The Gist

  • Advertising intrusion. Ads within AI chatbot conversations disrupt the illusion of genuine interaction and can degrade the user experience.
  • Plugin potential. Companies may opt to integrate themselves as plugins, offering seamless, non-intrusive experiences within chatbots.
  • Subscription surge. The willingness of users to pay for enhanced AI chatbot services indicates that subscriptions could overtake advertising as a primary revenue source.

There’s a certain — very passionate — group of people on the internet who believe AI chatbots should make their money from advertising. I know this because I heard from them last week after I suggested chat would need a different business model. For five days running, my slander of advertising (which I generally like and run in my newsletter) has led to a flood of comments questioning my aptitude and sanity. One person showed me ChatGPT could suggest Taco Bell Crunchwraps as you searched for information on Turkmenistan. Thanks? 

For any new technology, it’s always difficult to transpose old business models directly onto the new experience, and AI chat is no different. While it’s possible advertising will play a role in its future, ads represent only a fraction of the opportunity and are poorly suited for the interface. APIs, plugins, data licensing and subscriptions will likely take precedence and leave ads behind. Here’s why:

Advertising: Spoils Conversational Experience

Advertising is a good way to make money when you build an audience, and chatbots have done that. ChatGPT took just two months to reach 100 million users. But AI chat works because it feels like a conversation with another being, not a computer, and ads spoil that experience. Steve Jobs, while developing Siri, refused to build thumbs up or down feedback buttons into it because he feared breaking the illusion. Siri has struggled since Jobs’ death, but his intuition was right. 

Speaking with a computer in natural language only to have it pitch you something mid-conversation is unsettling. You probably wouldn’t keep a friend around who did that. And you likely won’t keep bots around who do it, either. Bots could place ads on the side of the conversation instead, changing with the context of the dialogue. But environment matters when you’re having a conversation, and such a move could cheapen it.

AI chatbot developers’ enthusiasm for advertising seems muted so far. Bing has run some advertising within its chatbot, but it’s been limited. Google declined to comment on whether it intends to put ads in Bard. An OpenAI spokesman emailed, “No plans to put ads in ChatGPT.” 

Related Article: Journey Through Time: How Chatbots Have Evolved Over the Decades

APIs: Anyone Can Build Generative AI Experiences

If Google, Microsoft and OpenAI rely on ads to make money from their chatbots, the expensive processing power they’d need to operate them would eat into their margin. Getting other companies to pay for the processing power is a better option.

So, they’re making it available via APIs to allow anyone to build generative AI experiences, similar to the cloud services model. The trio above built their consumer chatbots, in part, to advertise their APIs.

Plugins: Giving Users Relevant Search Results 

Instead of paying to access a chatbot’s audience via ads, companies will pay to become part of its experience via plugins. Kayak, for instance, is working with OpenAI on a plugin that helps you find flight information within ChatGPT. Instead of interruptive advertising, plugins will build the web into the chatbots, allowing users to complete tasks within them.

One day, the bots might get so good they disintermediate some of their partners. In the meantime, they’ll cash in with plugins. 

Learning Opportunities

Related Article: What Is Conversational AI? More Than Just Chatbots

Subscriptions: ChatGPT Plus, Enough Said

People are willing to pay for faster, better versions of these bots, another key source of revenue. In February, OpenAI introduced its premium ChatGPT Plus subscription, which gets you answers powered by its most powerful model, GPT-4, for $20 per month.

Demand for ChatGPT Plus has been so healthy that OpenAI temporarily paused upgrades. Google and Microsoft have experience offering free tools with paid upgrades, and they may not be far behind. 

Data Licensing: Scandal Waiting to Happen

The most concerning potential business model for these companies involves licensing the data they collect when we speak with their bots. Having a conversation with someone gives you a much better understanding of their wants and needs than simply listening to them type a few words into a search bar.

This data could be extremely valuable for all sorts of businesses and even creepier than the typical ad tracking on the internet today. Should these companies get into data licensing, it would be a scandal waiting to happen. None have seemed inclined to go this direction … yet. 

Bottom Line: Ads Won't Thrive With Chatbots

AI Chatbots won’t necessarily go ad-supported simply because many online businesses run on advertising. Ads may factor, but there are enough other natural sources of revenue that advertising may fade into the background as APIs, plugins and subscriptions take hold.

If I’m wrong, I’ll eat my words and, I guess, a Crunchwrap Supreme in Turkmenistan.

fa-solid fa-hand-paper Learn how you can join our contributor community.