Why You Should Be Conversing with Your Audience

There’s a new way to interact with your online audiences—the individuals who consume your content—and it’s called conversational marketing.

Haven’t heard of it yet? Don’t worry, you will. In the Gartner Hype Cycle for Digital Marketing and Advertising 2019, it was very near the pinnacle of the peak of inflated expectations—beat only by artificial intelligence (AI). Gartner estimates that conversational marketing won’t reach the proverbial “plateau of productivity” (when it’s truly useful) for another two to four years.

Still, it’s an interesting idea, and one that many organizations are beginning to experiment with.

Conversational marketing is pretty much what you’d think from the name. Rather than simply dumping marketing content on customers —in a one-way communication—you engage in conversations with your customers. You ask questions, and depending on the answers, gently lead them to where you want them to go, giving them customized content along the way. Conversational marketing, whether done by a human or a software robot (chatbot) tries to emulate human dialogue, analyzing customers’ questions and answers using natural language processing, and using a combination of text and audio to facilitate exchanges across a variety of channels: phone, online, mobile, chat, email.

Rather than being a new thing, this is actually a return to the good old days, where you wouldn’t think of simply demanding your broccoli or chicken breasts from your local grocer without saying hello and hearing the town gossip first. It’s about having conversations with your customers. It’s about making connections with your community and then using that information to better inform how you provide value to them.

The end goal? To build better, closer relationships with customers so you can give them exactly what they want and need.

No more forms

This means giving up on that most beloved of content marketing gatekeeping: filling out a form. According to a recent survey, 86% of people would prefer using a chatbot to filling out a website form.

You’ve probably already experienced conversational marketing yourself. When you linger on a website, frequently a window pops up, sometimes with the photo of a human or even a name, and invites you to chat. This is just one way conversational marketing can be employed, but it’s the low-hanging fruit, and relatively easy to deploy.

Sometimes these chat opportunities are powered by actual human beings standing by ready to help you make a purchasing decision. Increasingly, though, they are chatbots—algorithms that use natural language processing to parse through what a customer is saying, and to serve up appropriate answers. Early chatbots tended to frustrate customers because of the nature of the canned responses, which often did not address the particular needs of individuals. But as chatbots and natural language processing gets more sophisticated, frustration with clearly scripted answers that don’t address users’ questions will dissipate. And there should always be a point—a trigger—for escalating the conversation to a real human, if that is necessary or even just desired. With Siri and Alexa, people are getting used to talking to their computers, after all. And computers are getting much better at answering appropriately.

Don’t just relentlessly sell stuff

Whether you have humans or machines managing your conversational marketing efforts, it’s important to understand that you shouldn’t go straight to the canned sales pitch. A good rule of thumb is that 80% of what you say should be about building a brand—that is, not directly promoting your product or service, but helping customers. The remaining 20% can be more self-serving, endorsing specific products or promoting specials, or upcoming events.

You already do this with your content marketing efforts. As a brand, you share thought leadership, news, and ideas—even if they aren’t yours. The idea is to inform, and, if possible, delight your customers.

On the same level, engaging in conversational marketing shows that you’re not just a cold organization disconnected from customers—but that you are listening, and care about their concerns on a human level.

A good rule of thumb: 80% of what you say should not directly promote your product or service, but help customers. The remaining 20% can be more self-serving and sales-oriented.


Make sure you have good conversationalists on hand

Of course, this won’t work unless you have competent, trained personnel on hand, and you have programmed your bot responses carefully and designate escalation points to humans so customers don’t get frustrated. This also means giving the agents the technology tools and authority to take action on behalf of customers.

I had an extraordinarily frustrating interaction with a human agent in a chat window for a major transportation brand-that-shall-not-be-named. The agent’s conversational skills were severely lacking, and, worse, he didn’t have the same tools at his disposal as his call-center colleagues to resolve issues. For conversational marketing to work, companies are going to have to upskill their workers, and empower them to actually take action on the part of customers.

If you decide to go the route of chatbots, your content team must also be responsible for what is now called UX writing—writing the chatbot responses to frequently asked questions. This means anticipating what kinds of questions customers will ask, and preparing accurate, pithy answers in the human-sounding “voice” that you want to represent your company’s culture and values. Some companies might feel comfortable saying, “hey there!” as a greeting. Others may prefer a more formal “Hello. How can I help you?”

Make use of all your customer data

In summary, today, customers expect highly relevant and personalized experiences. Yes, they’re contacting you because they want to hear more about your product or service, but only in relation to their own, very specific, business needs. You should leverage all the data available to you about each customer—from both internal and external data sources—to figure out how best to converse with them. That includes past sales to that customer, history of contact with your company—including any previous complaints—and even abandoned shopping carts. Anything that gives you insight into what the customers want should be fuel for your conversations with them.

Try it, and let me know how it goes!

ABOUT Alice LaPlante

Alice LaPlante was a Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, and taught writing at Stanford for more than 20 years. She is the award-winning New York Times best-selling author of four novels, and wrote The Making of a Story, the best-selling textbook on writing published by W.W. Norton. Alice also is also a sought-after content writer, strategist, and story consultant for leading technology firms.