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Say what? Facebook ushers in new era of conversational commerce

As expected, Facebook pulled the wraps off its new bot platform at the F8 Conference last week, in a move which could potentially have profound ramifications for the way in which we engage with the brands and businesses that augment our lives.

For the first time businesses will be able to develop bots and chat interfaces, that will allow them to engage directly with consumers via the Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp chat environments.

By harnessing the power of artificial intelligence, bots can enable brands to automate a large percentage of customer enquires by using computer learning and big data to enable consumers to execute a broad range of tasks like instructing messenger to transfer money to someone, order a cab or discuss movie show times - as if we were talking to a friend.

It’s therefore no surprise that many are tipping 2016 as the year of conversational commerce; which has already seen rival messaging application Kik, which has 275 million users, launch its own bot store, while brands like Uber have already integrated with Facebook to allow users to book and pay for a ride. However, it’s Facebook’s F8 announcement that truly ushers in the era of conversational commerce. So what’s next?

Mobile apps facing extinction

There was a time only a few years ago when experts were convinced that mobile applications represented the future of customer engagement and every brand had to have one. However, since brands have noticed that the amount of time people actually spend within a branded app is tiny and diminishing.

The reality is that people now spend the large majority of their leisure time locked into messaging apps, rather than the plethora of branded apps currently available. As a result Facebook and WhatsApp have looked at ways of monetizing the scale and reach they can offer businesses, which is led to the creation of conversational commerce.

What makes this such an attractive proposition for brands and businesses is that firstly the automation potential, but also the fact that the method of engagement is so universal. Ask even the most internet savvy person to log in into a banking website they’ve never used and organise a transfer and its going to take them a little time to acclimatise, while everyone knows how to ask a question.

While the conversational commerce landscape is still being defined, here are a just a handful of ways in which conversation commerce might enhance our lives for the better:

Conversational engagement

The ubiquity of the user interface, which is simply chat, will replace the need for consumers to learn how different app or website interfaces operate, removing a great deal of friction from the brand/consumer engagement process.

For example, through WhatsApp you might ask your bank to set up a standing order or query a transaction on your account. Through a mix of bots and human agents, consumers will simply be able to ask for the things they need.

Concierge-like service

Mobile apps were supposed to make our lives easier, but if you need to book a holiday for example, you might have to use several to complete the task like Uber, Expedia and Easyjet.

Through a chat interface you could execute more complex, multi-vendor bookings, like asking to: 'Book return flights for two to Rome, a taxi to collect you from the airport and a 4-star hotel within walking distance of the Arcibasilica di San Giovanni.'

Instant gratification

'We’re sorry, but our offices are now closed. Please call back tomorrow.' Forget having to wait until your bank or utility company is available to speak to you, with conversational commerce you’ll soon be able to get the information you need 24/7.

Chat bots will be able to automate a large volume of requests made during unsociable hours, so that brands will only need to employ a small team of customer service agents to provide round the clock availability.

The power of context

Nowadays companies have access to a wealth of customer data such as where we live, what we buy and where we like to go. This big data will enable brands and businesses to provide a more contextual customer experience.

For example, when booking that holiday to Rome the company may know you love opera and offer you tickets to a performance happening during your stay.

Through conversation, like in real life, brands will be able to build a more detailed picture of who we are and what we like, which will ultimately result in a more rewarding interaction.

New money

Last year Facebook launched functionality making it possible for friends to send each other money using the platform, but this is just the start.

It’s likely that other messaging apps will follow suit and add payment processing functionality, which could see us using chat apps to not only send money but to make purchases. For example, you could ask messenger to book you tickets to see the big movie at your local cinema and pay for the tickets within the app.

The good news for consumers in all of this is that brands and businesses will slowly become more approachable and accessible to us, on our terms. Where technology was once the enabler and barrier in equal measure, conversational commerce will finally level the playing field. However, consumer trust must be fostered and fully protected to enable this movement to flourish.

Hannah Giles is head of marketing at Zensend

Image Credit: tulpahn / Shutterstock