People love conversational marketing. Here’s why: No waiting. Live discussions. Immediate feedback. Convenience. Speedy purchasing. A feeling of meaningful, human interactions— even though the entire experience is probably powered by artificial intelligence.

Conversational marketing is a form of fast, one-on-one messaging that’s reshaping the way companies handle lead conversion and customer service. In its most effective form, it’s a seamless blend of intelligent chatbots and human helpers who support customer engagement.

Then vs. Now

Many companies began testing the waters with conversational messaging in the late 90s— including Microsoft’s infamous Clippy the Paper Clip, a friendly animated assistant who was supposed to help people enjoy Microsoft 95. Unfortunately, Clippy’s peppy, tone-deaf style turned many people off to artificial assistance altogether.

The world learned a great lesson from Clippy: People hated him because he acted too fake. He asked the same questions over and over. He seemed out of touch with someone’s individual experience. Quite simply, he was rude— but with a big, bouncing smile.

“No matter how long users worked with Clippy, he never learned their names or preferences,” explains Stanford professor Clifford Nass, who studies human-computer relationships. “If you think of Clippy as a person, of course he would evoke hatred and scorn.”

Tech companies took the Clippy lesson to heart and continued developing new AI prototypes that would resonate more authentically with customers.

Modern Conversational Marketing

Today, most people have been willing to give bot-assisted interactions another shot. AI has come a long way. Intricately-programmed platforms, powered by huge databases of information, provide much more customized experiences.

You’re probably familiar with one of the most common forms of conversational marketing: that little floating window on a website with someone’s picture and a welcome like, “Hi, I’m Jane. How can I help you today?” That’s a conversational chatbot or chat window.

If you type a question into the window, you’ll receive a response in one of four ways – or a combination of them – depending on how the company is using conversational marketing:

  1. A real person will begin interacting with you immediately
  2. A well-programmed chatbot will provide a variety of pre-programmed answers
  3. Someone – human or not – will follow up with you later via email or text
  4. Higher-level learning AI will provide intricate, customized responses

There are pros and cons of the various approaches above, but #3 is generally considered to be a sub-par method. “We’ll get back to you” is an increasingly unacceptable answer in customer service. People are accustomed to fast responses.

#1 and #2, especially when they work in tandem, can provide excellent lead conversion during customers’ attraction phase, when they’re trying to learn more about your business. Users can ask quick questions about price, packages, features, and so forth, and your team has a chance to reassure them about moving to the next step, conversion.

#4 above, true learning AI, also known as machine learning, is still in early stages of development and isn’t in wide use for conversational marketing – although the future looks bright. Currently, its primary applications have been in public transportation, web optimization, and large-scale economic risk analysis and forecasting.

Conversational Marketing Examples

Chatbots are just one popular example of conversational marketing, so let’s look at a few more. Familiarity is important. Companies sometimes shy away from conversational marketing purely because they don’t understand exactly what it involves.

Email marketing, when handled correctly, is a form of conversational marketing – even though it gets a bad rap these days. 61% of people put the marketing messages they receive by email squarely in the “bad” category, but companies that send great emails tend to build devoted, loyal followings.

This might surprise you: 73% of millennials prefer receiving emails from companies/brands, rather than getting texts or social messages. Why? Because emails create a handy archive of information that can easily be referred to later. They can go back and reconsider your offer.

In order to be considered conversational marketing, email marketing MUST be a two-way discussion. If all you’re doing is sending out email blasts, you’re doing it wrong. If customer responses go to “DoNotReply,” you’re doing it wrong. To run at peak conversational effectiveness, someone should be in charge of handling fast email replies, even if the message rolls in at 2 a.m.

Mobile messaging is also a form of conversational marketing. It capitalizes on the popularity of messaging apps, which are the #1 use of mobile devices. In their day-to-day lives, people now prefer text messaging over almost every form of communication, including email, phone calls, and face-to-face interactions.

One reason mobile messaging is so popular is because it mostly lacks spam and ads, unlike emails, apps, and social media channels. However, this characteristic – being spam-free – also means customers hold companies to a high standard for mobile messaging. If a conversation starts to sound salesy, they’ll ghost you within seconds.

Mobile messaging isn’t just text messaging. It can take many forms.

SMS messaging: Traditional texting, using either the phone’s built-in app or another app selected by the user. These messages should be strictly opt-in and subsequent messages should be initiated by the user, not the company.

Push notifications: The company periodically sends a blast out to everyone who’s requested notifications. One drawback of this method is that people often forget they opted in earlier, so messages can come across as intrusive. Still, 50% of people find push notifications useful.

Video messaging: Users receive a link/video. This form of conversational marketing is polarizing – some people love it, and some hate it – so make sure it’s welcome by the recipient. A big benefit for senders is that these messages can contain much more detailed information than other formats.

In-app messaging: Users of a mobile app can request and receive immediate information, from right within the app. While only a narrow segment of people might take advantage of in-app messaging, it can triple your audience engagement among interested buyers and increase your conversion rate by about 27%.

Location-based marketing: These messages are only visible to people within a certain geographic area. They come in passive and active forms. Passive messages are ads and information that’s displayed based on the location of the viewer. Active messages are more urgent – they pop up into view based on location, rather than waiting to be discovered.

How Opinions Become Conversations

Continuing our look at the many forms of conversational marketing, let’s examine how your audience’s opinions can be the start of powerful two-way messaging experiences.

Polls and surveys might not seem like conversations, but they can be – especially when paired with yet another conversational marketing tool: social media.

For example, look at Facebook’s recently-relaunched opinion polling tool. Facebook users can post something like, “Would I look good with this haircut?” and friends can weigh in. Only those who vote can see the results, but everyone can comment.

Companies can use polls like these to generate fun, lively conversations. Ask fans to vote on upcoming product features, ask what they think of your podcast, or get feedback on national issues that inform your business strategy, like the economy, laws, or headlines.

The key is to conduct polls and surveys that don’t come across as totally self-serving. Be casual, human, specific, and not too boring about it. Instead of asking “Which of our products do you prefer?” ask “Would you pop open this wine at a campsite this summer?”

And this is crucial: Keep the conversation rolling. When they comment, answer back. Follow up with them later, too. If you asked what color your next product should be, make a big deal when you release the new color and reach back out to everyone who voted earlier.

Don’t Be Creepy About It

Any discussion about conversational marketing and lead conversion should include a caveat about going overboard with customer data. Because here’s the thing: You probably have a huge amount of information – even about non-customers and casual site browsers.

You can fairly easily find out all of the following things about someone who spends just a few seconds on your site:

  • Where they’re located
  • What device they’re using
  • What content they’re interested in
  • Where they went next
  • And on and on

But while you know all kinds of information about them, it’s not polite to bring it up abruptly in conversations. You wouldn’t do that to someone at a dinner party, and you shouldn’t do it when trying to woo a potential lead.

Remember old Clippy? He failed because he was too ignorant of customers’ individual situations. Today, companies are failing because they’re too informed about customer data and too awkward about sharing it. They’re creeping people out.

Look at what Netflix did last holiday season. After crunching some viewership numbers, they posted this on Twitter:

To the 53 people who’ve watched A Christmas Prince every day for the past 18 days: Who hurt you?

Twitter exploded with comments from people who were deeply disturbed by the idea that Netflix was not only tracking what they watched, but commenting about it publicly. Although some people found it funny, many others certainly did not.

Netflix tried to backtrack by posting that “an algorithm is looking at large pools of anon data” and “no one is looking at your individual history,” but people weren’t buying it. Netflix had opened a very human conversation with a snarky comment about people’s weird TV watching habits. When they followed it up by getting defensive, the whole thing felt creepy and cruel.

The Future of Conversational Marketing

OK, let’s shake off Netflix’s flub and wrap up with some good news. When conversational marketing is handled correctly, it can be highly effective for your business. Experts are calling it the marketing concept of the future, because of its long-term potential for lead conversion.

Here are some parting facts:

  • Dave Gerhardt, the CEO at Drift, coined the term “conversational marketing,” and then used conversational marketing about conversational marketing to make his business explode with success. Did your head just explode?
  • Of Facebook’s 70 million brand/company pages, 20 million are actively conversing with people at any given moment.
  • Two-thirds of consumers plan to increase their use of messaging apps to communicate with companies in the next 2 years.
  • Gartner Marketing Research predicts that within 3 years, most conversations with customers will be handled completely by virtual agents.

Are you ready for the future of conversational marketing?

To learn more about conversational marketing, lead conversion, and the other keys to an effective inbound marketing strategy, see the Sync Three Inbound Marketing Methodology.

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Jeff Elder

Jeff Elder

Jeff is the former co-founder of Bald Head Creative, which was formed in 2008. In 2016, Jeff transitioned out of Bald Head Creative and started his own company, Sync Three, an inbound agency. Sync Three works with business consulting firms to help them generate more website traffic, leads, and sales. Jeff's passion is helping organizations become more authentic as a brand and in how they market and sell. Jeff firmly believes that authenticity is the key to continued growth today and in the years to come.

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