Nowhere is the balance between human and digital being tested more rigorously than through the medium of messaging apps.
Whether it be WhatsApp, Snapchat, WeChat or QQ, we’ve all fallen head over heels for a select group of private network, smartphone messaging services. WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger both topped 1 billion users early last year, whilst WeChat and QQ are close behind.
By 2019, eMarketer forecasts that 25.2% of the world’s population will be using messaging apps. In South Korea, this figure is already over 50%.
Yet despite the phenomenal growth rate, for brands, messaging apps can be something of a twilight zone. Dare to venture through the looking glass and you’ll find a world of shares, likes and emoticons not dissimilar to the social networks we all know and love.
The difference is, in the messaging app world you’ll find a different breed of communicator, and you’ll get no gratification in the form of measurement and results to apply to any of the work you undertake within.
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“Brand marketers are eager to follow consumers to these apps, but injecting themselves into users’ conversations is not easy, and it’s often unwelcome,” says Cathy Boyle, principal analyst, mobile at eMarketer. “However, the expansion of messaging apps into platforms that include chatbots and editorial content is providing marketers with more natural places to engage messaging app users.”
Even chatbots have been met with indifference during their short lifespan. Following Facebook Messenger’s open API access last year, a plethora of branded chatbots have been trialled and tested on the platform, but positive response has been scant. It was recently discovered that chatbots had hit a 70% failure rate on the app, with Silicon Valley blog The Information reporting that the technology "could fulfill only about 30% of requests without human agents".
Rather than spelling the end for chatbots, this last statistic merely highlights the need for brands to readdress exactly how they match automation with a more ‘human’ element, when venturing into marketing or customer service communications on messaging apps.
“Automation can play a very important part of the process, but it can't be the whole solution,” says Katy Keim, CMO for Lithium Technologies. “Artificial intelligence and chatbots are a great way of getting quick responses to customer questions that have known answers, but I think what brands are still trying to sort out is the fine line when a bot cannot get to the heart of customers' needs, where there's a nuance to the request that requires problem solving.
“Also, messaging apps are conversational, and people expect a conversational tone, especially among the younger generation. So the human element is necessary because bots just aren’t sophisticated enough to meet this requirement all the time. There needs to be a conversation, and a dialogue and an experience for consumers; brands can’t simply broadcast like they can on other channels. They have to have a mechanism to serve; to satisfy and to grow those relationships through engagement and a level of response that goes beyond just marketing.”
Toeing the line
KLM is a brand that has successfully toed this line, using WeChat to engage with a burgeoning Chinese customer base.
Whilst the app starts as a fairly primitive chatbot that allows users to check information and ask questions, crucially its API feeds into the Dutch airline’s central CRM system, meaning customer service staff can manually pick up and resolve more complex queries when required.
The app also allows KLM’s marketing team to push content towards its customers once they’re connected to the brand on the app, via news and promotions, giving it a more personal connection with users than it might have through social networks or other, more traditional channels.
“One of the main advantages chat apps offer brands is that they act as a vehicle for continuous communication between the customer and the brand,” says Adrian Benic, VP of products, Infobip. “Unlike the stop and start nature of email, or the potential wait time of call/contact centres, they allow a continual dialogue to be maintained and deliver this through an approach that’s popular with today’s consumer.
“This enables customers to be connected directly to the source of information and ask anything they would like to know about the brand, product, or price, and at a time that suits them best. On the other side, it enables brands to increase opportunities to cross-sell, upsell and encourage sharing among the customer’s friends and colleagues.”
Delivering such a comprehensive offer is by no means easy. KLM’s commitment to customer service requires a team that’s more than 200-strong, and that’s in the social media department alone. However, the expectations of messaging apps is that responses arrive even quicker than on open networks like Twitter or Facebook, meaning brands often have no choice but to increase their outlay, in order to keep customers satisfied.
As Keim states: “In the UK, three out of four adults want a reply from the company in the same day or, on social media, almost 50% of the UK customers want a response in an hour. Message apps, even quicker.
“What used to be, even as recently as three or four years, people experimenting to see if they got a response, is a situation in 2017 where 50% of consumers are saying if you ignore them, ‘I'm putting you in the bad experience bucket and that's a bad experience I'm going to share with other consumers and I'm going to tell my families and friends about it’. I think this notion of providing this type of service as a nice-to-have is becoming a need-to-have and being fast, operational, and useful is just critical now for.”
The good news is, because of their informal, conversational tone, messaging apps are allowing brands to be more creative with their engagement than they might be through other communication channels.
Starbucks, for instance, was able to lean on WeChat during Valentine’s celebrations this year, giving users the chance to send a friend or loved one a coupon for a free cup of coffee through the chat tool.
Unilever was widely praised for a Hellmann’s Mayonnaise campaign it ran in South America, called WhatsCook. The campaign asked people to register their mobile phone number on a website in advance, and in return, a one to one, real-time service was launched on WhatsApp that connected people to professional chefs, who in term helped teach them how to cook a dish using the items that person had in their fridge and larder at home.
Whilst both these examples may be seen as being predominantly marketing exercises, ultimately, long-term success with messaging apps means combining the expertise of marketing and customer service teams. In China and parts of south-east Asia, sales teams are even being incorporated to serve a growing affection for conversational commerce.
“The first thing brands have to get to grips with is the fact that messaging and chat apps, by their very nature, are an inner play between outbound and inbound – so you have to be willing to fulfil that requirement," says Keim.
"The second thing is, there needs to be a strategy. Whether it’s for selling, marketing or service. Three or four years ago we saw a whole bunch of experimentation but now you need to have more of a long-term roadmap for how you’re incorporating the channel into your overall service and marketing mix.
“Then, the third thing is, you’ve actually got to think about how you’re going to physically combine the teams for certain actions. How you’re able pull on different resources will determine how well you can sustain relationships with customers beyond simple, short-term marketing campaigns.”
About Chris Ward
Chris is Editor of MyCustomer. He is a practiced editor, having worked as a copywriter for creative agency, Stranger Collective from 2009 to 2011 and subsequently as a journalist covering technology, marketing and customer service from 2011-2014 as editor of Business Cloud News. He joined MyCustomer in 2014.