Conversational Marketing is the New Direct Marketing

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Marketing has changed drastically over the last decade, fueled by the evolution of technology and the demands of more discerning, sophisticated and impatient consumers. Yet, despite the consumer’s evolving preferences for how they access products, services and information, I would argue that most brands lag behind their customers’ desires and needs—continuing to rely on high frequency, one-way communications while striving to instill urgency to drive conversions.

This seems particularly true within the world of direct marketing that is heavily reliant on one-way channels where brands push the latest sales offer in tightly packaged, largely text-based campaigns, hoping to move the needle a few percentage points. As a long time direct marketer and a humble student of the great David Ogilvy, it always felt somehow arrogant to believe we could compel, persuade or influence a consumer by speaking at them, employing one-way interactions without thinking they might want to say something back.

According to eMarketer, SMS mobile marketing conversion rate from Black Friday 2020 was 3.5% which was awesome and significantly above 2019. But the question I have is if there is more opportunity by better addressing the needs of the non-responding 96% to drive conversions even higher? This is based on my hypothesis that the consumers who didn’t buy might have more questions or need more information about the product or service in order to make a more informed buying decision. What if that product isn’t the right fit and the target wants to explore an alternate product or offer? Would the brand be willing —for the price of acquisition—to allow the customer to communicate their preferences and apply the discount to something else the brand might offer?

The evolution I believe we as marketers need to take is to stop talking at our customers and invite them to have dialogue. The solution is conversational marketing: designing purposeful customer interactions that invites and welcomes customers to have a conversation with your brand, to ask questions or modify a product offering or incentive so it fits their interests and needs. By initiating or offering two-way dialogue with our customers, we will sell more products, drive down acquisition costs and have much more satisfied customers by listening to them and treating them as an individual. A happy byproduct of this is the wealth of invaluable consumer insight to be derived through the act of a conversation, helping your future programs drive even more relevant personalized interactions.

Conversational marketing driven through messaging
As we all know, personalization means treating customers like individuals, I would suggest inviting them to real-time two-way conversation, listening to and incorporating their specific desires and needs back into the sales process is the next extension of this. Even though the communications technology we use has evolved over the years, our human instincts still gravitate toward stories and conversations – and we expect the brands we engage with to prioritize those emotional instincts in a helpful and informative way. It’s very likely your customers want to inquire more about the benefits of a product or get answers to specific questions before actually making the purchase. On top of that, they want this information to be accessible, convenient—and most importantly—delivered via the channel they prefer.

Until recently, marketing technology did not have the capabilities of delivering an enriching and engaging personalized conversation at scale. However, capabilities like artificial intelligence (AI)-powered chatbots deployed in key direct marketing channels like SMS/MMS can make this a reality. For example, leveraging an AI bot using SMS within your proactive or reactive direct marketing program allows marketers to fully embrace the new era of conversational marketing. While still a relatively new concept, AI text bot chat is quickly gaining market traction — especially during a global pandemic that has profoundly shifted consumer behavior and expectations of brand digital experiences.

“Conversational technology has matured rapidly since the start of COVID-19,” says Tess Tettelin, chatbot expert and conversation designer at Chatlayer.AI by Sinch. “With nearly all businesses having to go virtual in such a short period of time, they had to find digital solutions to be omnipresent and meet the massive increase in customer support load – an optimal situation for chatbots and AI. Almost overnight, millions of people were using chatbots to get things done without any human intervention and they’ll expect to continue to do so after the pandemic as well.”

More than ever, today’s consumers are purchasing products via their mobile devices, as evidenced by the expected 68% growth of mobile commerce by 2022. While the magnitudinal shift to mobile commerce comes as no big surprise, there’s a growing demand for brands to be “present” during the virtual buying process by being ready to converse and answer questions. To be successful, direct marketers will need to eschew the traditional mindset of just “pushing” a product toward a customer and focus more on engagement.

“Conversational marketing has the power to make brands feel more human and engage with customers on a more personal level by creating a two-way dialogue. Customers can now share concerns, ask questions and get personalized offers tailored to their specific needs. This not only converts a higher rate of new customers, but also retains more existing customers and increases revenue through up-selling and increased customer satisfaction,” explained Tettelin.

Conversational marketing enables brands to communicate with existing customers and prospects in a way that’s more personalized and conversational, enabling the customer to go deeper than the traditional pushed offer that they are used to. Marry this with SMS/MMS for maximum reach and engagement (98% read rate within 4 minutes of receipt) and you have a uniquely powerful direct connection to your customers.

I encourage you to consider an investment in conversational marketing as part of your 2021 plan. Gartner research states that 50% of businesses this year will invest more in conversational marketing than mobile apps. Responding to customer inquiries in real time is key to conversational marketing, which is why marketers need to understand the benefits of investing in AI-driven tools (such as chatbots and APIs) that connect your marketing platforms to the most popular messaging apps like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and many others. Not only does this technology drive consumer engagement, but usage will only continue to increase. By 2022, 70% of customer interactions will involve emerging technologies such as machine learning (ML) applications, chatbots and mobile messaging, up from 15% in 2018.

Implementing a conversational marketing approach into your next marketing campaign can be done in several different ways. A very simple approach to add a conversational layer would be to activate FAQs via an automated chatbot. Through the use of chatbots, marketers can still send out offers, but customers would now have an open, always-on channel that is purpose-built for their responses. A chatbot is a powerful tool that can help fill in the blanks, answer customer questions about a product offer and provide them with any additional information requested.

“In an age where clients expect immediate responses to their requests, chatbots can not only meet those requests in 1-to-1 conversations at scale 24/7/365, but they can do so in a highly personalized way,” Tettelin continued. “Instead of sharing the same information with everyone, brands can now create unique offers and content tailored to each individual customer, servicing them more efficiently and, if done right, improve customer satisfaction at the same time,” said Tettelin.

By incorporating a more human-centric approach to marketing, brand managers can successfully drive higher engagement, deliver a more personalized, tailored experience and sell more product while driving higher consumer satisfaction. The customer interaction invokes a two-way “win/win” engagement instead of the traditional “abusive” customer experience with marketing. Enabling customers to ask questions is the first step to a successful conversational marketing strategy, and brands that invest in this approach now will be in a better position to increase loyalty and reduce churn immediately.

As marketers increasingly dip into their spending budgets for the new year, an investment in conversational marketing will determine which side of the 96%/4% conversion fence their brand may fall on—and no brand wants to leave that 96% on the table.

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