As COVID-19 quickly spread in early 2020, the retail industry was among the first to be affected. But unlike hard-hit sectors such as airlines and live events, retail saw a more uneven impact — especially when it came to dramatically changed consumer behavior. Now, almost a year later, retailers are struggling to meet consumers’ increasing expectations for instantaneous and personalized interactions with the brands they love.
But as retail brands race to deploy truly personalized marketing, the biggest challenge they face is personalizing conversations not just in one channel, but across all the channels customers use. Will 2021 be the year brands achieve omnichannel, personalized, automated two-way conversations?
Omnichannel messaging was originally premised on the question, “Where is my customer?” However, with more people using a variety of messaging platforms — such as SMS, RCS, social/chat apps etc. — retail brands need to re-orient to answering the question, “How do I effectively communicate with each customer — no matter the channel or channels— in an engaging, continuous and personalized way?” But with so many mobile channels, it can be daunting to know where to start and how to be successful.
With each technological advancement comes a shift in consumer behavior. For example, email has an open rate of 25%, whereas SMS consistently exceeds open rates of 95%. Still, brand-to-customer communications on mobile chat apps remain untapped territory for many brands, despite three billion users on messaging apps and 100 billion messages sent daily between WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Instagram.
Gartner predicts that this year, half of all businesses will spend more on conversational applications than on mobile apps. While it’s great that more brands are focusing on conversational messaging, that is only half the battle. To truly transform customer experience to meet the desires of consumers in this new digital economy, they must realize the full potential of two-way conversations.
This is where application programming interfaces (APIs) can help.
Utilizing Conversation APIs
Customers are primed and ready for much more utility, functionality and conversation on mobile, even as retailers aren’t yet ready to deliver it. Per research, the pandemic has accelerated this even further: 49% of consumers say they will shop online more often, 46% will spend less time in stores and more than half (58%) will avoid crowds — even after the pandemic has passed. So regardless of where your customers are, your brand needs to be there too, ready to converse and engage in their preferred channel (e.g. SMS, RCS, social media, etc.)
But where do you begin to create a more personalized, engaging experience with customers?
To address the limitations of traditional omnichannel messaging, customer engagement vendors have developed specialized APIs. Typically, these APIs use a single endpoint for sending and receiving messages across the most popular channels — such as SMS, RCS, WhatsApp — using one unified format.
Think of these conversational APIs as a Swiss army knife; they can easily be integrated into your solution, send outbound alerts, receive inbound requests, unify contact history all in one continuous chat or hand it off to an agent. These APIs allow brands and their developers to implement just one Messaging API, while allowing for conversations across all supported channels and channel-specific features if required. Through this approach, companies can still interact with customers no matter the channel, or even if they are switching between channels.
Customers shouldn’t have to swap between email, mobile apps and customer service calls when they could be having one continuous, seamless, intuitive conversation in their favorite chat app. And those one-to-one conversations were proving effective in increasing sales.
The rapidly changing messaging landscape represents a major opportunity for retail brands ready to embrace omnichannel conversational messaging. Here are some of its benefits:
Today’s consumer is everywhere all the time, especially on mobile. Each channel has its unique capabilities and limitations, and every consumer uses different apps for different reasons. That said, if your brand lacks a unified approach to customer communications, Conversation APIs can be a valuable option if you’re looking for a more cohesive approach.
2. The Four C’s
Going omnichannel can help you meet the four C’s — consistency, cross-channel conversation, compliance and customer support. Beginning with cross-channel conversation, this relationship relies on history and context. Tomorrow’s brand relationships will rely on reaching customers on their priority channels while simultaneously ensuring your brand remains consistent across every message and channel. This creates a consistent brand experience for customers and provides them with the support they need.
Omnichannel messaging via Conversation APIs allows companies to integrate a chatbot with natural language abilities that enable it to converse with customers on pre-trained topics and make a “warm handover,” including the conversation history and referral to a contact center if necessary.
Finally, by partnering with an omnichannel provider, development teams no longer need to be compliance experts. Your provider will already know the ins and outs of everything and help you remain compliant across every channel.
3. Next-Gen Ready
Moving conversations to omnichannel shouldn’t mean doing new things with old tools. As messaging options expand, omnichannel will allow brands to integrate new channels alongside existing ones. And as brands look to scale up in the future, they will have one Conversation API that allows them to do just that: one messaging API gateway and one vendor supplier to integrate with.
With more customers via mobile now and in the future — especially as we’re starting to see the adoption of social commerce — it’s no longer feasible to consider commerce as operating in one arena or the other. For retailers to endure and meet shifting consumer behavior, they must engage with their customers wherever they are. Adopting an omnichannel messaging strategy will help future-proof their businesses, and is more critical than ever before.
Matt Ramerman is President of Sinch for Marketing, a mobile engagement consultancy and personalized mobile messaging platform. Sinch for Marketing, part of Sinch, a global leader in cloud communications for mobile customer engagement, helps brands build, deploy and support an omnichannel strategy in order to strengthen their relationships with their customers. Previously, Ramerman was CEO and Co-founder of Vehicle, which was acquired by Sinch in 2018.