Of all the technologies and buzz words in the headlines, one has to go pretty far down the list to find “messaging apps.” This is surprising, because messaging apps are in the middle stages of disrupting communications just as deeply as Uber and Airbnb disrupted transportation and hospitality. What began in the early 1990’s with Short Messaging Service (basic texting) has evolved into a rich ecosystem of apps, chatbots and platforms that are altering the way we interact with each other, with our connected environment and with brands.
Here’s what business leaders need to know about messaging applications, how they are transforming business interactions, and why they should play a key role in every customer relations strategy.
The messaging realm
Messaging apps are conversational platforms. These include text and photo apps like Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. Messaging apps are the number one and most popular type of app for the 7 billion mobile devices in use 24 hours a day. Chatbots are interactive text and voice apps that live on messaging apps and are used to ask and answer customer questions. The messaging category also includes voice and video-based intelligent agents like Amazon’s Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant, and team chat and collaboration platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams.
Innovation in adjacent technologies (natural language processing, AI/machine learning and semantic search) is driving rapid expansion of capabilities in messaging apps, chatbots and intelligent agents. Case in point: There are more than 200,000 bots available on the Facebook Messenger Bot platform. The growth trajectory of bots is in sharp contrast to the declining popularity of apps that must be downloaded. This shift in communications preferences reinforces the belief that “ bots are the new apps ” (Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella), and for 7 billion mobile users, the chatbot is emerging as the new browser.
The value of chatbots
The integration of chatbots into messaging apps is helping to transform them from simple social conversations to business related conversations. Chatbot conversations are becoming more and more prevalent in customer service areas, direct sales and content marketing. As chatbots become more intelligent they’re enabling communications channels that are richer, more interactive and conversational.
Businesses are deploying and integrating interactive features to chatbots like clickable fields, option A or B, a carousel catalog browser and content distribution. Commerce features like tools to create official accounts, payments methods and in-context suggestions are also gaining popularity. The use cases for chatbots extend to every customer lifecycle touch point, from the front-end user experience, through marketing, sales and lead generation, into commerce and payment transactions and to customer support at the back end.
Chatbots offer a deeper, more direct relationship with the customer, resulting in a more engaged customer and the ability to have deeper conversations, especially during the retention phase.
Getting started with chatbots
The first step to getting started is to define your goals and use cases. Resolving customer service issues, promoting a new product or generating quality leads are among the most common target areas for chatbot development. After defining your goal and use case, the next decision is choosing the platform for the chatbot. Chatbots can be incorporated into your website or through any number of popular messaging platforms like Facebook Messenger or Twitter direct message. In some use cases the demographics of the target audience will guide platform choice. In other cases, the focal point may be on your existing customers.
From here, the process is roughly the same as any other application development project: build out a content strategy, map customer journeys, develop the application, test, release and iterate. The unique aspects of chatbot development are building out conversations trees and learning how to process input using linguistic analysis (either rules-based or AI/machine learning-enabled), and how to deploy and integrate bots with messaging apps.
Many messaging channels and chatbots apps have opened up APIs for businesses to communicate with their customers. The ecosystem of messaging tools and platforms is expanding rapidly and includes capabilities to manage multiple communications channels so that the right message goes to the right user at the right time.
The bottom line
A strategy to develop and integrate chatbots and messaging apps is not without some risk. Competing platforms like Apple’s iMessage and Rich Communication Services (RCS), which is supported by Google, and efforts to reduce reliance on apps in general, like Google’s “Instant Apps,” could reduce the effectiveness of messaging apps. So far, these risks have not diminished the energy or investment pouring into the messaging and chatbot technologies. The best advice is to start experimenting with one or two use cases, then add more capabilities as skills, standards and technologies mature.
With all of today’s innovations and technology advances, it makes sense to have a defined strategy for messaging, how it fits into the various business operations like customer service, customer engagement, communications, employee engagement and ecommerce. For anyone trying to build a brand or launch a new product, messaging is a critically important new area to conquer. Right now, the field is wide open.