Marketing is a cold way to connect with customers. Despite efforts at personalization, marketing only ever gets lukewarm when it comes to delivering what customers want, when they want it. “Personalized” emails do little else than scribble your name in the subject line. Targeted ads find you when you’ve already purchased a product. Social media posts promote an event that you wanted to attend … last week.
Traditional marketing methods lack the human touch that helps deliver marketing messages when customers want them most. Between a lack of personalization and bad timing, marketing needs a paradigm shift so that marketers are better equipped to market to consumers instead of at them.
This is where conversational marketing has a real chance to shine. It delivers marketing messages in a conversational way (think one-to-one messaging such as Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp) to bring some of the “humanity” back into marketing through a dialogue instead of a monologue.
Gartner (research available to clients) predicts that by 2020, “conversational marketing will be a recognized channel of B2B and B2C customer engagement and revenue, displacing a combination of marketing, sales and service activities.”
Using conversational marketing, businesses can create a dialogue that allows for a better understanding of a customer’s needs and a greater opportunity for real-time engagement to help drive more conversions.
So, what better way to talk about conversational marketing than to have a conversation?
I sat down with Sançar Sahin, VP of Marketing at Typeform—an online form and survey builder with the word “conversation” at its core—to talk about conversational marketing, AI, and why conversation is the latest buzzword in business software.
*Sançar worked as head of content marketing at GetApp in 2014 – 2015.
What is conversational marketing?
Sitting down at Typeform’s head offices in Barcelona, Sançar Sahin, a seasoned marketer, defined the core concept behind conversational marketing as a way to fill the gaps left by traditional marketing. In a nutshell, it’s about delivering marketing messages at the right time and place, when customers will be more receptive to and engaged with a brand.
The term conversational marketing is all about cracking open that shell and creating a dialogue to get to that point.
Conversational marketing is a way to talk to customers using a one-to-one, real-time interaction so that they can engage with businesses at times that are convenient for them.
Instead of lead forms or landing pages, customers can reach out using messaging apps or a chat pop-up on a website. A chatbot with AI capabilities is then able to either handle the request or route it to a human agent that could do the same.
Drift is a conversational tool that aims to engage consumers in real time (Source)
Companies, in return, get more qualified leads, a quicker sales cycle, and a better understanding of their customers’ needs and preferences by being able to answer a customer’s questions in real time.
The prominence of messaging apps and the fact that people are spending more time there than on social media also gives an undeniable advantage for businesses looking to connect with their customers. As Gartner (research available to clients) notes, “marketers are searching for a persistent consumer touchpoint (like voice, email or SMS) to adapt to consumer behaviors that span a wide variety of devices at different stages of the customer journey.”
Scaling conversational marketing
The first thought that crossed my mind when considering conversational marketing was scale.
Having a one-to-one conversation is simple enough, but what if you have thousands of customers vying for your attention? While developing its product, Typeform tried to counter the familiar challenge of collecting information, at scale, while still trying to be personal.
“Forms are great at asking for information at scale. Traditionally, what they’re not good at is enhancing you as a brand,” Sançar says.
The problem with forms is that they’re traditionally cold. For a customer, they’re far removed from a brand persona, to say nothing of the actual person writing the questions. They’re almost clinical in their approach to collecting information.
Typeform is about making that process a bit more rooted in reality.
By ingraining the word conversation into the development of its product, Typeform was able to find a way to make forms more conversational by asking one question at a time—kind of like you would if you were having a real conversation.
An example of a Typeform survey
This same idea can be applied to conversational marketing. Instead of a broad-sweeping message that gets lost in space, a conversational approach more closely resembles a real-life interaction. To be able to do that at scale, however, AI needs to play a role.
As Sançar notes, it’s not easy to scale a system when you have real people involved in the process of responding to customers asking for more information. With the help of AI, having these interactions becomes a lot more scalable.
You can start by getting a bot to ask a few qualifying questions to see the nature of the request. From there, you’ll be able to send it off to a human agent or continue with a bot, if the request is simple enough. “You divert everyone into a more automated but still conversational flow,” Sançar explains.
The question then becomes how “human” this technology can (and should) be.
Blurring the line between humans and technology
“We’re in this kind of weird transition stage,” Sançar says. “Technology used to be only functional, and now, we’re getting to a point where we’re … not happy with it just being functional. It needs to feel more human. We’ve lost our human touch.”
Whereas we once used technology to help us do things more quickly or accurately, it has since shifted to become an extension of ourselves. Think of trying to communicate with friends. We started with phone calls, then switched to text messaging out of convenience. Eventually, we realized that text couldn’t get the message across well enough, and started using voice notes. Now, hearing and seeing someone is only a video call away. We’re trying to introduce a human aspect to something that was once simply a practical tool.
If done properly, conversational marketing provides a real opportunity to bring back that “human” aspect. But it means skirting the fine line between technology and human touch.
The idea behind conversational marketing is to reduce the line between humans and technology enough so that we forget that it’s even there. Ironically, we’re in a place now where we’re trying to use technology to get to a place we were before it even existed.
“We’re trying to make technology as invisible as possible. We’re trying to make the experience as frictionless as possible. Chatbots and messaging apps do that in a good way, because we feel like it’s the closest we can get to having a one-to-one conversation, like we are now in the same room, but over this kind of divide of the technology or space,” Sançar says.
Though AI may not be advanced enough to fool us into thinking there’s a person on the other end, it’s possible that in the future, that won’t even matter.
“Do we need to keep pretending that there’s a human on the other end?” asks Sançar.
That’s one of the biggest questions when it comes to AI: Are we aiming to replicate a human, or are we hoping for machines to go above and beyond and provide support in an almost superhuman way? The Turing Test, developed in 1950 by Alan Turing to assess how closely a computer could simulate a human response, certainly aimed to test the limits of that.
The Turing Test aims to see how closely a bot can resemble human responses (Source)
“I think that’s how chatbots kind of started. They wanted to kind of fake the human. The question really is … are we going to get to a point where we understand we’re not talking to a human but we don’t really care because actually the technology is perhaps more human than we’ve ever been in the way that we programmed it?” Sançar asks.
In this scenario, chatbots would be able to outperform humans in terms of delivering service, either at speed, accuracy, or relevance of response. Albeit, we’re still a ways away from that, but the potential could actually help improve the technology by removing the need to “fake” a human and creating something that can actually outperform us.
“We haven’t quite got there yet, but I think in the future, technology will go beyond just matching humans and it’ll go into kind of superhuman status where actually, we’ll prefer to talk to a machine … support agent than a real-life support agent,” Sançar predicts.
Only time will tell if we reach this level where people will prefer bots to machines. If it’s empathy and understanding that’s missing, it’ll be a bigger challenge, but if it’s a quick resolution or fast interaction, the possibility is within reaching distance.
‘Conversation’ is the new buzzword
During our interview, I couldn’t help but notice the word “conversation” scribbled on a sticky note pasted to the whiteboard in Typeform’s office. With the word “conversation” at the crux of its marketing, Typeform sees the value of aligning itself with one of this year’s biggest buzzwords in the software space.
The term “conversation” is being tacked onto many a business term to help hammer home the idea of interaction. There’s conversational commerce, which uses bots to helps customers during the purchasing process. The use of AI in customer support has been well-documented and debated, while messaging apps have their own ecosystem of conversational approaches to connecting with customers.
An example of conversational marketing with Layer, a conversational tool (Source)
If conversational eCommerce and customer service are trying to help sell a product or resolve an issue for customers using bots, then what’s the difference between that and conversational marketing?
“In my opinion, not a lot,” Sançar says. “If you think about how we’re talking about conversational marketing, it’s the same thing. It’s using a messaging and conversational tone to guide somebody through a process, whatever that process is, whether that’s getting to the next stage of your funnel or the next step in your user journey.”
This also opens up the door to other types of marketing testing out the “conversational” treatment.
Typeform itself has experimented with conversational interfaces in its blog, allowing users to interact with the author of the blog post (in bot form). Something like content marketing, where the end result is typically far removed from the creation process, can use the conversational approach to break down that fourth wall in a type of “behind-the-scenes” approach. This, too, helps bring a more “human” side to a brand in what can normally be a very static channel.
Treating customers like humans
“Is it really that much of a surprise that people react better to being spoken to like an actual human being?” Sançar asks.
It shouldn’t be. Conversational marketing is a good reminder for marketers not to forget that. As customers’ lives become more saturated in technology, providing a human and truly personal experience is a breath of fresh air for customers looking to dodge the marketing machine.
Starting to develop a conversational approach to marketing—whether you decide to use the buzzword or not—will quickly become a competitive advantage for businesses looking to know more about their customers and strike while the iron is hot.