“So tell me, what is conversational commerce anyway?”
In 2017, we don’t talk, phone or email. We message. The nuances of language have been replaced with ‘winky face’ ‘dancing girl’ and ‘angry cat.’ We share moments of our life, both the grand and the mundane, over these platforms.
And, we are spending more time on messaging apps than ever before. Research group Juniper estimates that instant messaging has now overtaken emailing as the preferred form of online communication, and contrary to popular belief it’s no longer relegated to communicating just with friends and family. They discovered we are also using those platforms both at work and to shop.
This intersection of messaging apps and the shopping experience has been termed ‘conversational commerce’, a phrase that make its way into the lexicon in 2015 when former Uber developer Chris Messina used it to describe the experience of feeling ‘as though you could talk to brands the way you can talk to people.’ Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and WeChat, or voice-activated interfaces like Amazon’s Echo or Google’s Home are now being harnessed by organisations who understand the technology’s potential.
In fact, the medium has become so prevalent that Mobile Marketing Watch estimates the number of consumers using messaging apps could reach 2 billion by next year.
These platforms are rapidly evolving to give customers swift and satisfying experiences with brands in surprisingly diverse ways. At every stage of the buyer journey, companies can leverage the abilities of the platforms to reach their customers with immediacy and agility.
The death of the app: Be where your customers are
So why has conversational commerce become so popular and how can marketers harness it? Messina asserts that one of the key reasons for the rise of conversational commerce is the demise of the app. However, the proposition is a bit of a chicken-and-egg quandary. Is the app as we know it dead because instant messaging has become so popular? Or has the app fad gotten so big that it’s fallen in on itself, giving way to another to fill its void?
Messina falls into the latter camp. He asserts that, in the last few years, there has been such a saturation of apps that it’s difficult if not impossible for a brand to stand out. If brands want to be noticed, he argues, they need to be a part of the conversation - and that is increasingly happening on a mobile phone.
Mimicking natural behaviour
Online shopping platform Spring noticed the shift and have responded accordingly. Founder Alan Tisch examined consumer behaviour and discovered consumers’ time was largely concentrated on a few apps. This observation led his team to alter their mobile strategy. He noted, ‘Customers aren’t spending their time on a sprawl of apps anymore. But, there’s a high concentration of engagement on Facebook Messenger, so we created an experience to fit into the natural behavior that’s already happening on the platform.’ Following that, Spring released Springbot with Facebook Messenger.
Spingbot is described as a ‘personal shopping concierge.’ It kicks off proceedings by asking what you are after. It then leads you through a series of questions to help you narrow down your choices until you’ve got a product that fits your description (item needed, price, material, etc) . When you’ve purchased an item it then sends you your invoice as well as tracking details and will answer questions pertaining to your order. The technology enables a new level of speed and ease in transactions. David Hewitt, VP at Sapient Nitro, sums up the lure of using Facebook Messenger by stating, ‘The pace of conversation, immediate responses, not getting lost in e-commerce navigation and getting recommendations is all going to boost this tool.’
The rise of the (chat)bot
And the most exciting thing is that we’re just at the beginning of the evolution of these platforms. This year has been named the Year of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning. The technology is beginning to compete with, and in some areas surpass, human ability. At the same time the it’s becoming cheaper and easier to use. These developments may lead to the rise of the robot, but in a marketing sense, we’re already seeing the rise of the chatbot.
Research Director at Gartner Stephanie Baghdassarian is an enthusiastic proponent of the technology, noting,
‘Bots can go as far as enabling transactions, handling payments, ensuring delivery and providing customer service. Perhaps the key aspect of conversational commerce, however, is that it allows users to converse in their platform of choice; in that sense it takes channel transparency to the next level.’
However, there’s more to it than merely integrating a chat feature. Companies think of the bot as an extension of their customer service, they need to ensure that the bot doesn’t just fulfill a request, but reflects the company’s values and sensibilities.
Tacobot: Your taco butler
Many businesses use a bot, but Taco Bell’s TacoBot is often held up as the industry standard. The company teamed up with messaging platform Slack to produce a feature that allows you to create your order or, as Andy McCraw, Taco Bell’s Digital Innovation Manager, puts it, ‘you can have your own taco butler.’ All that’s required is installing the feature on Slack and you’re good to go. Having access to tacos at the touch of your fingers is an exciting proposition in itself, but the TacoBot team have gone the extra mile to ensure that the experience of interacting with TacoBot is not just easy and fun but funny too:
It’s also programmed to anticipate potential problems the user may have. The team who developed it wanted that interaction ‘to be as loose and intuitive as if your were speaking to an attendant at a drive-through’. It’s perceptive enough, for example, that if it picks up that you’re drunk it will add a glass of water to your order. And, while TacoBot isn’t built to have deep, existential conversations, it is the TacoBot team’s hope that the system will become smarter and be able to build up knowledge of a customer, so if the customer is vegetarian, the system will automatically substitute beans for meat products. It’s that type of intuitiveness that the TacoBot team hope will ultimately ‘make the online experience better than the analogue one.’
The challenges of conversational commerce
While Spring and TacoBot are paving the way in this area, both companies that started them admit there is still a way to go. For the former, one of the criticisms is that, even when you’ve finished your purchase, Springbot will continue to message you, asking if you would like to keep shopping. For the latter, building smart relationships hasn’t reached the intuitiveness Taco Bell would like. Medium also suggests that businesses shouldn’t be overly quick to supplant their real staff for chatbots, as it will lead to an experience that’s too cold and clinical.
There’s also the question of intrusiveness. Given that messenger apps started off life as a way to communicate between friends and family, companies must be very careful to get the balance right with advertising on these apps. If your messaging feels like spam, the interaction will feel invasive and like a breach of privacy That’s why marketers should proceed with the lightest of touches.
Despite how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go, conversational commerce should be treated as just another tool in the marketer's arsenal, used to complement, rather than supplant human staff. The ones that will succeed with this technology will get the balance right to create a frictionless and satisfying customer experience.
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