Physical holiday cards are so 2007. Online holiday experiences are now the preferred ways to show someone you care. With customized, code-driven season’s greetings now commonplace, the question becomes how to best the previous year’s efforts. Cue the servant elves.
Those wishing to do something a little special for friends and family this holiday season can nominate five Twitter followers to receive special treatment from a group of online elves through the Elf Love Project. Conceived by content design and social media studio Socialistic as a "holiday card" for agency Euro RSCG Worldwide, Elf Love is not only an interactive way to share the festive spirit, but it’s also a social media first. It could also represent the future of social media—through coding and a pre-determined narrative, these Twitter robots can learn, demonstrate "personality," and behave independent of their creators.
Here’s how it works: Once a person is nominated for a day of elfin pampering, they will receive a tweet from a greeter announcing the start of a wondrous day of elfy cheer. Then, using the participant’s social media profile, three automated elf bots are programmed to learn about the person’s likes, personality, and behaviors and deliver specific content throughout the day using a combination of the Hunch API and narrative algorithms created by Berlin-based software company Philter Phactory. The charming little elves might send you a YouTube link or recipe of interest, or connect you with someone you might like. They might keep an eye on a celeb’s Foursquare check-ins for you, or send you an originally created jolly jingle or poster. If you’re lucky, they might even make a $250 donation to charity for you, as Euro RSCG has earmarked $10,000 for charity donations through the project. And if being nominated for some virtual VIP treatment is not your bag, just tweet "shoo" and they’ll be gone.
Socialistic creative director Benjamin Abramowitz says the system works with a combination of programming and human input. Human writers working as elves in the Naughty or Nice Department send out initial greetings and guide the narrative and keep the pace and tone on track. Then, the programmed elves go out and find or create content.
"We have three different kinds of elves. They all start with a base persona and then we add on what we’re calling prosthetics," says Abramowitz, describing how distinct personalities are built. "The finder elf goes out and finds you interesting videos, the creative elf will make you posters or a song, and the fanboy elf is the one that will retweet your tweets or try to introduce you to other people that might be interesting."
Colleen DeCourcy, Socialistic CEO and founder, is quick to note, however, that the elves are not simply spammer bots. Far from it. "These elves are not like puppets. The humans don’t say what to do; the elves make decisions on their own," she says. "The humans elves are interacting with them."
While receiving cheery custom content will no doubt bring a smile to friend’s face, the real interest in this technology is outside of the holiday framework. In fact, that this became a holiday project was pure coincidence.
Elf Love, DeCourcy says, is the output of some of Socialistic’s R&D around content design matched with the immediate interest of Euro RSCG (both companies are affiliated with holding company Havas) in creating a clever holiday greeting. It also happened to solve two issues that DeCourcy says are common among clients: how to create sustainable social media and how to be global.
"One of the big problems that our clients have is this idea of brand publishing in an always-on platform because it’s very different than the ad deliverable," she says. Smart bots that create their own content help there. "And the other is globalization: Do you do it in a specific market or internationally? What about different languages?" While not activated for Elf Love, DeCourcy says the technology is equipped for the digital companions to understand and respond in different languages.
Beyond Elf Love, Socialistic plans to release this technology to clients as a white label product for social content design, as the potential applications are many. "For instance, if you’re a sports brand and you’re pushing something out globally but then you’ve got a whole subset of information that happens locally—local players, information about plays, results, cheers, songs—all those companions are capable of finding, learning, and interacting with a fan base in a really amazing way and at a volume that allows you to create critical mass. Even if an organization has a full social media group, they don’t have 400 community managers," DeCourcy says.
Abramowitz also suggests a runner’s companions with a hard-ass coach demeanor as a potential use. "We’ve moved from a shopping bot going out and getting information for you to something that brings its own set of values," he says, adding that companion personalities can be created with functionality that scrapes information from Wikipedia pages.
Elf Love uses available tools, but just makes them work better, says DeCourcy. "The capabilities are pretty core to the net. They exist in the logic of the social web that we’ve collectively built. But instead of the bots from years ago where they’d go out and return suggestions, but they were kind of shit, now we’ve isolated those pieces of code and started to give them nuance. This is a whole new level."