisational strategy has also been beneficial. Product Owner Shimi Baliti comments:

“Education New Zealand had thought carefully about their objectives in creating a chatbot, and the problems it was designed to solve. We were able to easily see how their vision fit with our product roadmap.”

And in those situations where ENZ hasn’t been able to figure out how to get Tohu to respond in the right way, the FAQ Bot team have been  “very responsive” – from making conversation recommendations to fast-tracking new features. Jamie describes the Theta team as:

“Open, friendly and honest… super willing to get stuck in together and make this the best possible experience.”

Marketing innovation and chatbots

As a market development agency, ENZ promotes New Zealand as a study destination, provides information to prospective students and their families, and leads future thinking and activities for the growth of the international education industry.

The agency is recognised as a leader in marketing innovation with multiple awards (including the 2019 Keith Norris Direct Marketing Organisation of the Year Award) at the NZ Direct Marketing Awards. And Director of Student Acquisition Euan Howden recently won The Global Fearless Marketer Marketo Revvie award.

Jamie Crump sees their FAQ Bot Tohu as part of the agency’s journey with data-driven marketing:

“We’ve been looking at chat for a few years. It gives us the opportunity to engage at scale 24/7, directly with potential students all over the world,  in a channel they prefer to communicate in. We think chatbots could definitely be disruptive in this sector.”

For now, Tohu is focused on students considering New Zealand as a study destination. The next step is to cover the questions that students have while they are studying here, so Tohu can help them out in those critical first few months in New Zealand – as always with an eye on what’s next in terms of technological capability. Longer term, could Tohu evolve beyond its current role as a guide, to be a digital companion for international students?

Find out more about FAQ Bot