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 this 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 this 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 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.