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Marketing in a world of ‘conversational commerce’

The other day, I was speaking to a colleague about trends in the world of ecommerce. A few minutes into the discussion we hit upon the topic of conversational commerce. I have no doubt that this is going to be a major trend shaping the commerce world in the very near future. Later I was mulling over our discussion, I wondered what all would conversation commerce change in the future. Customer-connects and transaction models (including payment) for sure. Marketing too. The channel is not necessarily entirely new but marketing practices will be.

Conversation commerce is a phrase coined by Uber’s Chris Messina in his 2015 article on Medium. In this piece, he underlined the emergence of shopping (hence commerce) enabled through messaging applications (hence conversational) like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat and the likes. Of course, the experience today is not limited to messaging apps only. Amazon’s Echo has brought commerce right into our living spaces and that works on voice technology.

At the heart of the conversational commerce revolution is the dramatic rise in messaging around the globe. As a recent report from BI Intelligence suggests, messaging apps are already bigger than social networks. With the number of monthly active users (MAU) exceeding a billion on some of the platforms (like WhatsApp), messaging has evolved from simple social conversations to more complex expressions and ultimately to business related conversations. Picking up on this trend have been a number of Asian messaging apps, that have started offering services beyond social messaging – like taxis, payments and of course shopping. Also in the mix are well known brands like Hyatt, who have seen dramatic increase in customer engagement on messaging platforms.

The opportunity is centered round the fact that messaging provides some very definite advantages over other channels. The biggest of them is context awareness and a detailed identity of the customer. Even deeper insights may be available through natural language processing and sentiment analysis. Those interested in more details around messaging, its growth and impact, should refer to Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends.

The consumer behaviour in the case of conversational commerce can be a constraint and an opportunity at the same time. And, that’s because a very significant part (if not all, of the consumer journey) is now all at one place. Interactions with sales and customer support agents, issue resolutions and getting personalised recommendations are all now all possible within the messaging app itself. Also possible are access to product reviews, actual transactions and payments. While the consumer may interact with a human or a chatbot (or in some cases, a combination thereof), the business now has the opportunity to connect with the same consumer to send order confirmations, delivery notifications and other sales and service messages also within the same app. All in real time.

While the ability to connect with consumers in real time is a lip-smacking prospect for many marketers, we have to bear in mind that conversation commerce by its very nature also makes the consumer bypass customer contact centers, emails and even the brand websites – all of which qualify as well established marketing channels. So, the need to present the right (personalised) content to the right consumer at the right time is even more paramount. Fortunately, the consumer data available through the messaging channels make personalisation easy. In-app messaging allows marketers to deliver links to crisp and relevant content to the consumer. The drive to deliver rich content, customised for the mobile form-factor, has never been greater.

Also, let’s bear in mind, that the deployment of chatbots in the service of consumers engaging with brands on messaging channels really extends the interaction windows that physical stores and manned customer contact centers, working in shifts, have historically provided. So, marketers now have to contend with a channel that’s on 24×7. On the positive side, they now have a channel that’s on 24×7.

We are nearing the end of 2016, the year that was touted as the ‘year of conversational commerce’. In all fairness, while the trend has secured more than a toehold, there’s distance to be covered still. Like every other new thing, there are concerns about security, data privacy and the unsavory prospect of non-human interactions.

Very likely, it will still take a significant amount of effort to iron out the kinks that stand in the way of mass adoption. One thing I am relatively sure of though, is that this is one trend that’s not going to fade into the backdrop anytime soon. It has the power to transform our lives as consumers. Why? Because, it can save us time and money, while making it easier for brands to reach us when we need them the most. And, as it becomes more mainstream, marketers will find ways to overcome the constraints and seize the opportunities offered up by conversational commerce.

Indranil Mukherjee

Indranil Mukherjee is the VP & Lead- Global Technology Transformation at SapientNitro. Mr Mukherjee leads a program aimed at transforming SapientNitro’s global technology organization, creating cutting edge capabilities, instilling a strong engineering culture and new ways of working with customers. Prior to taking this role, he used to lead SapientNitro’s Systems Integration Practice globally.
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