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What is conversational commerce?

Conversational Commerce offers an opportunity to reimagine customers relationships with their favourite brands - from purchasing, to support, to marketing. What does this mean for your brand and the future of eCommerce?


Conversational commerce, what is it?

“Conversational Commerce” has been a buzzword slowly growing in eCommerce circles over the last ~5 years. As the eCommerce industry looks for better ways to connect with their audiences, and ways to monetise or increase value of that audience, conversational commerce quite possibly fits the bill. Conversational commerce is a term coined by Uber’s Chris Messina in a 2015 piece published on Medium. It’s focused on the intersection (and blurred lines) between communication and shopping. This could be brands speaking to their audience through channels like WhatsApp, Facebook, SMS, or Voice - and customers being able to ask a question, leave a review, check order status or order a product using that channel. Becoming an additional layer of engagement on-top of the platform that your customers are already was game-changing. See Burberry below.

As you can imagine, brands can’t speak 1:1 with their entire audiences. This is really where bot’s come into play. Automated chat bots that have been programmed to detect certain intents from a customer, like asking a certain product question, where the bot can then automate a reply and solve the issue instantly - without human intervention. A little like a simplified version of the supercomputer WOPR in the film, WarGames. The reality was that back in the early days of chat bots in 2016, many relied heavily on human interaction to perform. When the scope of possible scenarios that a bot could be faced with is too great, human support is necessary to teach the bot and guide the conversation back onto a specific flow. Overtime that bot can learn and be able to cope with more and more complex questions, queries or issues.


- Chris Messina (2016)
“The net result is that you and I will be talking to brands and companies over Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram, Slack, and elsewhere before year’s end, and will find it normal.”


But, this quote from Messina was in 2016, a year after his original piece on Conversational Commerce - so what happened? Why didn’t the ecosystem evolve as he envisioned it to with daily interaction with your favourite brands via your normal conversational platform? Like any disruptive tech, there are trailblazers in the space that break down the door for everyone else. Domino’s launched their pizza delivery bot in 2016, quickly followed by the likes of TacoBot via slack and 1-800 flowers through Facebook Messenger. These paved the way for literally hundreds of chatbots across the world to be developed and launch to cope with this new frontier of customer interaction. But, even with all the hype and the abundance of investment, the last 4 years haven’t created many stand-out players in the space or truly integrated Conversational Commerce into many customers daily lives. So, what happened?

The issues with conversational commerce:

Firstly, chat bots simply weren’t good enough. When you first had an experience with a chat bot, you knew you were talking to a bot. The little tells of things like full stops out of place, lack of colloquialism and reactions to your inputs being a little “rigid”. This distanced the customer from the seamless experience they were after, and felt a little forced. The level of sophistication of automated bots couldn’t deliver the same level of experience that a human CX rep could, and therefore became costly as conversations scaled - requiring more and more human interaction. The ROI’s couldn’t keep up and the hype started to wain.

Secondly, the actual utility to a customer (ability to purchase, chat, review etc) was good - but not great. You could ask a question about a product and get a good response, but when you wanted to purchase it from your favourite store you had to go off to another checkout. You could see tracking details for your order via SMS, but then when it came to leaving a review you still had to use the archaic model of email, website, log-in, confirm. There was a clear disconnect with areas of the experience where Conversational Commerce lacked the technological capabilities to become a mainstay in consumers daily lives.

This was reflected with the adoption curve of Conversational Commerce. The innovators (~2.5%) used a conversational channel to speak to brands and creators as more of a novel experience vs one that could have widespread adoption. There was an influx of press, investment and hype in the space that largely died down towards the end of 2016 / 17. What about the rest of the population? That’s really where we start to hit an inflection point in 2020.

The future for conversational commerce:

During the last 4 years, things have really moved on. Not only have chatbots and natural language processing moved at warp speed, but other areas that previously fell down have been reimagined. Innovative models of commerce, payments and purchasing have evolved to link seamlessly with conversation. Learnings have been taken from the explosion of 2016 that if Conversational Commerce is to really make a dent in the customers journey and disrupt how consumers purchase product, the sophistication of the tech had to improve. That’s what we’ve been building for the last 12 months at blueprint.

At its core, Conversational Commerce unlocks a whole new relationship with a customer. A 1:1 conversation that was previously built on asynchronous email or on social media. A key part to mention is that email or a social media message were always just the delivery mechanism. They allowed information flow to a customer, and sometimes back the other way. More of a speaker, less of a microphone. Order confirmation, tracking, review, customer support etc - all of this was communicated via a few restricted mediums. However, what if the medium didn’t have to be restricted and slow, and the conversation wasn’t just information flow, but actual customer actions? Everything from leaving a review, referring a friend, and seamlessly purchasing a product could happen in 1 channel.

We broke apart the last 4 years to understand the drivers behind why this hadn’t happened. We dialled in on the pain-points for a customer surrounding friction to purchase and lack 1:1 communication throughout their journey. In essence, make it easier and faster for a customer to purchase, chat, review, refer and all other elements of online purchasing with their favourite brands. Blueprint aims to enable the purchasing of products, booking of services and payment of suppliers inside the channels we’re all already in - with a single message.

To find out more about what SMS can do for your brand, check out what we’ve been building.


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