Find out how a chat bot called Alex is helping raise awareness and inspire future service delivery ideas.

Important: Opinions expressed by Digital Pioneer interviewees are their own and don’t represent those of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.

Ian Grimwade, Head of Business Development at Cyrenians tells us more…

Cyrenians - Ask Alex

Tell us about Cyrenians!

Ian: For nearly 50 years, Cyrenians has served those on the edge, working with the homeless and vulnerable to transform their lives by beginning with their story, helping them believe that they can change their lives, and walking with them as they lead their own transformation.
Working predominantly in Edinburgh, Lothians, Falkirk, Borders and Stirling but also with Scotland-wide services, our work is organised around four targeted areas of service – Family and People, Home and Housing, Work and Skills and Community and Food.

How have you been using digital?

Ian: Cyrenians external digital communications are focused on three main channels, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, with additional posts on LinkedIn and a YouTube channel. Our external digital presence has been growing over the last couple of years, with Facebook reach growing 350% and Twitter impressions/day growing 500%, following a re-brand in October 2015 and the recruitment of a Digital Communications Officer in July 2016.

Tell us about a recent digital change you’ve made.

Ian: Cyrenians launched the Ask Alex digital campaign in April 2017 to raise awareness of issues around youth homelessness and conflict at home. We centred the campaign on a fictional character called Alex, created as an amalgam of case studies from Cyrenians work and the experiences of our staff. Alex is a Facebook Messenger ‘bot’ that can be reached on Facebook via @askAlexDotScot or a dedicated web-site

Alex answers questions about how he became homeless, his work situation, life in a B&B, family and friend relationships, hopes for the future and his favourite football team. He is young, has some attitude and has come through a tough time in his life. He is in work, living in a B&B, and officially homeless.

As well as raising awareness, the campaign aimed to increase the reach of the Cyrenians ‘brand’ and understanding of the work we do, the needs we address and the impact of our work and allow us to follow-on with those who engage with Alex and seek to gain their support for our work.

What motivated you?

Ian: Our work provides support for people who are excluded, and often those people are stigmatised and seen through a stereotypical lens. Our Ask Alex digital campaign aims to address a number of stereotypes around youth homelessness, and one of the main causes of homelessness, relationship breakdown and more specifically, conflict at home.

The technology of the ‘bot’ was proposed by our partner agency Primate and we felt that the uniqueness would attract people to this form of communication and that we would be able to reach a wider audience as a result. We also had interest in testing out the technology, with a view to seeing if it could be of use for us in our services, perhaps as a first line of enquiry or a tool to answer frequently asked questions.

How did you go about it?

Ian: Work started in January, and we launched in April 2017. Working with our partners Primate we kicked things off by engaging a script-writer to help create our character, and write his story. We also engaged with staff, volunteers and clients to pool together vignettes to put into Alex’s life story. An illustrator created Alex’s look – which was vital, to convey the personality, and his ‘normality’.

Primate took the script and programmed it into the bot using a tool called which is compatible with Facebook Messenger. They also developed a home page for Alex, so non-Facebook users could get a taste of the idea and direct others to Facebook Messenger to engage with the bot.

We had an extended period of testing of the bot, trying to ensure he behaved himself, and was also able to answer questions sensibly, and redirect when there were questions he could not answer. We also took time to engage across our organisation to make sure that our questions and answers were accurate and a fair reflection of our practice.

Our costs were under £10K and covered the development of the bot, scripting, illustration, web development, launch materials (flyers, business cards and stickers) and PR.

Who was involved?

Ian: It was a collaborative effort between Cyrenians staff including our Management Team, our Digital Communications Officer, our Head of Business Development and Marketing and wider team members who helped to input to the script, test the bot and provide feedback and our key partners including our developers Primate, Orbit Communications for PR support and our Script Writer and Illustrator who brought Alex to life.

What”s been the impact?

Ian: This is an ongoing campaign, and we expect to continue to promote Ask Alex and drive people to the site for at least the rest of this year. Our launch was featured on STV nationally, and a wide range of press from technical papers and web-sites, housing organisations, Third Force News, and local press.

To date, we have over 800 unique visits to the site and the @askAlexDotScot Facebook Page has reached 171 likes / follows. We’re aiming to get over 2,000 people engaging with Ask Alex so have a distance to go to reach that target but this campaign will continue to run.

Future benefits to be realised are through the potential development of the bot as a tool to be used within our services. We have had a couple of enquiries and are interested in potential partners willing to work with us to develop the bot further for use in our services.

Cyrenians - Ask Alex

Any challenges?

Ian: We definitely had technology challenges – in getting the bot to function correctly, in the design of how the bot worked and responded and in crafting the questions and answers within the script. We feel that we have learnt a lot in the process and are well placed to take the next step with our bot.

We knew there was risk in taking on this new technology. The greatest risk was to our reputation, especially if the bot ‘mis-behaved’, was unusable or didn’t present a realistic insight into challenges around homelessness and conflict at home. Our work with staff, volunteers and clients to test out the bot, to ensure the experience was ‘real’ meant that this risk was mitigated and the reaction to Alex has been positive in terms of the content.

We got very caught up in trying to get the bot to work properly. This sucked up energy from the launch team, and there could be an argument that we didn’t do as much as we might have done with the launch to engage a broader audience. I repeatedly referred back to the brief I had written, to remind myself, our team and our partners of our goals but we did have a challenge to get the technology to a point where we could go live, and with very limited resources that did ultimately have an impact on our reach.

We definitely learned that people were more comfortable asking the bot any questions they wanted – more than they would if they were talking to a real person. This opened up the opportunity for people to learn from their engagement.

I would say that we have also learned that while the bot has attracted attention, been acknowledged as innovative, the limited conversational nature of the technology prevented us from really engaging well with people beyond the initial contact with Alex. I definitely see the potential for this technology around FAQ, providing answers to a fixed set of questions, and potentially being a tool for people to access when they find it challenging to walk through a door or pick up a phone to engage with us. Making that first step in recovery, or asking for support is huge in what we do, so if we can use Alex as an alternative means of getting people across our threshold to seek support, we will have achieved something of value to our organisation and those we serve.

Any advice?

Ian: If you have a need that fits in well with what bot technology currently does – natural language processing, to deal with a finite set of questions – then look into it. Bots will definitely be appearing in more customer service, form-filling, first point of enquiry applications going forward. Getting in early will pay dividends.

If you are looking for technology that is conversational, new friend, what we used is not there yet – it is not artificial intelligence.

The key point for people to know is that you can get much, much more data into the bot script than you could ever get on a FAQ page on a website. It has the potential to handle a large amount of situations and provide valuable guidance for users.

You will need to engage expert help – we did, and still had challenges as this is very new technology.

What’s on your digital horizon?

Ian: We’re looking at how digital can allow us to deliver a better service for our clients, for us to be more effective and how we can use it to support our innovation as an organisation. The specific direction remains fairly open at this time, but as well as potential further development of the bot for our services, we are working on an App, continuing to seek to grow our brand reach and recognition through our digital following and looking at the use of technology across all of our services.

What’s digitally inspiring you at the moment?

Ian: Our Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution have created some great digital campaigns, and are the vanguard for us in terms of their use of digital. Go take one of their fun quizzes to see how you deal with conflict:

We also have admired the Rock Trust’s work in terms of how they engage with their audience via Social Media. They’ve achieved great things in terms of their social media following and how they engage with their followers to get direct support from them.

Thanks to Ian from Cyrenians for sharing how they’re using digital in the voluntary sector. We hope you’re feeling digitally inspired after reading it. Don’t forget to share it with your networks to keep the inspiration flowing and tell us what you think @digiscot using #digitalpioneers.

If you’d like to help spread some more digital inspiration across the voluntary sector then get in touch, we’d love to hear from you and share it with our networks.

Page last modified on 19th August 2019