Ashley Friedlein: Will conversational marketing become a reality in 2016?

Ashley Friedlein, founder of Marketing Week sister title Econsultancy, reckons this is the year marketing will become personalised conversations at scale.

Clearly, it’s not new to think of marketing as a conversation. In the Cluetrain Manifesto of 1999, Doc Searls and David Weinberger remind us that for thousands of years markets have been “conversations between people who sought out others who shared the same interests. Buyers had as much to say as sellers … markets were places where people met to see and talk about each other’s work. Conversation is a profound act of humanity.”

The voices taking part in marketing conversations have also proliferated. Andy Hobsbawm, founder of one of the first digital agencies and now founder and CMO of internet of things platform Evrythng, talks of three ages of ‘voice’: “The first age of broadcast media was built around the brand having a voice, and the second social media driven age centred on what we might call consumer voice. The third age will need to focus on product becoming both a media channel and an interface for service delivery.”

One of digital’s great promises, along with accountability, is personalisation at scale. And similarly to accountability, it is questionable how far digital has yet fully delivered on personalisation. The idea of personalised one-to-one marketing was popularised even earlier in the 1990s by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers in their book The One to One Future, which was published in 1994.

Could 2016 be the year that conversations actually become a paradigm for realising the promise of marketing as a personalised experience at scale? And an experience that can take place not just between human buyers and sellers but between brands, perhaps brought alive as bots, and physical products given a voice through the internet of things?

The effect of messaging apps

Online messaging is already huge and growing fast. Last month, WhatsApp passed the one billion user mark. Last year, messaging apps caught up with social networks in user numbers and now dominate mobile.

Facebook, among others, is investing heavily in messaging and it will be interesting to see how its virtual assistant Facebook M develops this year. As well as more general messaging apps, there are also specialist concierge services springing up such as Operator (for shopping), Pana and GoButler (both for travel). All of these use messaging, and conversations, as the core interface and interaction medium.

READ MORE: What could Facebook’s personal assistant ‘M’ mean for marketers?

There are many mobile-focused challenger brands launching this year, such as Atom Bank and Starling Bank, where we can expect to see conversational interactions forming a much greater part of the brand experience.

Conversation as the primary medium for communication is age-old. But much of the experimentation in digital products and services now is about making conversations the primary interface, or jumping off point, for commerce. This year has been touted as the year of “conversational commerce”, an early example being Uber’s integration into Facebook Messenger. We can expect to be sending money not just to friends but to bots in the near future. As mobile apps have access to rich contextual information about you, including location, social, health and sensor data, the opportunities for friction-free conversational commerce are exciting.

What about conversational content? Quartz recently launched a news app with a “whole new way” to experience news: one whose interface is an ongoing conversation. It is too early to say how well this will work but it is worth downloading to experience a ‘conversationalised’ user interface applied to content.

And conversational customer service? If you have experienced interacting with, say, Slack’s Slackbot, you will have glimpsed how service can be effectively delivered via a bot in a conversational interface that, whilst pure machine, can be imbued with the tone and feeling of a brand.

Conversations may always have been at the heart of markets and the most natural expression of personalisation, but digital has made it possible for marketing to be more of a dialogue, rather than a one-way voice. Perhaps only now will conversations really start to power communication, customer service, content and commerce.

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