Message to Marketers: Mobile Chat Is the Next Killer App

Five Ways Brands Can Use Messaging to Connect with Customers

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At the recent F8 conference, Facebook announced that its Messenger app has 600 million users, growing 50% last year, faster than its main app. This number doesn't even consider the other similar apps, like Facebook-owned WhatsApp, WeChat, Viber and many others that collectively have three billion accounts.

Messaging apps are clearly the killer apps on mobile, but U.S. brands and retailers have not yet made themselves available via mobile chat. When you think about all the situations in which you have to call an airline, hotel, restaurant, insurance company, etc., the fact that you can't instead message these companies on your smartphone for updates, to place an order or make changes to a reservation is shocking.

The user experience on mobile today primarily includes search and browse, both of which have their own place in the customer journey. But messaging as an interaction layer can no longer be ignored. Messaging is an organic interface for a customer to ask for what they want on-demand in a private, personal environment that truly replicates a concierge model -- which was the original promise of mobile apps.

With an effective, omnipresent messaging experience, brands may finally be able to effectively leverage mobile, which has been the thorn in the side of marketers for years as apps and advertising have both failed. Consumers view downloading an app as a very high commitment and are very particular about what they keep on their home screen, so they typically only get apps that provide long-term value. Mobile advertising, on the other hand, has not delivered because it still severely lacks context.

For consumers, being able to interact with brands via messaging apps would provide obvious benefits: highly personal support instantly; all communication kept within a single thread; the elimination of phone calls and interaction via other customer support channels; and anytime, anywhere communication on the apps they are using every day. Brands could better nurture relationships, drive loyalty through better customer experiences and decrease operational costs if artificial intelligence is leveraged to automate most of the interaction. The biggest game-changer, however, is that messaging leverages on-demand explicit intent (i.e. the person is stating exactly what they want, when they want it) combined with implicit intent -- if brands could carry context forward.

As brands begin to dip their toes into the messaging waters, here are five strategies to consider:

1. Tailor interaction to context. Understanding explicit intent will certainly change the direction of the conversation, but whenever possible, brands should also tap into other contextual factors -- the time of day, day of week, user location and weather conditions -- to further tailor interaction, product recommendations, offer images, etc. Marketers need to have an "intent model" in place that maps out various customer modes at any point in time and is able to predict what the customer mindset and needs might be in order to better tailor the conversation.

2. Exist across marketing, sales and service. The customer connection on messaging apps should exist across the complete customer journey. Seamless handoffs between various divisions within your company should exist to provide a cohesive experience to customers, while alerting internal teams of necessary customer behavior and insights.

3. Leverage human-assisted artificial intelligence. Consumers expect things on demand. If there is a sizeable lag before a brand responds to a message, consumers will quickly become disenchanted. Wherever possible, brands should leverage artificial intelligence to automate conversations, particularly with less-sensitive issues such as offer availability or order tracking. Some customer inquiries and conversations, though, are much better handled by a human. Elevate sensitive issues to customer service personnel for immediate response to things like payment issues, problems with an order, etc.

4. Extend engagement through personalized content. With messenger apps, people will be inviting brands into their personal space, and because of this, every conversation needs to be treated with respect via highly personalized content, much more so than an app push alert. If done well, a brand could reap huge rewards. Treating chat like an email inbox will not do you any good, but after asking a customer's permission, sending relevant, personalized information and experiences via the chat thread can drive engagement. Map out scenarios in which you can organically participate in your customers' lives, without being spammy.

5. Bring messaging functionality to many touchpoints. Messaging is the most successful user experience on mobile, and it needs to be further expanded across various interaction points. Brands that have audiences on apps and mobile web need to integrate a messaging feature within these channels as well. Furthermore, make the chat an inbox of sorts to store all push messages and other promotions, in addition to chats, in a single environment.

Consumers increasingly look to brands to get a job done, help them accomplish something or meet an immediate need, beyond providing a product or service. As brands work toward becoming trusted advisors to individuals, engaging consumers via the most prominent interaction channel in today's world -- messaging -- is going to be essential.

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