Burning Questions: Conversations With Customers

For brand marketers looking for ways to engage more deeply with customers, conversational marketing is near the top of the list of options to consider. There are a number of AI-based technologies that make natural language interactions at scale possible without adding bodies to the equation.   

But evaluating the opportunity creates a bit of a quandary, because there’s  little data to show how effective these relatively new technologies will be in boosting revenue (the ultimate goal.)  So investing time and money in them is a leap of faith.  Will customers want to have conversations with brands? Do they really have burning questions that need to be answered?

In the late ‘90s, Xerox was one of the key innovators trying to understand ways human wants and needs could be addressed on the Web.  As an experiment, Webmaster Bill McClain took it upon himself to start answering questions (of all sorts) that were submitted to the Xerox Web site.  He wrote a book about this called “Do Fish Drink Water? Puzzling and Improbable Questions and Answers.” 

With zero promotion of the service on the Web site, and no obvious reason why anyone would turn to Xerox for their questions to be answered, the number of submissions quickly escalated into the thousands — merely as a result of the answers McLain was faithfully providing.  While this involved little technology and a massive manual effort, it demonstrated something basic.  People have lots and lots of questions — and once you start answering, they will come up with more.  

There are obvious applications for customer service, answering questions such as  “Which products are on sale? Do you have this shirt in my size? Where is the nearest store location?” These are all questions that can also be answered through intuitive website navigation or search.  

But a natural language interface can bridge the gap between the structured rigidness of a website and the operating hours of a call center.  Moreover, it leaves the door open for unstructured questions you might not anticipate.  

Don White, CEO of Satisfi Labs, a platform that provides ready answers to customers’ questions in specific locations, notes queries submitted in NFL venues range from the anticipated “Where is the rest room?” to the unanticipated “How high is the ceiling?”  Providing answers to either of those questions is a best practice in customer service, but I would argue that answering the latter generates a different kind of appreciation.  

Moreover, marketers benefit from insight about what is truly of interest to customers by giving them the opportunity to ask.

So where is the evidence of the groundswell in conversational marketing, and proof this kind of customer interaction is on the rise? A strong indicator is the growing bot marketplace, given bots are obvious vehicles for conversational marketing.  Early figures show the bot development market far outpacing early app development in terms of the number of bots vs apps created, as well as the number of bot developers compared to app developers.

The big guys — Facebook Messenger, Apple iMessage, Skype, Slack, Kik, , WeChat, Line etc. — are in an arms race to establish rich environments for bot creation and distribution. We should see some macro shifts in how these platforms shape themselves to capture more value from messaging in 2017 — particularly Facebook, which is eager to bring eCommerce to Messenger through bots.  

If you think about it, Facebook knows everything about you — except what you buy.  That will change.  WeChat has already become a force in eCommerce, generating more than $1 Billion per month — an example of China’s robust messaging economy.

Some U.S. brands are first entering the bot fray in Asia, which is fertile ground for both learning and generating results.   As an example, the Wall Street Journal partnered with Line, Japan’s leading messaging platform, launching a customer acquisition bot that generated more than 2 million users, and put it in the premiere spot for financial news apps in Japan.  It’s no mistake that a Forbespost named the WSJ bot one of the 10 marketers "should try right now." This is clearly a company that is taking the conversational opportunity seriously, tapping readers’ innate desire to be part of WSJ’s inner circle, and closer to their news source.

As with other waves of behavioral change, bot usage is initially gaining traction with younger generations.  According to Mahi de Silva, founder and CEO of, “The messaging app is becoming the new browser for millennials.  Instead of pushing their queries to a browser, their searches resolve to a bot interaction.”  This makes for more fluid, less interruptive experiences. is providing a common platform that includes natural language processing and gathering of actionable data to help bots traverse across messaging platforms.  

There is still a “wild West” aspect to the bot landscape, which will need to be tamed with standards and brought into the Interactive Advertising Bureau fold, which de Silva hopes to do.

Meanwhile, marketers starting down this path need to do some fundamental work about what kind of conversational relationships will be successful with customers, and how they can be sustained.  Bots represent an opportunity for brands to earn the privilege of becoming a customer’s “friend," with much more tangible benefits of being part of a customer’s social graph and beyond the simplicity of a “like” or “follow.”

The Xerox experiment teaches that once begun, a brand’s conversational marketing efforts may create an insatiable need for more — a great problem to have.  But be prepared for an always-on, long-lasting conversation with your customers, and get ready to answer some of their burning questions.  

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