Conversational marketing: A new paradigm for brands

Chatbots and conversational apps are a marketing goldmine. Here’s why.
By
Étienne Merineau
September 3, 2016

A brand new world

There’s one recurring obsession that keeps haunting almost every marketing and ad agency executive. It’s in nearly every Powerpoint deck and on every marketer’s mind… Millennials: the oh so documented and ubiquitous M word! For many years, most marketers (and their agencies) relied on the same old recipe. Write a tagline. Make a TV spot. And plaster it everywhere you can, all in the name of “Integrated Marketing”. Brand awareness and reach were the only metrics that mattered.

Problem is, the recipe started to turn sour. It wouldn’t stick anymore, especially with a new demographics: The Young People (which we decided to call “Millennials” to make them even more mysterious and fascinating). Combined with the digital revolution, the rise of Millennials has become hell of a puzzle that many CEOs are still struggling to solve. As a result: CMOs are getting fired by the dozens as the scapegoats of this collective corporate failure to “seize” the digital opportunity.

So what’s up with Millennials? Not much really. They are just young people that live in a new paradigm. They embrace technology for its connectivity and convenience.

But the real disruptive force will probably be their younger brothers and sisters: Generation Z. These are the true digital natives. The ones who learned how to use a smartphone or tablet before they even learned how to talk. Technology is not just a language they understand, it’s the language they speak. And it’s their de facto universal language (I agree it may not be evenly distributed yet but it’s fair to say that an 8-year-old in Africa is more tech-savvy than an 88-year-old in America).

Messaging is the new medium

Millennials and the Generation Z teens are mean texting machines. They send messages like they breathe air. The other day, I was hanging out with my nieces who are 14 and 16 and I was blown away. They were literally texting each other while in the same room. That’s not socially awkward to them. The other way around would feel awkward to them.

Ever heard of Kik? Kik is a messaging app with 300 million users worldwide. Not bad for an app that most of us have never heard of. And what is its core audience? 15–24 year olds.

Kik is not an outlier. Messaging is going so strong that it has reached the beautiful hockey stick curve that all VCs and startup founders dream of:

You read it right: the top 4 messaging apps now have more users than the top 4 social networks combined. That’s not just a trend, it’s a shift.


Messaging truly is king. What it means is that you’ll need to update your 100-slide brand deck and switch the title from “digital-first” strategy to “mobile-first” strategy. And you’ll need to do it fast.

It’s time for marketers to review their priority list. Yes, social. Yes, content. But the beauty of messaging is that it stands as the macro layer that sits on top. It’s the container to all that content. It’s the medium of the mobile-first generation. And the later brands jump on the bandwagon, the further behind they’ll find themselves in just a few months or years.

If people are spending most of their time in messaging apps, we have to think about how to meet them where they are. People always gravitate to what is easiest.
Baron Concors, Chief Digital Officer, Pizza Hut

To fully grasp and leverage the conversational opportunity, marketers need to first embrace the new rules of the game. Here’s a quick list of 3 of its main drivers.

One-to-one vs. one-to-many

For the first time in advertising/marketing history, brands have the opportunity to reach consumers on a personal level, at a pace of play that they (consumers) dictate. Goodbye interruptions, hello conversations.

With this golden opportunity and privilege also comes an immense responsibility, forcing us to rethink entirely the way we broadcast brand messages. We can no longer scream to be heard by the masses. We can no longer copy-and-paste a message on every platform. People and platforms are not created equal. We need to start tailoring every message to the context, timing and nature of the conversation.

In a conversational world, marketers can no longer rely on the “yell & sell” approach and hope for the best. They need to “chat & listen”. They need to be more thoughtful, more careful, more resourceful, and thus more humble. More than ever, brands must create value to earn the right to talk. Whereas with traditional media, they could simply pay for that right (the result being a cacophony of unattractive messages). Messaging is not a medium you can buy. It’s a medium you can only be invited to. But the prize is direct access and a one-on-one relationship.

Small data vs. big data

One-to-one communication has a ton of upside. It gives you personal insights and specificity. It gives you snackable data that is actionable. And, for the first time, it creates the perfect platform to sequence messages in a natural, contextual, human way.

The aggregate of all these conversational insights (big data) suddenly becomes much more valuable than before because it’s much more structured. We‘re able to break it down into units and sub-units of data (conversations, phrases or words) that marketers can comprehend and execute on. This is why conversational marketing is a potential goldmine that only the ill-advised will overlook.

Always on vs. always perfect

The rise of the “real and raw” thanks to live apps like Periscope or Snapchat stands as the new social currency Millennials and Generation Z teens live by. Being always on and keeping it real becomes therefore much more important for a brand than being picture or pixel perfect (and thus only sporadically on/always late).

Chatbots and conversational apps naturally give brands this “always on” advantage without requiring your full attention as a marketer. They give your customers a 24/7 access to your brand in a private space where you can set the conceptual and functional boundaries. The experience might not be perfect at first but it will always be authentic. Consumers can unlock the convenience they are craving for while you get unprecedented access to their needs, wants & psyche. Every conversation is logged in so you can keep tracking, iterating and improving the quality of your bot/app over time.

In the new conversational/social/mobile-first world, instantaneity and authenticity are more a important than perfection. Therefore, only the most nimble and human brands will be able to thrive in this new world. But first, it requires every market to set new marketing priorities. Ones that put the focus on the customer not the brand.

As an industry, it’s time to get out of our echo chamber and stop talking to ourselves. That’s the only way we can engage in meaningful conversations with consumers and, in the end, turn relationships into revenue.

From campaigns to conversations

In 2016, the story of your brand is no longer written in big 360 campaigns every quarter. It’s being written in thousands of smaller interactions and conversations happening every day, 365 days a year.

Messaging as a new marketing medium has endless possibilities. From fun to functional, it’s a blank canvas waiting for the new generation of marketers to be explored and exploited.

In the end, the opportunity is much bigger than jumping on the latest hype machine. We are given a golden opportunity to start creating brands that act and talk like real people. Conversations will become the new engagement metrics of the modern day brand.

But in order to capture this exciting new opportunity, marketers will have to evolve at the pace of their time. Where brands used to talk in a condescending, borderline obnoxious tone, they will now need to show greater humility. Having a real conversation forces you to open up and be real. Shouting can only be a losing game in this new paradigm.

So the question arises: “If your brand was a person, would it be your friend?” To ask the question is to answer it. This new era of Conversational Marketing will force marketers to constantly polish their brand’s tone and manner and design its personality with intent and insight.