From WeChat to WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger to Kik, instant messaging (IM) apps continue to grow in popularity among all age groups, with eMarketer forecasting that the number of IM app users worldwide will increase to 2 billion by 2018, representing 80% of smartphone users. But while brands such as the BBC, adidas, and KLM are already using IM platforms to market to consumers, how can they be incorporated into companies’ wider communications strategies and used to enhance the overall customer experience?
Despite the rate of growth, it is still early days for IM in Europe, but as Thomas Husson, vice-president and principal analyst, marketing and strategy at Forrester, points out, European marketers can learn from their Chinese counterparts, for whom IM is already a reality. “Awareness and implementation are much higher in Asia, and especially in China, due to the success of WeChat. In the US, brands are waking up to the opportunity but still mainly consider messaging apps as a customer service tool, while they can play a role throughout the customer life cycle.”
Chinese consumers already use the WeChat app to book a doctor’s appointment, pay a bill, or control the light in their hotel room, leading them to spend more than a third of their total mobile time in the app. While European brands have yet to garner such a regular and dedicated following, some are investing in IM—for example, KLM, which last April launched a bot (a computer programme that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to simulate conversation and perform tasks) enabling passengers to receive flight updates such as booking confirmation, flight status, and a boarding pass through Facebook Messenger. Domino’s also spotted an opportunity, launching a bot that allows users to order pizzas directly within Facebook Messenger, without the need to enter credit card and delivery details.
Ensuring a brand’s use of IM meets a definite need is what will drive people to keep coming back, offering consumers convenience and giving brands the opportunity to create a conversation. “It’s dangerous to think of IM as a marketing tool,” said Tom Ollerton, innovation director at We Are Social. “Instead, ask, ‘what’s the user getting out of my brand being on IM?’ Remember when the user is on IM, they are choosing to be in a very personal space and they don’t expect to find your brand on there, unless they have actively been looking for it. It’s crucial to ensure brands are solving a problem [for consumers], and don’t overstay their welcome.”
But Tom Goodwin, an executive vice-president and head of innovation at Zenith, says companies should also be pushing boundaries. “Yes, we’ve got KLM dabbling early in this, but why can’t IM be used to tell me my flight is boarding? Why can’t it guide me through the airport or tell me the expected wait time at immigration or security? Why can’t my airline baggage tag be a digital image in it with notifications in real time? We need to work around new technology to transform, not find the easiest chunks to address on the edges.”
After all, arguably one of the biggest opportunities presented by IM lies in deepening the conversation between the brand and the consumer, enabled by this more intimate means of communicating. But it has to be right. “Most businesses are missing the point,” said Goodwin. “We now have a way to reach people in the most personal way, to build a really meaningful and useful relationship, one where we get to serve them better.”
Adidas’s work in this area is a good example of creating a sense of belonging, using WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger to build hyper local communities in cities across the world. Community members are sent news before it is released anywhere else, as well as receiving event invites and getting the chance to meet adidas-sponsored athletes.
As Husson said, “To get customers to engage in conversations, marketers must be more human, helpful, and handy.”
Branding The Conversation
Being human increasingly means using AI to simulate the human factor, something that is fuelling the growth of bots after both Kik and Facebook launched “bot stores” in 2016, which allowed brands to develop their own within their IM apps. Bots are now getting more sophisticated, and companies who use them well—ensuring that they reflect the values and personality of the brand—can, perhaps, overcome the desire for human interaction.
For example, Uber’s bot uses AI to send updates on the driver’s progress, as well as saving users’ receipts and payment history, while travellers can also share their trips with friends or colleagues to communicate their ETA. It is a prime example of added value and personal service, thanks to automation. But automation shouldn’t be at the expense of character.
“Brands need to think about the personality of their automated assistant, and how that manifests itself as a bot, and how it behaves in Messenger—it’s surprising how few brands are even attempting to understand this,” said Ollerton. In other words, the bot strategy needs to be considered in the context of a company’s overall branding strategy, in the same way as any other marketing discipline.
“When creating @DomThePizzaBot for Domino’s, our editorial team devoted a huge amount of time to creating a personality, tone of voice, and even imaginary social posts for the bot, to ensure consumers would enjoy interacting with it and that its tone of voice truly reflected the brand,” said Ollerton.
Indeed, the way we communicate brand and emotion has changed, and continues to change. Emojis, photos, videos, and branded stickers all constitute a new everyday form of communication for consumers, and organisations need to stay one step ahead. Husson urges brands to invest tactically in this more emotional and visual language by testing emoji, stickers, and GIFs, effectively enabling them to brand the conversation within IM.
Using this new language to enhance the whole customer experience provides a sizeable opportunity for brands. It is not about one of marketing gimmicks, but about creating a meaningful and personal ongoing dialogue that adds value while reinforcing brand personality.
The biggest challenge, arguably, is cultural change. “People think of mobile as a department, not a philosophy,” said Goodwin. “Companies think advertising is an investment and customer service is a cost, and these units are built as silos.”
But the lines have blurred. And, this time, it really is personal.