By Chuck Leddy
Marketing has been driven by emerging technologies for decades. Twenty years ago, it was the Internet, which opened up new online channels that enabled marketers to better identify, target, nurture, and convert customers. A decade ago, the app economy allowed marketers to create stronger, more personalized customer experiences, reaching those mobile customers anywhere and anytime. Today, there’s a trend towards “conversational marketing,” a term describing a feedback-oriented, data-and-AI-enabled approach to driving customer engagement, building lifetime customer value, and boosting the bottom line.
This post will explain what conversational marketing is, what technologies power it, why it’s growing, and the impressive results it drives.
Artificial intelligence powers conversational marketing
What’s fueling conversational marketing? It’s artificial intelligence and machine learning, which transform raw customer data into customer analytics and actionable insights that inform multi-channel customer experiences and interactions in real-time. Once the exclusive purview of professional data scientists, AI is being rapidly democratized for marketers and everyone else. The martech tools available today require very little knowledge of data science, algorithm-building, model-building, and advanced statistics. Indeed, one of the biggest tech trends for 2019 and beyond is what Gartner calls “citizen data science,” meaning that non-experts (data science amateurs) in functional areas such as marketing and sales will increasingly have automated data science capabilities that leverage AI and machine learning.
Gartner describes the impact of automating these higher-level data science capabilities once possessed exclusively by data science professionals this way: they’ll “enable business users and citizen data scientists to automatically find, visualize and narrate relevant findings [from data] without building models or writing algorithms. These findings may include correlations, exceptions, clusters, segments, outliers and predictions.”
Interfaces are getting more accessible too: citizen data scientists can explore data via auto-generated visualizations and conversational interfaces, and can ask questions of these data tools/apps through natural language queries and results. That’s what data democratization looks like, and conversational marketing is part of that trend.
The outcomes driven by conversational marketing are clear: more personalization and one-on-one interactions, shorter sales cycles, faster response times for customers (compared to website forms and emails), more data allowing AI tools and human marketers to learn, and a more personally-relevant buying experience for customers.
Bot + human engagement to drive CX
AI-enabled “conversational” martech vendors like Conversica and Drift help B2B marketing operations teams drive their customer conversations through the funnel faster, and at scale, using engagement and conversion on the site, as well as when leads enter the pipeline.
A Forbes article on conversational marketing explains how that AI-driven engagement works in practice: “It takes on many forms, but common to marketers and growing in prevalence are intelligent conversational chatbots — also known as intelligent assistants, conversational assistants, digital employees and virtual assistants.”
These conversational chatbots have become so popular recently that Gartner predicts that virtual, AI-fueled agents will be involved in most commercial interactions between companies/marketers and their customers in just a couple of years. Globally-known brands such as Starbucks and Taco Bell have already been using chatbots for years to engage their customers.
Chatbots built with machine learning capabilities can interact with and learn from your customers based on patterns recognized in customer data. All of this is done without the intervention of a human programmer or data scientist. As a Conversica blog post explains, “a critical component of conversational AI is machine learning, which refers to a computer’s ability to learn without being explicitly programmed.” The chatbot basically programs itself based on the aggregated data it collects from each customer.
Of course, no chatbot can entirely replace human interaction. What conversational AI allows is for marketers to automate engagement for top-of-funnel tasks like answering FAQs and providing basic information, while providing referrals to humans for more “nurturing,” higher-level tasks in the mid-to-bottom funnel (like closing a B2B deal or explaining complex policies that may impact customers).
Getting the customer feedback loop going with conversational martech
By using “smart” conversational tools to interact with customers, marketers can get a continuous feedback loop going. As a Drift blog post explains: “feedback is like a battery that powers your marketing . . . It has positive and negative sides, but you need both positive and negative feedback in order to figure out what’s working and what isn’t” for each customer. Conversational technologies like a chatbot work far better than “one-way, type-and-wait” online forms or non-interactive FAQ pages that too often have your top-of-the-funnel prospects leaking out.
How to begin with conversational marketing
You can start small and integrate conversational marketing in places where your funnel seems to be leaking. Why not add a chatbot that pops up and asks your customer a simple question when they go to one of your online forms. If your sales team is slow to respond to customer requests via your forms, your customer may have forgotten she even filled out the form by the time your sales rep contacts her. A once-hot lead has gone cold.
With a chatbot, you can collect information from that same customer in real time, driving them through your funnel faster by qualifying said customer through a series of relevant questions and then sending her collected data to exactly the right person for faster follow-up. This is what conversational marketing is about — engaging with customers at the time their need is most pressing, getting through the funnel faster.
If you’re just learning about this conversational technology, you’re not alone. The good news is that this subset of martech is becoming more accessible and smarter. It’s getting easier for marketers to integrate conversational tools into their martech stacks. If you want to learn more about possibly integrating conversational marketing into what you do, feel free to reach out to us to learn more.