Conversational Commerce: RIP Bots?

Headshot of VMLY&R COMMERCE MENA's Fabio Medeiros

Over the past few years, especially during 2020 and 2021, we’ve seen a significant increase in conversations around commerce. It’s a buzzword many of us in the creative solutions industry have gotten more accustomed to by force. I understand how the previous statement may have sounded somewhat negative, but I promise you, it’s as positive as it gets. 

Just bear with me for the next four or five minutes and you’ll see what I mean.

I promise to try my best to make this a conversation, not bothering you with a whole bunch of data and lines of pure marketing boredom.

Commerce at the Core

Despite growing at a sustainable fast pace for the good part of the last decade, the past two years have pushed us, marketeers and agencies, to truly put commerce at the core of everything we do. There’s no brand building, experience, content, or activation that can ignore the need to gently move consumers from need (or want) to discovery and simply disregard conversion. Any project, job or brief that doesn’t include commerce in it, immediately gets classified as archaic or non-ROI friendly.

The above happened for obvious reasons. Whilst people feared contact and interactions, brands and businesses had to find solutions to not only start conversations and display empathy, but also creative ways to keep people buying. Buying from their homes, their cars or even from a lonely walk in a park somewhere. Sure…e-commerce has been around since the 90’s, q-commerce was already picking up sustainably even before the pandemic, but the truth is, it’s only become a habit or a first option for most post March 2020.

It’s all about a mindset. A new one. Look at what Careem and Instashop have done to all of us in the UAE. Or what Jumia and now Rabbit are doing in Egypt for example. We are all triggered to search for innovative solutions to our daily lives. Fast and convenient ways to make our everyday less busy and easier. 

But how is all this connected to Conversational Commerce?

Well, firstly, let’s align on the common and more bastardized definition of Conversational Commerce which is the use of bots, chat boxes, messages or any other similar approach to sell anything to anyone online in a fast and cost-effective way. And we’ve all been a victim of it. 

However, that’s changing and evolving quickly. And while I’m sure Chris Messina in 2015/16 would absolutely feel insulted by my simplistic definition of Conversational Commerce in the previous paragraph, even he, the man who coined the term in the first place, has started to move away from such line of thought and I really recommend his article, “The guy who coined the term “conversational commerce” was wrong about conversational commerce”

Now, back to why Conversational Commerce has been boosted by the pandemic. While most of us were stuck at home, gaining weight and turning into compulsive Amazon or Noon shoppers, a revolution was happening. Interaction with brands and service providers started to shift. Conversational Commerce went hybrid. Or perhaps…just focused more on the word conversation, rather than conversion. 

All due to consumers needing human contact. Or at least wanting to be treated as people, and not as ‘dollar signs.

I’m not saying conversion and commercial objectives took a step back. Not at all. If anything is the other way around. Businesses just got smarter and truly put people at the center of everything they did. Showing understanding of a clear shift in behavior that required personalization of content, assimilation of empathy and true customer service.

Ultimately people wanted (want) to be heard, not just be pushed a multitude of packages, product offers or empty meaningless options that added zero value to their needs.

The irony here is that a more human centric approach to Conversation Commerce capable of delivering better relationships and a sense of comfort lies on data. From collection to analysis to deployment. The difference is how this data is being used. Not merely as science and evidence to sell something, but as the starting point to deeper human insights capable of unlocking commerce potential like never before. 

It’s all about creating intimacy between brands and potential shoppers.

Conversational Commerce is capable to personalize relationships with the masses without treating shoppers like cattle. And even if it does, as it’s unavoidably a tactic to maximize sales and efficiencies, it will ultimately drive relatability and a sense of connection.

By using data to ‘speak human’, commerce becomes more seamless. Converting a loyal consumer from ‘brand a’ to ‘brand b’ is easier when the loyalist is engaged through his/her curiosity and passion points. When a brand makes sense, selling is easier. That’s why Conversational Commerce must carry on driving conversations, engagement and experiences, not simply residing within the limited walls of pre-made Bot support.

In our beloved region that has for decades been used to convenience, whether through delivery services from your local baqala or simple forms of BNPL such as keeping a monthly open bill with the family butcher, Bots can and will carry on having an important role, as they allow for life to not be disrupted. However, in MENA, where culturally we live and breathe human interaction, the more ‘human’ commerce becomes, the more successful a business will be.

-  Fabio Medeiros is Head of Strategy at VMLY&R COMMERCE MENA

Originally published in The Brandberries