Time to chat? Three tips to succeed at 'conversational commerce'

The rise of chatbots and voice search has completely changed the way consumers shop, writes Ed Bussey, founder and chief executive of Quill .

The way we shop online is changing. Consumers are time-poor and want their shopping experiences to be fast and efficient. At the same time, retailers are looking to streamline their operations to maximise cost-efficiency. It is therefore no great surprise that we’re seeing the emergence of "conversational commerce" – "chatting" to an AI bot, like an assistant, as opposed to the conventional internet search.

Amazon sold millions of Alexa-powered devices over Christmas 2016, and sales of its Echo speakers featuring the assistant increased nine-fold during the same period. Similarly, recent research revealed 35% of shoppers want more chatbots for customer service. One in five British people would consider making purchases via bots, and are ready to spend nearly £500 through the technology.

That said, it seems unlikely that voice-driven commerce like Alexa will go truly mainstream until screens are incorporated in – or easily connected to  all such devices (or vice versa) because without physically seeing what we’re buying, we’re unlikely to venture beyond repeat purchases and commodities. But this is a small tweak to conversational commerce technology (with Amazon’s Echo Show already being available in the US). Brands wanting to gain and keep market share in a voice-driven e-commerce world will need a strategy for leveraging this new technology.

The first businesses to adapt will be the first to profit. Here are my top three pieces of advice to brands preparing for the inevitable rise of conversational commerce.

1. Lay the brand groundwork

Just as Google has been instrumental in dictating the terms of content optimisation to help it deliver the most relevant results to users, so is Amazon for e-commerce search terms. A recent study showed 55% of online searches in the US start on Amazon: consumers are increasingly bypassing traditional search engines and going straight to the marketplaces. This is likely to increase with handy AI assistants making their way into our homes and searching for products on our behalf.

Therefore, it’s essential to understand the rules that will boost your brand to the top of search results. On Amazon, for example, adhere to site best practice  recent and authentic reviews, consistent imagery, quality product descriptions, competitive pricing, correct categorisation – and your products will remain searchable.

2. The devil is in the detail

Marketers need to understand how customers articulate their queries by channel and ensure their product data (including semantically-relevant keywords) is formatted accordingly.  When shopping conversationally, the natural inclination is to "speak" to the tool as if it were a personal assistant, rather than a search engine. When buying an item of clothing, for example, a customer might ask basic questions  like "what sizes are in stock?", as well as more nuanced questions like "is it machine washable?" and "what other items match this one?".

With that in mind, product descriptions must be detailed, accurate and well-structured for bots and voice-powered assistants to identify and deliver satisfactory answers. Without this, consumers will abandon purchases very quickly.

3. Brand tone of voice

Some brands are building their own chatbots for customer service. If you are considering this, then ensure the bot’s tone of voice is consistent with the rest of your content, while remembering that consumers understand that these interactions are automated. Distrust creeps in when initial impressions that the assistant is human grow increasingly uncertain. Transparency is key.

That doesn’t mean you can’t inject personality – if in-store assistants would normally use a standard branded greeting, plug this into the machine too. Even if automated assistants do little more than read out voice-activated search results, make sure your results copy zings when it’s read aloud.

Tech companies and forward-thinking brands like Ryanair, which has just launched voice-controlled booking, are pouncing on these exciting opportunities – and it’s time all marketers build it into their future strategies. Mobile commerce took off as soon as mobile screen sizes and bandwidths were able to offer a visual experience. The same will happen with conversational commerce. It’s coming sooner than we might expect.

Ed Bussey is founder and chief executive of Quill 

Look out for Campaign's special report on voice technology in our first monthly edition coming in September

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