Almost a year ago, I started working on a platform that allowed a customer to complete a transaction in a messaging channel they were talking to us in. Breaking it down, we believed it had the ability to disrupt entire industries that are built on email communication and traditional checkout processes. If purchasing a product, booking a service, or paying an individual was as easy as a single message, why would you ever go back through a traditional checkout? Here’s why it’s important.
“Conversational Commerce” has been a buzzword slowly growing in eCommerce circles over the last ~5 years. As the industry looks for better ways to connect with their audiences, and ways to monetise or increase value of that audience, Conversational Commerce quite possibly fits the bill. Conversational Commerce is a term first used by Uber’s Chris Messina in this 2016 piece on Medium. It’s focused on the intersection (and blurred lines) between communication and commerce. This could be brands speaking to their audience through channels like WhatsApp, Facebook, SMS, or Voice — and customers being able to ask a question, leave a review, check order status or order a product using that channel. The idea of an additional layer of engagement on-top of the platform that your customers are already was game-changing. Early adopters, such as Burberry, employed this tactic.
So, how does it work? As you can imagine, brands can’t speak 1:1 with their entire audiences. For a large company, there would simply be too many interactions, questions and queries to invest staff time into each one. This is really where bot’s come into play. Automated chat bots that have been programmed to detect certain intents from a customer, like asking a certain product question, where the bot can then automate a reply and solve the issue instantly — without human intervention. For Conversational Commerce to work at scale, integrating a chat bot is essential (A little like the supercomputer WOPR in the film, WarGames). The reality was that back in the early days of chat bots in 2016, many bots relied heavily on human interaction to service the conversations. When the bot couldn’t understand the question asked, human support is necessary to teach the bot and guide the conversation back onto a specific flow. Overtime that bot can be taught and learn to be able to cope with more and more complex questions, queries or issues.
Once a conversation is happening, it depends on what industry or customer requirements which dictate the next step of the experience. A customer may ask a question about their order not arriving, wanting to order more products, or even that they want to leave a review. In these examples, the bot could then send back tracking details or an update on delivery, or send a checkout link or review link to the product the customer wants to order or review. In these instances, Conversational Commerce offers an experience far quicker and easier than traditional means, like having to email a brand for support and waiting days for a reply.
“The net result is that you and I will be talking to brands and companies over Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram, Slack, and elsewhere before year’s end, and will find it normal.” — Chris Messina (2016)
This quote from Messina was almost 4 years ago, predicting a very near future of the intersection of conversation and commerce becoming common place within modern life — so what happened? Why didn’t the ecosystem evolve as he envisioned it to with daily interaction with your favourite brands via your normal conversational platform?
Like any disruptive tech, there are trailblazers in the space that break down the door for everyone else. Pizza Hut launched their pizza delivery bot in 2016, quickly followed by the likes of TacoBot via slack and 1–800 flowers through Facebook Messenger. These companies paved the way and gave confidence to brands across the world that Conversational Commerce would become part of the way their customers purchased and communicated with them. However, even with all the hype and the abundance of investment, the last 4 years haven’t created many stand-out players in the space or truly integrated Conversational Commerce into many customers daily lives. Heres why.
Chat bots simply weren’t good enough. When brands started integrating bots into their relationships with customers, there was telltale signs that tarnished the experience. The little things like full stops out of place, lack of colloquialism and reactions to your inputs being a little “rigid”. This distanced the customer from the seamless experience they were after, and felt a little forced. The level of sophistication of automated bots couldn’t deliver the same level of experience that a human CX rep could, and therefore became costly as conversations scaled — requiring more and more human interaction. The ROI’s couldn’t keep up and the hype started to wain.
Paired with the sub-par chatbots, the experience in terms of utility for a customer was good — but not great. For example, you could ask a question about a product and get a good response, but when you wanted to purchase it you had to go off to another checkout or add more details. You could see tracking details for your order via SMS but only after you had identified yourself with lengthly information inputs like email, address and order numbers. There was a clear disconnect with areas of the experience where Conversational Commerce lacked the technological capabilities to become a mainstay in consumers daily lives.
This lack of utility was clearly reflected with the adoption curve of Conversational Commerce. The innovators (~2.5%) used a conversational channel to speak to brands and creators as more of a novel experience vs one that could have widespread adoption. There was an influx of press, investment and hype in the space that largely died down towards the end of 2016/17. What about the rest of the population? That’s really where we start to hit an inflection point in 2020.
During the last 4 years, things have really moved on. Not only have chatbots and natural language processing innovated at incredible speeds, but other areas that previously fell down have been reimagined. Innovative models of commerce, payments and purchasing have evolved to link seamlessly with conversation. It became very clear during the Conversation Commerce explosion of 2016 that if this new experience was to truly make a dent in the customers journey and disrupt how consumers purchase product, the sophistication of technology had to improve. A different point of view and a fresh understanding of the consumers pain points had to be placed at the forefront of the development of the next stage of Conversational Commerce. That’s exactly what we’ve been building for the last 12 months at blueprint.
At its core, Conversational Commerce unlocks a whole new relationship with a customer. A 1:1 conversation that was previously built on asynchronous email or on social media. A key part to mention is that email or a social media message were always just the delivery mechanism. They allowed information flow to a customer, and sometimes back the other way. More of a speaker, less of a microphone. Order confirmation, tracking, review, customer support etc — all of this was communicated via these few restricted mediums. However, what if the medium didn’t have to be restricted and slow, and the conversation wasn’t just information flow, but actual customer actions? Everything from leaving a review, referring a friend, and seamlessly purchasing a product could happen in the conversational channel.
We broke apart the last 4 years to understand the drivers behind why this hadn’t happened. We dialled in on the pain-points for a customer surrounding friction to purchase and lack 1:1 communication throughout their journey. Reduce cognitive load, increase speed. Over the past year, armed with a world-class dev team, we built sophisticated language extraction and unique transactional infrastructure to build the future of purchasing and communication with Conversational Commerce. What that really means is the aforementioned idea of purchasing a product, booking a service, or paying an individual in a single message is now less of a vision, and more of a reality.
The current models of communication and purchasing within eCommerce have been in place for almost 2 decades. The idea that additional data entry and logging in with a password and username was the only way to purchase a product online, and that slow email support was the best way to communicate with a brand online are being disrupted by Conversational Commerce. Navigating from an email CTA, to a website and product page, choosing a bi-monthly subscription and checking out with a lengthly information field will start to feel very old once ordering that same product can be as easy as, “Hey, can I have some more?”