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Conversational Commerce – the Blurring Line Between Talk and Transaction

The messaging app is on the cusp of becoming so much more. We're used to sharing our thoughts, ideas and decisions on them - now retailers can take our buying needs and translate them into the product we need - it's a whole new B2C synergy.

If you want to get and keep customers, you’ve got to be where they are. And with the normalisation of the messaging app – we now spend more time on them than we do on social media – retailers simply need to be on board.

It was early 2015 when Uber’s Chris Messina wrote his article for Medium, coining the term. He said: “conversational commerce largely pertains to utilizing chat, messaging, or other natural language interfaces (i.e. voice) to interact with people, brands, or services and bots.”

Messina went on to say that, in time, computer-driven bots will become more human-feeling, and that eventually us consumers won’t be able to tell the difference – and crucially, we won’t care.

So, what’s going on?

Perhaps most significantly is the obvious: the take-up of the messaging app. And here’s where conversational commerce has human psychology on its side – it uses technologies we enjoy, and are used to using to communicate with our friends and family – we feel relaxed here, we trust the ‘chat’ model.

Then, of course there’s the massive advances in AI in recent years. Bots can now handle discovery questions and offer solutions to dilemmas, all without human intervention. They can complete transactions, organise delivery, and oversee the entire cycle. 

A natural evolution in commerce

There’s blatantly a call for controversy with any technology that replaces human with machine – and bots in AI might certainly be viewed with scepticism from some. But Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg got to the crux of why we’ll accept it regardless when he said:

“I don’t know anyone who likes calling a business. We think you should be able to message a business, in the same way you would message a friend.” 

It’s true. Most of us spend as much time texting as talking. We have as many conversations online as we do face-to-face. But it’s not only our inherent ‘text-not-talk’ default that appeals. It’s the convenience conversational commerce can offer too: Take a typical eCommerce dilemma – you want to buy some new boots, you know the style you’re after, but you can’t see any in the right size or price bracket. Today’s average eCommerce journey has you travelling from site to site – in the end you’ll either give in to frustration, or settle for some, perhaps not ideal, boots from a site you know and trust.

The experience could be seen as a monologue, or worse still, a battle: Consumer v’s Online stores. Warmth is lacking – consumers are enticed with monetary and convenience perks – free-shipping, next day delivery – rather than through friendly, comforting and persuasive dialogue.

Stay in-app

Conversational commerce would see you sending your preferred store a Facebook message telling them what you want and, using AI, they’d respond with suggestions – what’s more, you wouldn’t have to even leave Messenger to make the purchase. Many brands are now enabling consumers to buy from them in this way – they can send order confirmations via Messenger, as well as shipping and delivery notifications – users stay in the Facebook ecosystem throughout, never having to leave.

New communication technologies are often met with scrutiny over whether they’ll serve to provide automation where human interaction once was. But wise retailers have always used technology as an enabler for communication – not the antithesis to it. So where critics might see this as another way for consumers to feel a sense of isolation from the retailer they’re purchasing from, used well and they should in fact feel like they’re being listened to.

Chat companies and brands are partnering up fast. The Facebook Messenger and Uber partnership, for example, makes it possible for customers to order an Uber without leaving Messenger. Amazon’s voice activated tool Echo has partnered with Capital One, and now the bank’s customers can find their balance, make a payment, or check recent transactions, all via their bot who even has a name – Alexa. The birth of Echo signalled for many another quantum leap in retail technology, similar to the social and mobile boom of the last few years.

The Facebook Messenger platform, allowing for in-app purchases of foreign products was launched early this year. But those that jumped on the bandwagon earlier are certainly reaping the rewards. WeChat, a Chinese messaging app launched three years ago, and driving the popularity of mobile commerce, has recently shot past 700 million monthly active users and boasts an estimated in-app revenue of $550 billion per year.

Fast becoming the go-to example for conversational commerce, WeChat, with its rich API functionality, is free for retailers. Brands can setup eCommerce storefronts, conduct chat conversations, and promote and sell products right there, as the conversation unfolds. And why is the customer on WeChat? It’s for its practical day-to-day functions that mean it’s all there – from hailing a taxi, to ordering from Starbucks or paying a bill – it’s like your everyman’s PA on a smartphone.

New technologies, that’s all

The era of conversational commerce is here, and it has thrust bots into the customer experience spotlight for good. Although it’s heavily reliant on AI advances that are only now becoming confidently utilised in the industry, there’s more than a whiff of nostalgia in the air. Here we are as consumers, once more talking to retailers, asking for opinions and for specifics in products – like colours and sizes. But in place of the shopkeeper of old – the friendly face saying she’d “nip out the back” to see if they had what you’re after – you’ve got a bot, one sounding almost human, with a heavily branded, believable tone of voice, whose job is to join you where you are and make you feel ready to buy. 

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