Julian Smith, head of strategy and innovation at Fetch, takes a look ahead at how chatbots and virtual assistants are leading us into a new era of conversational marketing.
From a marketing perspective, one of the most interesting trends of the year just gone is the growing consumer shift toward mobile social messaging apps. We are seeing a move away from the public forums of social networks to the private and intimate communication channels of instant messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Kik, Slack, and Snapchat.
As we head into 2017, marketers will need to increasingly consider how they can engage their target audiences in these popular mobile platforms through conversational marketing, alongside their other direct-to-customer CRM channels like SMS, email, and social media.
Chatbots have become a key way to integrate with these app platforms and establish a customer dialogue. Since Facebook launched its chatbot functionality as a part of Messenger for Business early in 2016, the buzz around chatbots has exploded.
Chatbots enable businesses, large and small, to establish an automated conversation with people to answer questions, make suggestions and deliver content that can help build loyalty, upsell and cross-sell – an opportunity being referred to as ‘conversational commerce’. If mobile marketers take advantage of this emerging communication channel, they will be well positioned to form a closer connection with consumers.
Establishing a brand or business dialogue within mobile social messaging platforms will require new approaches, practices and skillsets. For anyone responsible for CRM and social media management, it’s going to add an extra level of complexity. This is the closest a business can get to personalised, synchronous communication with individuals at scale, anywhere, any time.
Conversational marketing will require thinking through all the permutations of a potential conversation with a customer, and the data analysis to understand the needs and requirements of different audiences. Businesses need to decide the level of automation or real human intervention to maintain a realistic and valuable dialogue. This will require the necessary tech resource working closely with Facebook to understand the boundaries of what is feasible.
As leading brands and businesses increase their presence within social messaging apps, marketers will also need to consider how to integrate branded chat environments into their current marketing strategies. Conversational marketing will present marketers with an opportunity to share their brand story directly with their audience, increase loyal customer engagement, enhance the customer service experience and ultimately get more people to come back to the business again and again. This might be particularly useful for online and offline retailers, regular service providers and content distributors.
But beware: if marketers do decide to open up to customer chat through these new direct channels, they should be sure to meet expectations of a useful conversation with the customer at the other end of the smartphone. A delayed or unsatisfactory response to incoming queries will be a turn off to the mobile-first consumer.
Looking further ahead, chatbots are a precursor to AI, the next step of data analytics and aggregation, going beyond consumer behaviour targeting to consumer behaviour predicting. AI is at the forefront of Google’s current agenda, as it predicts a move from mobile-first to AI-first. For marketers, this means a deeper level of understanding that helps companies make better predictions and serve customers what they need in advance.
Another precursor to AI is virtual assistants, such as Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, Google Assistant and Microsoft Cortana. Consumers are already comfortable googling recipes for lasagne and are satisfied with the results Google throws up. This two-way dialogue is already happening, and voice search is a natural evolution of this conversation. Voice recognition is becoming more accurate and responsive, and now materialising in hardware extensions such as Amazon Echo and Google Home.
Consumers ask questions in voice search, and virtual assistants offer back answers to these specific questions. For SEO purposes, keywords will need to evolve to include not just search terms, but natural responses to questions. To encourage Echo to direct a consumer to a Thai Restaurant, keywords might no longer be ‘Thai’, ‘food’, ‘restaurant’ or ‘London’, but responses to questions, such as ‘Thai Kingdom is open until 11pm and is the top-rated Thai restaurant in London’. Marketers will need to shift their focus from reading and writing to speaking and listening, starting by saying aloud the conversational marketing content they write up to ensure it sounds like a natural conversational response, instead of just reading well.
The evolution from chatbots and virtual assistants into AI, and the opportunity for conversational marketing and commerce for marketers, should not be underestimated. Conversational marketing is likely not just a 2017 trend, but a 2018 and 2019 trend as well. It may well be the beginning of the future of marketing.
Julian Smith is head of strategy and innovation at Fetch