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Messaging is open for business. Are brands ready?

We’re living in the messaging era. From chatbots and voice assistants to emojis and end-to-end encryption, conversational technology has changed the way we get our news, interact with colleagues, and stay connected with the people we care about.

In many parts of the world, messaging has leapfrogged email and web browsers as the primary way people interact online. WhatsApp, the world’s most popular chat app, recently reached 400 million active users—in India alone, where the total number of smartphone users is roughly 450 million. That means nearly everyone in India with a smartphone uses the app to communicate.

In China, WeChat dominates. More than a billion people are using the Tencent-owned app to do everything from ordering food to playing games to transferring money. The WeChat model is now being emulated by Facebook, which plans to combine its three leading messaging apps—Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram — and launch its own cryptocurrency for in-chat payments next year.

In many parts of the world, messaging has leapfrogged email and web browsers as the primary way people interact online.

People are using chat to assist with surgery, practice religion, fight homelessness, improve their mental health, and binge-watch their favorite TV shows. Yet despite the fact that messaging has come to dominate nearly every aspect of our lives, large enterprises have been

That’s about to change.

[Read also: Navigating the bumpy road to a seamless customer experience]

The rise of business messaging

In the past year nearly all the major tech players have opened their messaging platforms to businesses. Facebook launched an API that lets brands connect their software to WhatsApp so they can manage customer conversations at scale. Apple and Google are both enabling business messaging in mobile search and maps, which will make chatting with brands as easy as initiating a phone call or filling out a lead form.

People and businesses around the world already exchange more than 20 billion messages on Facebook Messenger each month. Meanwhile, the emergence of live chat and conversational marketing tools has brought modern messaging to hundreds of thousands of corporate websites and branded mobile apps. For brands, embracing messaging isn’t just about “being where your customers are.” It’s about delivering experiences that are more personal, more convenient, and more efficient for agents and customers alike.

Unlike traditional live chat or phone support, conversational messaging is asynchronous. Customers can message with businesses at their own pace, without the need to stay glued to their computer screens or phones until they get a response. Conversations are also persistent, which means they might start off on one topic and then meander and evolve, depending on the channel and context. It's the difference between re-introducing yourself to someone every time you run into them and simply picking up where you left off. While starting from square one every time you talk to someone you know would be frustrating and ridiculous, that's exactly how most companies interact with their customers. With conversational messaging, brands can build personal and meaningful relationships with their customers over time. That is, if they learn to do it right.

[Read also: Keeping pace with the future—which emerging technologies are right for your business?]

Don’t leave your customers on read

Before we get too carried away about the opportunities that messaging offers to businesses, it’s worth raising a couple yellow flags.

The first is that messaging is such a powerful communication medium precisely because brands haven’t slid into our DMs. People are highly protective of their messaging inboxes, and WhatsApp’s restrictions against newsletters and spam suggest Facebook is wary of consumers becoming as ambivalent about chat as they are about email. (Remember when the words “You’ve got mail!” sparked joy, not terror?)

Customers can message with businesses at their own pace, without the need to stay glued to their computer screens or phones until they get a response.

The second is that just because messaging has changed the way we communicate with each other doesn’t mean customers want to communicate with businesses in exactly the same way. Writing for MarTechSeries, Cliff Bell advises that “brands must walk a fine line to appear responsive without seeming pushy, in addition to not seeming smug or overly familiar with messaging slang and emojis.” In an asynchronous world, Bell argues, customers may have different expectations of businesses than they do of friends or colleagues. And customers should be the ones “controlling the ebb and flow of conversations.”

Besides, norms and etiquette around messaging are still being defined. Take the case of read receipts, which have become standard across nearly every modern messaging channel. They’re the check marks (WhatsApp), avatars (Messenger), or text (iMessage) that indicate whether the person you’re chatting with has seen your message. Although they can often be turned off, read receipts have become the subject of passionate debate, with even The Wall Street Journal taking sides, proclaiming that they’ve “ruined messaging.” According to the Journal’s tech reporter, David Pierce, the feature robs people of agency, forcing us to “chat on someone else’s schedule."

“At their core,” Pierce writes, “read receipts create a disconnect: They are good for the sender and terrible for the recipient.”

On the other side of the divide is Android Central editor Andrew Martonik, who sees read receipts as one of modern messaging’s “biggest revelations” and implores readers not to shut them off. For Martonik, digital receipts mimic the non-verbal aspects of in-person conversation (like head nods and other gestures) that reassure us the other person is listening, providing “another little reminder that you're talking to a person and not an app.”

For Martonik, digital receipts mimic the non-verbal aspects of in-person conversation (like head nods and other gestures) that reassure us the other person is listening.

As more brands join the conversation, they’ll need to navigate the norms and nuances of this emerging medium, like whether to send that winky face emoji or how long to make customers wait for a reply. In some cases, businesses will need to retrain support agents and rethink how they measure performance and set customer expectations. But as conversational commerce enters the mainstream, brands won’t be able to see messaging purely through a support lens. Customers will be reaching out for a variety of reasons on a multitude of channels, and they won’t care which department is on the other side of the chat. Businesses need to be ready to have conversations at every step of the customer journey. More importantly, they’ll need to learn how to leverage the insights they glean from those conversations.

[Read also: Radio silence: Why failing to respond will cost you credibility]

The conversational data goldmine

According to a recent Forbes Insights/Treasure Data survey, 78 percent of businesses either have, or are developing, a customer data platform. By ingesting a wide variety of customer data from different channels and systems, businesses are hoping to develop better customer insights and offer more personalized experiences. The problem, as Zendesk’s VP of Conversational Business Warren Levitan argues in The Next Web, is that most customer data platforms are missing a key piece of the CX puzzle: customer conversations. The good news is that messaging makes those conversations more accessible and abundant than ever. “An ability to collect, store, aggregate, analyze, and ultimately act upon the actual words customers are saying to them, would surely enable brands to deliver the type of intelligent and seamless experiences their customers pine for,” writes Levitan.

When businesses leave conversations out of the customer data picture, he explains, the information and insights shared explicitly over chat risk being disregarded in favor of implicit data and broad-based assumptions. “This then leaves brands in a position where they’re forced to offer customers an orange because they appear from the data to be an ‘orange type of person’ when they just told you directly they like apples.”

Imagine a business was able to access everything a customer has ever said to them: their emails to customer service, live chats with sales, phone calls with the order help line, SMS messages, interactions with a Facebook chatbot, and the list goes on. Now imagine this could be combined with transactional and behavioral data and formatted in a way that was easily processed by both AI and human agents. As Levitan argues, this would lead to better informed agents and

When businesses leave conversations out of the customer data picture, [Levitan] explains, the information and insights shared explicitly over chat risk being disregarded in favor of implicit data and broad-based assumptions.

Once again, brands will need to proceed with caution here. With the Cambridge Analytica scandal fresh on everyone’s minds and GDPR upping the ante when it comes to safeguarding user privacy, “data” has become a four-letter word for many customers—and for good reason. Any data collected from users needs to be consensual and compliant with international privacy standards. That includes conversational data.

At the same time privacy doesn’t mean I want my conversations with brands to fall into a black hole. When I call, email, or message a business and tell them something, I don’t just expect them to act on that info—I’m actually frustrated when they don’t. Failing to act on the data users explicitly and expectantly share through words, emojis, and other forms of modern messaging isn’t just a missed opportunity for businesses. It’s a bad experience.

There’s no longer any doubt that customers are ready to message with businesses. Are businesses ready to truly listen?

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