What is Conversational Marketing? And why does it matter?

How starting conversations at scale can transform marketing effectiveness

March 17, 2020

What is Conversational Marketing?

Imagine if, instead of guessing what your audience members are most interested in, your marketing campaign could simply ask each one of them? Instead of hoovering up data to try and figure out whether people are ready to buy from you or not, you could let them tell you? Instead of trying to figure out in advance what call to action they might respond to, you could give them a range of options and let them choose for themselves? Instead of one campaign for all of your prospects, you could create tailored experiences for each of them?

You’ve just imagined what conversational marketing can mean for marketing strategies in 2020 and beyond.

Defining conversational marketing

There are many different, and complicated-sounding definitions of conversational marketing – but basically, they all come down to one fairly simple concept. In my view, this is best summed up by the digital marketing agency, Single Grain:

Conversational Marketing facilitates a one-to-one, real-time connection between brands and customers.

In 2020, marketers suddenly find themselves with more options for creating these one-to-one, real-time connections than ever before – and there’s more interest than ever in how to use them. The rise of conversational marketing has been driven by the exploding scale and diversity of messaging apps, which brands can only leverage effectively by having two-way conversations. However, it’s also been driven by new ways of using much more established marketing channels and platforms. And more than anything, it’s being driven by how people want brands to engage with them.

A brief history of conversational marketing channels

It started with the surge in popularity for personal messaging apps on mobiles, which took off spectacularly in Asia, in 2011. Just 433 days after its launch, the Chinese messaging app WeChat had more than 100 million users, making it one of the fastest-growing platforms in history and overtaking WhatsApp, which had launched in 2009. WhatsApp’s initially more measured growth swiftly accelerated as messaging caught on worldwide.

Just two years after the WeChat launch, both apps had over 350 million users. So too did the South Korean-owned LINE, which had grown at WeChat levels as an organic response to the devastating 2011 tsunami in Japan. WeChat was already pioneering new functionality that would enable users to make payments, play games, share videos and track their exercise routines, all within the platform. Time on messaging apps was quickly eating into time on other digital properties. That left marketers looking for a way to respond.

The challenge that they faced was how to engage audiences that were less interested in passively consuming content, and more actively engaged in conversations. To capture these audiences’ attention, a brand needed a way to participate in those conversations as well. Messaging apps therefore drove the development of chatbots that could do this at scale. Today, messaging apps are embedded in both personal and professional lives. Snapchat has joined the ranks of personal messaging platforms. Teams and Slack have extended the experience into the professional space.

However, it wasn’t just mobile messaging apps that would force brands to start thinking in terms of conversations. The rise of voice search and virtual digital assistants like Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant and Siri planted the idea of people talking to technology rather than just listening to it – or just reading what it put up on a screen. They turned the ability to hold a conversation into one of the most important marketing opportunities out there. And they also drove the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies that could make those conversations more lifelike, mimicking human phrases and mannerisms.

Why audiences want a conversation from your marketing

Messaging apps exploded in popularity so quickly because they offered a more personalised, individual way of engaging. It’s that same capacity for personalisation that makes conversational marketing such an exciting area today.

In the age of Netflix and Amazon we’ve become accustomed to experiences that are tailored to who we are and anticipate what we need. When we want a particular piece of information and advice, we usually want it straight away.

At the same time though, we’ve become increasingly wary of the way that brands use our data. We’re instantly suspicious when a business reaches out using details that we don’t think they should know. And we’re quickly irritated when digital ads and social media messages make incorrect assumptions about us based on the websites we’ve visited. The challenges with delivering personalised advertising at scale aren’t just regulatory, a result of GDPR. They spring from audiences’ demand for their data to be respected. We don’t like brands pretending to know us when they don’t. We distinguish between those that have earned the right – and those that haven’t.

Conversational marketing bridges the gap between our audiences’ desire for a more personalised experience – and their suspicion of brands making assumptions. When marketers ask questions in a conversational way, and then adjust based on what people say, experiences feel more meaningful and less intrusive. As a marketer, you get more effective engagement, and first-hand insight, without having to mine data, make educated guesses and risk excluding people who don’t fit the profile or persona you developed your campaign around. It’s all about empowering audiences, giving them a choice, reassuring them that they’re in control – and that the brand is listening to and respecting what they have to say.

This hits home with any type of audience. In the 2019 State of Conversational Marketing report from Drift, only 14% of people said they would prefer filling out a website form over talking to a chatbot. And a growing number indicated they were comfortable using such bots to access the information that they need. Roughly a third (32%) said they would use a chatbot to get an answer to a question, and 29% said they would use one to access detailed information. Interestingly, these numbers increase significantly the more connected devices somebody owns.

There are more many different ways to start a conversation

Conversational marketing may include speaking to AI-driven assistants on smart speakers and smartphones. However, it doesn’t depend on these technologies. There are many different ways to show people that you’re listening to them. And there are many different ways to automate these conversations so you’re able to deliver real-time, one-to-one experiences at scale.

All of these options involve a balancing act between creative control and responsiveness. Advanced conversational AI systems are able to interpret and infer meaning from speech or freely typed text – and construct their own response based on natural language capabilities. This can enable them to react to the range of different turns a conversation could take. However, it leaves marketers with far less control over the experience their audience members will have – what their conversational marketing will say and how it will say it. There’s also the risk of audiences getting frustrated, when a conversational AI misinterprets what they mean.

An alternative approach is to use a platform that enables a predetermined decision tree, which maps out where a conversation can go and how the brand will respond when it does. This gives far greater creative control over the experience, and the brand’s tone of voice. It also provides greater clarity for audience members, who choose from different options rather than trying to figure out how to communicate with an algorithm. It enables marketers to curate more focused and purposeful conversations.

Introducing LinkedIn Conversation Ads

That’s the approach that we’ve taken in developing LinkedIn Conversation Ads, which launched this week. These arrive in members’ inboxes as Message Ads, taking advantage of an environment where people already expect to engage in dialogue with brands. They offer a range of directions that a messaging conversation can take through customisable call to action buttons. This means that marketers are able to script their conversations – and provide clear options that are easy to navigate. A Conversation Ad might give your prospect the choice of downloading a white paper, organising a free trial or talking to sales, for example. And all of these conversation options can be set up easily, from within LinkedIn’s Campaign Manager interface.

This has obvious benefits at the bottom of the funnel, driving higher quality leads and conversions by enabling prospects to indicate the level and type of interest that they have. However, there are plenty of exciting possibilities at earlier stages of the buyer journey as well. Conversation Ads could be used to explain complex propositions in a more human and interactive way. They can tell brand stories, showcase the breadth of thought leadership content that a brand has to share on an issue, and ask for feedback.

This is the year of conversational marketing. And that’s been decided not by a new technology, hype-chasing pundits or marketers’ own agendas – but rather by audiences themselves. Now’s the time to explore the possibilities this creates.

Click here to discover more about Conversation Ads and find out how to set up your campaign.