Mobile messaging apps: an opportunity and a threat

10th Apr 2017

By 2019 over a quarter of the world’s population will be using mobile messaging apps and for many of us it is now our preferred method of digital communication. While for the time being apps such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and WeChat are still mainly used for personal conversations with friends and family, increasingly they are being adopted by businesses to drive interactions with consumers – and boost sales. In China, WeChat is already used extensively for ecommerce, and in South East Asia, this type of ‘social commerce’ accounted for 30 per cent of all digital sales last year. The potential is huge, especially for youth markets and in regions where mobile phones dominate digital interaction. 

Many businesses are considering how to exploit this potential and take messaging to the next level as part of their customer communications management strategy. For companies setting out there are many advantages to consider – but also some pitfalls to avoid.

A lower barrier to customer adoption

Among the positives, messaging apps allow you to have conversations with your customers on the platforms they are already regularly using, rather than trying to persuade them to install your own mobile app. Importantly, consumers are ready and willing for this to happen: by next year, 67 per cent of people using messaging apps expect to be using them to communicate with businesses according to a Nielson survey.

Reducing the costs of personalisation

With the help of artificial intelligence powered chatbots it’s possible to manage large numbers of personalised, one-to-one messaging interactions more cost effectively, compared with using live agents.  But it’s not just a case of ‘either/or’. Companies such as First Utility in the UK are combining chat with agent intervention in a seamless way, leaving chatbots to handle the easy questions and only involving an agent when the bot runs out of steam.

In the USA and Western Europe Facebook Messenger is the front runner for chatbot based mobile messaging.  By September last year, over 30,000 Messenger bots had already been created, doing everything from confirming reservations and sending delivery notifications to taking payments and showing consumers pages from websites (so they can view products, hotel rooms or flights for example). 

Leveraging new technical capabilities

Messaging platforms are vying with each other to provide new technical features to support advanced customer interactions. WeChat is ahead of the game but others are catching up. For example, Hyatt Hotels lets customers check room availability, make reservations and order room service using Facebook Messenger, while Uber lets users order taxis through an integration with the platform. Beauty brand Estee Lauder ran a campaign last Christmas that allowed consumers to order products via Facebook Messenger and get them delivered in just 60 minutes

Targeted group interactions

Another benefit is mobile messaging’s ability to cleverly support group interactions: perfect for managing conversations with couples or friends about joint purchases such as booking holidays or for making it easy for online shoppers to invite their friends into a group chat for advice on a fashion purchase for example.

Machine learning

Using AI and analytics to learn from each customer interaction allows messaging apps to get better over time at delivering useful personalised information and experiences. They can learn that you like to buy product X, but only when it is available at discounted prices for example, or that you prefer product Y in the winter but tend to go for product Z in the summer.

Managing multiple interactions

Despite all the positives there are inevitably risks and challenges that come with the mobile messaging revolution. For one, it’s yet another channel that has to be managed (along with all the interactions through email, SMS, webchat, call centre and so on), adding further complexity to the task of customer communications management and putting additional pressure on resources. 

A related issue is the headache of integrating messaging app conversations with all the conversations and transactions that happen on other channels in order to deliver the seamless, joined-up customer experience that consumers crave.

People now expect to move back and forth between channels during an interaction or purchase and they count on companies being able to keep up. This creates two key technical requirements: first you need to be able to store and manage the content of your messaging conversations and ensure it is integrated and available to other channels so that you can pick up where you left off if – say if the customer breaks off from a chat conversation and contacts the call centre to continue the discussion. Second, you need to be able to do the same in reverse: to use your messaging app to re-start conversations that were initiated on other channels. You might also need other systems’ content to be repurposed to support those conversations – such as customer emails, or billing data – so investing in a good transformation engine is key to make sure the same information is available and optimised for messaging (and every other channel).

Personalisation raises the stakes

While bot-powered messaging may use AI, algorithms and natural language processing to deliver personalised or even individualised interactions, this can actually be a double edged sword. The more personalised the experience you try to deliver, the greater the customers’ expectations – and the more scope there is for getting things spectacularly wrong.  Use of these technologies is still in its infancy and liable to mistakes.

If companies do get things wrong, the consequences can be severe. Facebook Messenger, for example, allows users to block brands they no longer want to contact them. If a customer feels they have received a below par messaging experience, they can also very quickly share their negative feelings with all their friends and connections on the same messaging platform.

The need for added value

As privacy regulations continue to tighten in Europe and elsewhere it will be soon be up to consumers to decide if they wish to receive any type of communications from a business, so it is important that messaging is seen to be adding value and making life easier for the customer, rather than just adding marketing ‘noise’.

There’s plenty for marketers and customer service teams to get excited about. Mobile messaging can be used to reach new customers, interact in new ways and deliver a more personalised service at lower cost.  But companies should also learn lessons from the early adopters and put the right supporting technologies in place to avoid a disconnect between messaging and other communication channels. Messaging should be viewed as just one more part – albeit a growing one – of the multi-channel customer experience.

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