Online Conversation: It’s About the Content, Not the Technology

Retailers know that competition for digital customers can be fierce. Today, more customers are using multiple channels and comparing several product options before buying. And brands are scrambling to keep pace with consumer demands for information and engagement. Providing opportunities for online conversation is fast becoming a must-have for retailers.

Why are conversational platforms gaining traction? Customers like being able to reach a live person while shopping online. Almost a decade ago, in 2010, Forrester began heralding the rise of proactive chat. In 2010, Forrester Research revealed that 44% of customers appreciated having questions answered by a live person while making an online purchase.

And more recently, Forrester found that customers who chat with a live agent are 2.8x more likely to convert. Other research discovered that those customers also spend an average of 60% more. 

Online Conversation Content Over Technology Chatters 2.8x convert iAdvize

No doubt about it: Conversation is taking take root as an online retail best practice. But there are several perspectives on what a true conversation is. Some companies confuse technology that supports any interaction with customers as conversation. Others may add a single open-ended question to a survey and believe they’ve initiated a “conversation” with customers.

The truth is a technology that gathers customer information isn’t the equivalent of a conversation. If your conversational strategy begins and there, you definitely have work to do. A genuine conversation is human-to-human — and all about content. 

Yes, 1:1 conversations between brands and customers can happen online–and at scale. In this post, we’ll explain a few of the common misconceptions about online conversation and describe the qualities of a true, content-rich conversation.

Technology Is Not Conversation

For many years, brands felt they full had control of the conversation with customers. Most marketing communication was done en masse and focused on what the brand wanted customers to know. Sure, there were focus groups and surveys to gather customer insight. But those opinions–if used at all–went back into shaping a brand’s core message.

As technology took over, brands gained new techniques to reach customers. But customers have had new ways to communicate with brands as well. While brands have adopted channels like email, social media, and chat, some still adhere to old mindsets about the nature of customer communications. 

Some companies use the term “conversation” loosely to cover a broad array of customer interactions that aren’t personal or two-way. Often, this happens when organizations focus on the technology underpinning the interaction–not the actual content of the exchange.

Mis-Identifying One-Sided Interactions as Conversation

We often see the term “conversation” applied to one-sided interactions with customers. At times, some brands or technologists may say two machines sharing data is a conversation. We don’t agree.

Here’s why: Our analysis of the definition of conversation has found that conversations are “human-to-human, two-way, and involve a sharing of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas.” 

Why is there any confusion about the definition of conversation? Technology specialists and developers have long-used use synonyms for “conversation”–such as chat and dialog–to describe customer-facing features. And, over the years, a lot of solutions have relied on features like these and claimed to foster conversations with customers. But they’re truly only gathering data or allowing customers to perform a function.

We see this disconnects often. Consider these examples listed in an article on conversation in business from ChatbotNewsDaily:

  1. “Isn’t making a credit card payment or sending money to a friend a form of conversation?”
  2. “When you send an image to your auto insurance company’s mobile claim bot isn’t that a more powerful conversation than a voice call or web chat?”
  3. “When you ask your “machine” personal assistant to schedule a meeting next week through simple voice commands you have just had a conversation with an effective, efficient machine.”
  4. “When your bank sends an automatic payment to your electric company did machines have a conversation without you?”

No, these examples aren’t conversations. The first three involve humans interfacing with machines. And the first two could spark a back-and-forth conversation–but they may not. None of them involve the sharing of ideas or opinions. And none (except maybe the “send money to a friend” example) have a human-to-human element.

And look at the last example. That machine-to-machine interaction is a data transfer, not a conversation at all.

So what does this mean for retailers? If your business is using an incorrect definition, you may believe that you are having a lot of conversations with customers. But truly you may be having a lot of interactions–or even data transfers–but very few genuine conversations.

The moral of the story is: Don’t assume that every technology that lets you interact with customers is fostering authentic conversations. And mis-applying the definition of conversation isn’t going to win goodwill with customers.

Relying Too Heavily on Chatbots as Conversational Tools

Chatbots cause some of the biggest disconnects about the meaning of conversation. Now, chatbots can have immense value when used in an appropriate and focused way. They can answer straightforward questions and help customers who prefer to self-serve. 

At iAdvize, we appreciate the role chatbots play in a well-rounded online customer care approach. We’re big proponents of smart online strategies that let online visitors select whether to interact with bots, customer service reps, or brand ambassadors. 

But we know that chatbots have limitations too. Simply put, chatbots aren’t human. And they can’t sustain an authentic, empathetic, back-and-forth conversation.

For example, Chatbots Magazine has discussed how bots can improve the post-purchase survey process for retailers. It’s true that a chatbot can expedite the process of gathering feedback. After all, a survey is typically relatively straightforward. Surveys often feature closed-ended questions, which are easy to present using chatbot technology.

As Chatbots Magazine explains, many companies send emails to gather feedback after a transaction. And the path to provide feedback is typically a complex, multi-step process. The consumer may need to scan through several calls-to-action, click on a link to a website, and input personal details before accessing the survey. 

By contrast, a messaging-based approach using a bot can start with a single message. If the customer responds, the bot can lead the consumer through several questions to gather feedback.

But closed-ended surveys are narrow in scope. They don’t support the full range of human expression and emotions. Think about what happens if you don’t provide the expected survey answer.

Many surveys ask for you to provide input on a numeric scale–

Online Conversation Content Chat Window Score 9 iAdvize

…but you can type anything into a text window.

Online Conversation Content Chat Window Score MAYBE iAdvize

Chances are, the survey bot will only be able to address a very small set of the infinite number of potential responses. You’re likely to get an error message in reply. And that will make the exchange impersonal and not conversational.

The same thing occurs with online customer support bots. Unless asked to provide precise input, customers can say anything to a bot. And chatbots are often following a very set process–which can’t tolerate off-script answers.

Online Conversation Content Chat Window Reservation iAdvize

To sum up, technology can empower brands to connect with customers in diverse and novel ways. But don’t fall into the trap of mixing up interactions with conversations. A genuine conversation is human-to-human, with meaningful and personalized content.  

Today’s conversational experience tools let you have proactive conversations online and at scale. You can reach people in real-time, at the moment when they’re approaching a purchase. And you can help guide customers towards confident, informed buying decisions.

Why is Content Essential for Conversation?

A conversation online between a brand and a customer can be just like any conversation. With messaging-based conversational technology, customers and brand experts can connect to share ideas and insights. Customers can ask questions to someone who will listen and can feel that their needs matter.

But what content turns an interaction into a meaningful conversation? We all know a good conversation when we have one. Those discussions aren’t just an exchange of pleasantries and facts. There are other intangible, felt qualities that elevate the value of conversations. 

We’ll cover three of the most important qualities every conversation should have. And no technology can even come close to embodying these qualities.

Authentic

We’ve all met good conversationalists. And you may aspire to be one. The good news is conversation skills can be learned by you or your team of brand ambassadors. One learned those skills could apply in any setting, including online customer conversations. 

How can brands have authentic conversations with customers? Here are some conversation tips from Fast Company

  • Focus on the other person: Instead of promoting the brand’s message, conversations should center on customer needs.
  • Practice active listening: Always listen to customers. The conversation is, after all, all about them, not the brand. 
  • Ask good questions: Let customers know they’ve been heard by asking good questions to understand their wishes more clearly.
  • Be sensitive to time: Good conversations move at a relaxed, comfortable pace. But customers’ need for efficiency is always important.

Listening, attention, and respect. Those essentials set high-value conversations apart from so-so ones. 

Emotions-Rich

One of the big things that distinguish humans from machines is our ability to feel and express genuine emotions. 

We may be living in an era where SciFi writers predicted human-like replicants to walk the earth (Remember the original Blade Runner that was set in 2019?

Online Conversation Content Blade Runner iAdvize

But no, technology hasn’t caught up with speculative fiction and film. Instead, we have simplistic chatbots with limited ranges of communication and (obviously) zero emotion. In fact, minor forays into “context switching”–a technique that lets bots adapt to shifts in conversation–are just emerging on the horizon. 

Maybe we’ll be closer to human-esque robots with a range of emotions in 2049. Or maybe not. We’ll be sure to weigh in a few decades from now!

Online Conversation Content Blade Runner iAdvize

Contemporary technology is nowhere near replicating the complex range of human emotions. Yet, many consumer studies have confirmed that retailers need to care about building emotional bonds with customers. Customers who feel an emotional connection to a brand are more apt to stay loyal, buy more, and refer friends and family.

In fact, one study of 1,000 consumers found that 90% feel an emotional bond with a business. According to the Harvard Business Review, those emotionally-vested individuals are “fully connected customers.” They have immense financial value to any brand:

Companies deploying emotional-connection-based strategies and metrics to design, prioritize, and measure the customer experience find that increasing customers’ emotional connection drives significant improvements in financial outcomes.

That’s one big reason why brands are recognizing the emotional aspect of the customer experience (CX). And conversation can help foster the positive feelings that customers crave. Customers can feel valued, supported, pleasantly surprised, and confident about their purchases. Plus, through conversation, brands can create the feel-good sentiments that build stronger customer connections per consumer research:

Online Conversation Content Over Technology Emotion Connection Reasons iAdvize

Another point of note: Forrester Research has affirmed that emotions are a primary driver of brand energy–or “the holistic measure of the power of a brand.” 

Online Conversation Content 48 emotion iAdvize

Empathetic

We all know that technology systems and bots can be efficient. But empathy is out of their reach. 

Humans love to feel understood. Exactly how should brands express empathy towards customers when conversing online? According to research from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, careful attention to language makes a big difference. 

Of note, MIT advises brand reps to use “I” instead of “we” when possible. Instead of saying, “We can help you with that,” say, “I can help you with that.” The reason: “I” conveys personalized attention to the issue at hand. And “I” also shows ownership of the issue.

Sure, developers can program bots to say “I.” But users don’t like it when chatbots try to mimic human emotions and empathy. They like it even less when chatbots pretend to be human.

Consider the case of IKEA’s now-defunct chatbot Anna, who served the Swedish retailer’s site for nearly a decade (2005-2016). While Anna could find products and tell customers the price of the cafe’s Swedish Meatballs, the brand retired her due to “customer dissatisfaction.” 

Why didn’t Anna survive? It was unclear whether she was a human or not at times. Her appearance and answers were ambiguous. And visitors were confused by her inability to answer simple questions, as this exchange reveals:

Us: “Does your bed come with a mattress?”

Anna: “Here you will find the Beds & mattresses.” (Anna very stupidly sent us to the Beds & mattresses product category page.)

We then asked about shipment of the bed to an address on an island that required transportation by boat, again Anna was no help.

I tried a few other queries, including:

Us: “Do you accept American Express?”

Anna: “I try to be as efficient as possible. Is there another IKEA related question I can help you with?” (Anna obviously didn’t understand this simple question.)

Although Anna made customers feel welcome at first, most quickly saw through her disguise. The company decided to retire her in 2016 and didn’t make plans for a replacement. As the Association for Computing Machinery explains:  

While the full reason is unclear, frustrating customer interactions with Anna may have played a major role in ending Ikea’s innovative chatbot adventure. As Magnus Jern, president of the mobile solutions company DMI, told the BBC, “If you try too hard to be natural, it diverts from the real purpose of [the chatbot], which is about giving the right answer as fast as possible.” Ikea’s chatbot initiative clearly struggled in terms of balancing human versus robot aspects, causing people to ask “stupid questions,”…because Anna was too human, according to Ikea.

The example of IKEA’s failed Anna chatbot makes it clear that a human-like appearance and efficiency (and even the use of “I” in dialog) can never make up for a bot’s innate lack of empathy.

Content is the Heart of Online Conversation

Brands have no shortage of ways to connect with customers from digital channels. Many technologies–like email marketing–are affordable mainstays of retail marketing. Still, brands need to move past the one-to-many mindset that’s dominated marketing for decades. A genuine 1:1 approach is accessible thanks to conversational experience platform solutions.

As we begin, brands need to be honest with themselves about how they engage with customers online.  It’s essential that retailers don’t rely on an expansive definition of conversation. Online payments aren’t conversation. One-way surveys aren’t conversation. Bot-centered interactions aren’t conversation.

Conversations are two-way exchanges between humans. And brands need to focus on cultivating authentic conversations with customers that are emotions-rich and empathetic. Today’s customers want brands to know who they are and address individual needs in real-time. And they want to feel valued and appreciated every step of the way.

Without a conversational experience platform, it’s difficult for retailers to provide the meaningful, personalized content customers desire. Content becomes a bottleneck. And customers can feel that brands don’t care about their wants and needs.

A conversational approach, empowered by on-demand messaging, links customers to brand advocates who can relate to each customer as an individual. Customers can feel valued and appreciated. And retailers will see more conversions, higher order volumes, and an increase in customer happiness.

 

The human-to-human experience is still the greatest opportunity to create customer loyalty. Even with all the ability to automate and digitize the personalized – and now individualized – effort, the human-to-human connection is hard to beat. Take the next step in personalizing your customer experience

 

fritz.lauer@iadvize.com
Fritz

Digital Marketer with a passion for MarTec. Finding the human element of a brand, and the technology to scale is the name of the game.

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