Forget bots! It’s just about Enhanced Conversation!

Since Facebooks recent announcement of opening up the Facebook Messenger platform to companies and AI bots, the Internet has completely exploded in a frenzy of misguided enthusiasm. Since I’m working with e-commerce, the topic that bothers me the most is this idea about Conversational commerce. Let me explain what I mean about misguided enthusiasm and why the opportunity really lies in Enhanced Conversation.

The term Conversational Commerce was coined by Chris Messina in 2015, but it really took hold as he recently dubbed it the e-commerce trend of 2016. His definition:

conversational commerce (as I see it) largely pertains to utilizing chat, messaging, or other natural language interfaces (i.e. voice) to interact with people, brands, or services and bots that heretofore have had no real place in the bidirectional, asynchronous messaging context.

I’m not quite sure what that means to be honest. What bothers me is that there is no user story embedded in this definition. No customer pain that we solve. If there is no issue, then why are we talking about it? Because a lot of people use FB Messenger, WhatsApp, Wechat, Telegram and Slack. Of course there is a fear of missing out for business when it comes to all of these channels!

So how should companies attack this great opportunity. Hopefully not by building services that reminds us about this guy.

Enhanced conversation opportunity

The opportunity for conversation lies in conversation. Companies need to figure out relevant conversations that are happening in their world and make them better. Some examples (silly mixed with serious):

  • An app that listens to your meeting or email conversation and takes notes. It structures the conversation into actions points and decisions, adding productivity to your work life.
  • Schedule meetings. A bot that is listening to your email conversation can take over and suggest a meeting time. Better yet; my bot books a meeting with your bot.
  • A dating bot can suggest topics for your first date, based on both of your interests.

When it comes to commerce, the real conversation opportunity is in Customer service. “Where is my order?” is the most common question. Based on the status of an order there are a few options the customer get. An AI bot should have no problem in handling the basic interaction for these questions. Email is still the most valid form of communication for most customers, but within 10 years from now e-commerce companies will need to add more channels, like chat apps.

So, Enhanced conversation is the opportunity for basically any conversational medium, whether it’s speech, email or FB messenger. But when it comes to just building for Messenger, there are more considerations for your business to manage.

Fortunately a lot of smart people are talking about this. The awesome A16z podcast dissected the idea of bots and chat as an interface with a panel of Benedict Evans, Connie Chen and also Chris Messina. Evans (venture capitalist) is great at focusing the debate around customer acquisition and lack of discovery process. Will we follow bots, subscribe to them or install them as apps in our messenger app? Getting people to use your bot is the same as getting people to like your Facebook page or download your app. Also, how will it spread to your friends?

Connie Chen, an expert in the Asian IT industry (China in particular), gave some really solid advice too. Conversational commerce insinuates that you chat with a bot to help you look for something to buy.

I think bot is an unfortunate name because it insinuates that there is conversation going back and forth. … The messenger should be thought of as giving a shortcut, a link to a web view that can give a broader, richer experience.

There is a lot of commerce where I know exactly what I’m looking for and where chat actually slows me down, and I think that’s what happened in China.

I can’t stress how important payments part is in making this ecosystem work. … A third of the wechat users already have their banking credentials, which is why som much commerce happens with just one tap.

In conclusion, chat apps will not conquer the e-commerce world, even if some commerce is successful in China.

Bots will enhance already existing conversation in any space and hopefully improve our communication. AI will be used in many other parts of e-commerce like search engines and personal recommendations.

Chat has been around for over 20 years, and so have chat bots. Yes, adding AI to them will make them more interesting but there is nothing revolutionary going on here. The only part about a growing usage of chat apps that is interesting for companies is to be able to target marketing to the users of these apps in the same way as we treat all user acquisition.