As I write this post, I’m watching a live stream of Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, announce new developer tools to help companies build artificially intelligent chatbots inside the highly popular Messenger app. Get ready, folks, because “conversational commerce” is a term you’re going to hear a lot of in 2016, and it represents the most significant consumer marketing opportunity since the advent of social networks.
Here’s a wake-up call for the marketing industry: Messaging apps like Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Kik are officially bigger than social networks. Beyond the shear size of their audiences, messaging app users stick around longer, spend more time engaging with the apps, and typically skew closer to that coveted 18-35 year-old demographic. Zuckerberg just told the audience that between Messenger and Facebook-owned WhatsApp, 60 billion messages are sent every…single…day.
With more affordable data plans, better hardware, and the growth of emerging global markets, smartphone access will increase even more, as will messaging app usage. By 2020, there are expected to be more than 6 billion smartphones throughout the world.
As these messaging apps mature past the user growth stage, they are beginning to act more like true platforms and ecosystems, setting their sights on sustainable monetization paths. First, we saw brand integrations like Gatorade’s custom Snapchat filter and Hellman’s Mayonnaise sharing new recipes on WhatsApp. Snapchat followed by partnering with dozens of media brands, allowing its 100 million+ daily users to access news and exclusive content without ever closing the app.
Now we’re staring down the next phase of product marketing with a first-ever chance to be invited into meaningful back-and-forth exchanges with customers, in real time, possibly on a weekly or even daily basis. That’s where marketers and conversational commerce come into play.
The concept of conversational commerce pertains to artificial intelligence—in this case, “chatbots”—interacting directly with human beings using natural language processing. It may sound a bit Minority Report-ish, but there’s good reason to be excited about the opportunity to engage consumers inside messaging apps.
Here’s a real-life example for you. It’s a Saturday afternoon and you’re sitting at home, mulling over plans for the evening. You open your favorite messaging app and start a chat with three friends to find out what’s on the schedule. After some back and forth, you all decide to meet at the new sushi cocktail lounge downtown to kick the night off. Ben asks if you want to share a ride there, since you both live in the same neighborhood. You agree, and then order a car to pick you up, without ever leaving the conversation.
Within a few seconds, your car company joins the chat thread:
Car Co: Hey Guys, we’ll be there in about 7 minutes.
Ben: Awesome, thanks Car Co!
Car Co: No problem, Ben! See you in a little bit.
Pretty cool, huh? The process of making a purchase occurred within the environment of a few friends chatting with each other. It didn’t take away from the conversation, and it didn’t require a phone call or even switching between apps. With conversational commerce like this, consumers can interact with brands and make purchases within the natural flow of their daily, informal communication. Oh, and you can already order an Uber through Facebook Messenger.
What messaging apps offer brands is the ability to compete on experience, as well as to make life more convenient and even less stressful for customers. Chatbots can add tangible value, like how KLM airline is using Facebook Messenger to share flight updates and act as a general customer service center.
From the consumer’s point of view, chatbots offer convenience, ease of use, and even surprise-and-delight moments. You can share your favorite music in mid-conversation or order tacos for the office during a group chat on Slack. Look at it this way: Would you rather download yet another app, go through the signup and onboarding process, and conduct a single transaction there, or would you prefer to do it all inside the same app in which you spend the majority of your smartphone time?
For marketers, this is an entirely new world of meeting consumers where they are already hanging out, and offering a personalized experience in a highly contextual environment. Messaging apps and chatbots present ample opportunity to convey brand voice, learn more about the market, be there when you’re needed the most, and grow new products and services. This is a chance to evolve from mere service provider to helpful, dare I say, friend.
Photo by Ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Ryan Poelman is CEO of BuyPD.com.