Sensay is a bot, but its job isn’t to automate human labor or hold a conversation. Every month, Sensay brings together hundreds of thousands of people for anonymous live chat, connecting people who can offer advice with people in search of answers.
The bot was launched in 2015 for SMS and in 2016 spread to chat platforms like WeChat and Facebook Messenger and surpassed one million users. To grow in the years ahead, part of Sensay‘s plan for the future is monetization, founder Crystal Rose told VentureBeat in an interview at the San Francisco Ferry Building.
Today, people who give advice can receive up to 10 gold coins in tips. Tens of millions of these “coins” are in circulation today. Since a transactional model is already in place, the first journey into real monetization will likely be cash tips for advice givers, Rose said, although no date has been set for such a change.
“We have several different paths to take, and those play into different communities and platforms. One of the most obvious ones is when you use the platform and you chat with someone, when you help them they can give you a tip,” she said.
Initially, Sensay planned to introduce additional methods to monetize anonymous advice on topics like jobs, gigs, or products later this year. However, in recent weeks the company has shifted priorities from monetization to data collection and new features. Rose declined to share details but said a new version of Sensay is due out in Q3 or Q4.
“We’ve created a new format, and we think this is going to be the next killer feature in conversational interfaces,” she said. “Having looked at the data we have, we now understand better what Sensay does…and we’re honing in on being a very valuable product for those users.”
Competing for community-funded advice
Sensay is one of a number of companies using bots to connect humans on chat platforms and turn a profit.
The model Rose describes has already been adopted by the Ask Wiz Facebook Messenger bot. A community of 2,000 tech support experts with profiles and ratings provides advice, and people who are happy with the advice they’ve received can tip between $2 and $10.
Offerings from companies building businesses around human connection include Koko, an advice bot with a volunteer community similar to Sensay. Koko has uses learnings from the bot to put human empathy inside intelligent assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant. Swelly, a visual A/B choice bot featured onstage recently during F8, has both group chat for friends and a market testing service for businesses.
A network of paid anonymous advice givers would put Sensay in competition not only with support bots like Ask Wiz or Koko, but also TalkSpace, a company that says its therapists chat with hundreds of thousands of customers a month, starting at $32 a week.
Hot topics for advice seekers
Sensay’s purpose is to connect human beings in need of advice with people who are willing to give advice. Matched up by its algorithm, the parties participate in a live chat facilitated by the bot. The language used by both the helper and the person being helped during chat sessions is analyzed to determine who will be a good match in the future, Rose said.
The kinds of things people want advice about hundreds of thousands of times a month tend to center around certain topics, Rose said. The number one topic of conversation?
“Relationships dominate, it’s #1, and that can be anything from personal relationships or dating to your relationship with the social structure around you — your boss, your parents, anything like that. People have a lot of focus on relationships, which to me shows me that our human connections are the most valuable thing that we have,” said Rose.
Entertainment, music and movies, current events, and politics make up a major part of Sensay interactions. Also high on the list: dank memes.
“Well, they’re searching for dank memes and want more. This is like, ‘I’ve tapped out Google, all my friends have seen the same ones, and I need something new.’ So discovery wise, you can either discover the best sushi restaurant or you can discover the best dank memes,” Rose added. “It’s consistently surprised us.”
Anonymity, for good or bad
Sometimes, Sensay founder Rose told VentureBeat, anonymity is a positive thing. Last fall parents, teachers, and students used Sensay as part of Bully Prevention Month. More than half a million messages were exchanged.
“Because of that veil of anonymity, they didn’t know who they were talking to. They only knew that it was a person who cared and wanted to provide support,” Rose said. “We figured at the very beginning it was going to be recommendations of ‘where’s the best sushi place in San Francisco.’ While people use it for that, that’s definitely fallen very low on the list of topics.”
The entire random chat business model has been called into question following the failure of once high-flying companies like Secret that amassed audiences of millions but failed to monetize. But in contrast, witness the recent random chat success story Monkey, which facilitates a Chatroulette-style experience inside Snapchat.
One potential hindrance to a strategy to an open market for anonymous advice: You can’t speak to the same person again. Sensay does not yet allow a user to go back repeatedly to a person whose advice they appreciated. Instead, the bot makes connections based on matching score and availability.
“We consider ourselves an invisible social network in the way that we facilitate human connections, and we make introductions when we think that people are going to have really successful conversations,” she said. “We do see a lot of requests around being able to talk to the same person again, so I think that’s another step in this, giving you the ability to make a connection a second time. Right now we value that immediacy, and we think that if you’re using Sensay, you probably don’t have another person to talk to at that moment.”
A human touch in the age of AI
In addition to new features and tips with real money, Sensay may also consider expansions to Alexa or Google Home later this year. Though advice could remain anonymous, Sensay wants to keep responses in a human voice.
“We value what a person knows and their life experience more than who a person is,” she said. “What we know, what our values are, how good of a person we are, so Sensay is really valuing all those things and connecting people around it.”
The maintenance of human dignity is going to be critical in the age of artificial intelligence, Rose said. The sharing economy allows people to drive their car or rent a room for extra cash. Sensay wants to create a sharing economy for anonymous advice.
“I think it’s super important to keep humans at the forefront. Bots are dumb compared to humans. We’re building human intelligence, not artificial intelligence,” she said.
Last August Sensay closed a $4.5 million funding round led by Norwest Venture Partners, with participation from Greycroft Partners, Draper Associates, and other investors. Sensay is based in Los Angeles and has 13 employees.