It was a hot, muggy day in Shanghai and I was waiting to buy a bagel. The line was long. Everyone was eager for their carb fix.
Finally, I reached the counter and pulled out a crisp 50-yuan bill. The cashier’s face dropped. He scowled as he counted out my change. When I grabbed my breakfast and turned to leave, the woman behind me snorted. Nearly everyone was staring with a mix of contempt and irritation.
What had I done wrong?
Then it hit me.
No one else had paid with cash or even a credit or debit card. They all used WeChat Pay on their mobile phones. My old-school transaction had delayed the line — even for a few seconds. I looked like a naïve tourist trying to count out coins for the bus.
This was five years ago.
Not only did I learn a key cultural lesson, but the experience sparked my interest in messaging technology. I asked friends and colleagues about WeChat and started to explore what messaging apps could do for both B2B and B2C organizations.
While China (and Asia as a whole) is at the forefront of messaging technology and user adoption, this is a growing global trend. Messaging platforms are here to stay — and they’re only going to be exponentially more important.
It’s time for businesses to get serious about using messaging platforms to connect with customers and prospects.
The evolution of online communication
Before a business wades into the messaging waters, it’s important to understand why these apps represent such a critical behaviour shift.
We all know that the internet started with email and websites. Information flowed outward, from the screen to the user. Point and click. You could reply to an email or submit a web form, but there’s usually a delay between requesting information and receiving an answer.
Mobile phones got smarter and suddenly, we all had a super-computer in our pocket. We could access data on the go and use SMS (texting) to reach people even faster. Mobile phones also accelerated social media adoption. The age of swiping began. We could read, comment, like and share, but the exchange wasn’t always in real-time.
Messaging apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Line and Slack now provide instant communication. Everyone is connected in the network, in real-time. You can immediately interact with anyone who uses the same platform (and accepts the connection).
And just to ensure we’re on the same page, here’s a quick definition of messaging:
A real-time online platform where users exchange text and rich media messages, such as images, documents, audio, etc.
The shift from SMS to messaging might seem inconsequential, but it’s a critical change for anyone who wants to have real conversations, including businesses and their customers, users and prospects.
For example, imagine receiving an SMS promotion from your telecom provider. Out of the blue, you get a text message about an iPhone X sale. You probably delete it immediately — unless you were in the market for a new phone. Even then, you would have to call the company, visit a store, or go online to learn more. An SMS message is typically a one-way communication experience.
A messaging platform could turn that one-way street into a true conversation. The recipient could ask questions or tell the sender (which was probably an automated program) to send only Android promotions in the future. The formerly one-way blast become an opportunity to learn more about individual customer preferences.
Social messaging conquers the planet
Still not sold on the power of messaging? Let’s look at the numbers.
As of August 2017, the top four social media platforms were: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.
Total worldwide users: 3.5 billion
The top four social messaging platforms were: Viber, WeChat, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.
Total worldwide users: 4 billion
That means 53% of everyone on Earth uses one of the top four messaging apps. Facebook Messenger alone has 1.3 billion users. And WhatsApp is active in 107 different countries.
Whenever someone asks why I’m so interested in messaging (beyond my work on GrowthBot), I also refer to Metcalfe’s Law, which states that the value of a telecommunications network is equal to the square number of system users. Online platforms receive sky-high valuations because the users are all connected — and that’s why messaging networks open up so many possibilities for marketers, entrepreneurs, developers, and sales leaders.
Use chat and messaging to delight your customers
In the past year or two, you’ve probably visited a website with a chat pop-up. You’re scrolling and a window appears with a question like, “How can I help you today?”
That’s a bot, or an automated computer program designed to simulate conversation with human users. Bots are the engines that drive messaging platforms.
We have a chat pop-up on the HubSpot homepage, too. It’s a text bubble that says: “Welcome to HubSpot.com, where we have software to help your business grow. If you have a question, don’t be shy!”
The pop-up is more than just snappy site copy. The goal is to give users, visitors and prospects an immediate way to interact with us. They can instantly get answers to common questions or connect with a real, human support team member.
Immediacy matters, because customer behaviour has undergone a massive paradigm shift. People don’t want to submit a form or email anymore. Overwhelmingly, they prefer to interact with a bot or a human in real-time. The magic of messaging is that you can receive information in a split-second, or you can use it like email, and reply to the communication when it suits you. You can interact on your terms.
Many tech companies have already adopted basic website messaging, and even retail brands are starting to use chat pop-ups. Standout organizations leverage these bots to enhance the customer journey. So, how can you start that process?
Whether you’re B2B or B2C, think about using messaging to deliver a more delightful user experience. Imagine implementing technology in way that leaves people thinking, “that was really easy,” or “that saved so much time,” or even better: “I feel more connected to this brand now.”
Clearly, messaging still has a novelty factor, but this is not a short-lived trend — nor will it always feel so fresh. Messaging is a smart way to streamline your customer support efforts and encourage more free-flowing, conversational encounters with users and prospects.
Messaging for B2B organizations
Some people think messaging apps don’t work for business or B2B. I don’t think that’s true, and I can share a recent HubSpot experiment that backs me up.
We wanted to generate leads for an upcoming webinar, so we bought Facebook ads that clicked through to a signup form. We also used Facebook Messenger-based ads to communicate directly with prospects, who completed a quick registration process right in the app.
In the end, we spent 70% less on each lead through messaging, versus newsfeed ads, and we received more signups through chat. People even shared the webinar ad and encouraged their friends to check out the Messenger sign-up interaction.
When does that ever happen? And why were people so pleased?
Beyond the novelty factor we already covered, conversation is a natural way to collect information. It feels less onerous for the user. It’s an experience, rather than another irritating task to complete, especially if you do it well. I’m not saying we nailed it, but I want to emphasize that by thinking more deeply about how your customer wants to interact, you can stand out and deliver something special.
Also, businesses are still human. They’re run by people (even when those people build bots) and 100% of all customers are, behind their devices, fully human… as far as we know. The lines between B2B and B2C communication are also starting to blur. Look at MailChimp. The company primarily targets business users, but its messaging is consumer-focused. It speaks in a human voice and uses humour to enliven a potentially boring product experience.
So, where should I start chatting?
Just as you didn’t have to build an email marketing service to create automated campaigns, any business that wants to create messaging experiences doesn’t have to start a new platform. The best products and service providers will integrate seamlessly with widespread messaging apps. You just need to choose the right playground for your messaging adventures.
Today, WeChat is even more embedded in Chinese life than I experienced five years ago. People use the app to talk with friends, split restaurant bills, buy airline or train tickets, and arrange deliveries. Even a roadside vendor selling jianbing accepts WeChat Pay. You can’t be a fully functional adult in China without using WeChat.
That’s not the case in North America. You can easily accomplish daily tasks without Facebook Messenger or another platform. Few people would ridicule you for paying with cash. But, Facebook is still the dominant player, especially if you’re a B2C company. In that case, Messenger is a no-brainer platform.
Maybe you’re trying to target tech companies or innovative design, media and creative organizations. In that case, Slack might be a better choice. It sees massive traffic during typical business hours and engagement levels are often higher than Messenger.
Choosing the right platform is a matter of understanding who you’re trying to reach, where they live, how they already use messaging tools, and what they need from your products or services. Explore the options and research user profiles and patterns.
Already picked your platform? Then it’s time to think about the experience you want to create.
Mine the conversations you’re already having
The rush to adopt new technologies can feel like an arms race. For many founders and marketers, there’s a sense that you need to get there first — that you just need to establish a presence in any shape or form. I understand. I know that the first-mover advantage is real, but I would also advise people to be strategic.
What kind of experience do you want to provide through messaging? Consider the problems, questions, and friction points that your customers already have:
What do they often ask your customer support team?
What do they complain about?
What do they praise you for?
Where do they get stuck during buying, research or signup processes?
What do they need from you — such as details about clothing sizes, package options, technology upgrades, delivery or add-ons?
Identify the questions and messages that people are already sharing with you through older technologies, like email, web forms and phone support. If you’re thinking about opening a messaging channel or building a bot, this is a great place to start. You can gather a wealth of information from current customers and prospects, while using what you learn to more strategically target new users, buyers and leads.
Don’t forget what you already know
A final point about messaging technology: while the mechanisms might be new and evolving, human needs are not. Sure, our preferences can change (such as preferring chat over email support), but the core feelings that drive us remain the same.
For example, people download software to solve both tactical and emotional needs. They use Slack to communicate instantly with colleagues, to keep projects moving, and to quickly share files. It serves a practical purpose and can simplify teamwork.
On an emotional level, I think Slack makes people feel connected. Teams that share cat videos on the platform are reinforcing their unique culture. We all have an innate need to belong, and the informal, conversational nature of Slack communication (or any other effective messaging platform) binds the group together. Messaging can satisfy other needs, too, like the sense of working well and doing a good job — feeling valued for your skills and talents.
Any good product or service meets both emotional and practical needs. That’s not new information. But, it’s so easy for businesses, sales teams and ma 2lrketers to forget those needs when they’re exploring new technologies.
Whether you’re starting to dabble in messaging or you’re deep into bot-building, keep your sights fixed on those human needs. Make life easier, simpler, more engaging, and more satisfying. Help people to achieve the best versions of themselves.
Or, just make it easier to buy a bagel.