Guest Blogger

by Rurik Bradbury, Global Head of Conversational Strategy at LivePerson

When people started building websites in the mid-’90s, it was under the assumption that e-commerce would very quickly eclipse old-fashioned bricks-and-mortar shopping. But after more than two decades, only 8–9% of sales happen online. It sounds strange to say it, because our smartphone-dependent lives feel quite different from before, but e-commerce on the internet has failed.

The reason the web failed at commerce was that it was built on the metaphor of a library, or content filing system. Sites (books) full of pages (er…pages) all catalogued by an indexing system. Libraries are good at cataloguing and storing content, but they’re not good at selling stuff. To succeed and take e-commerce past this pathetic 9% mark, we need a new approach.

As websites floundered and apps failed to fix the problem of digital selling — consumers don’t want more of them, and if you somehow get them to download one, it’s hard to make them use it — a new behaviour came to dominate among smartphone users. Messaging apps killed the phone call and became by far the most used way to stay in touch with friends and family. They are now the default way consumers connect with each other throughout the day.

These two trends — of today’s e-commerce failing to meet consumer needs and of consumers running their lives via messaging — have now converged into the category of conversational commerce, where people go back and forth with brands using text and voice messages, answered by bots or real humans. For several reasons, 2018 will be the year conversational commerce goes from a curiosity to a mainstream technology that starts to overtake the web.

Amazon Alexa kicks off the new era

The leading indicator for conversational commerce was voice assistants, and Amazon Alexa in particular. It showed that bots were ready for prime time, capable enough to justify a spot in the kitchen or living room, and finally able to succeed at e-commerce using a natural, conversational interface. Google quickly created its answer to Alexa — Google Home — and Apple has released its own smart speaker and assistant, the HomePod.

In 2016, Facebook tried a bold experiment, letting brands add bots on Facebook Messenger, but it ended badly: too many bots, with too little forethought about all the ingredients to make them successful (like staffing, fallback to humans, back-end data access, good conversational design, automated processes, use case research, and more).

While that year’s bots boom turned into bust, the same powerful logic driving brands to need conversational interfaces is still in place. It’s not just that websites and apps have failed at selling, but they also cost brands a massive amount. Because they so often fail to give consumers what they need, a large US brand will spend over $1 billion on customer care, mostly on clunky voice calls, with thousands of customer care agents handling manually what consumers couldn’t get done in a site or app. 268 billion phone calls per year, costing brands up to $6 each. Insane.

The conversational commerce war

Since we launched the first messaging platform for customer care at scale at a large US telco in mid-2016, we’ve deployed more than 100 large brands on messaging. They started gingerly but are now more aggressive as the early adopter phase finished in 2017. This year, we’ve seen Apple go live with Business Chat in the last iOS release, the first time brands have been allowed into the Messages app, which is the most used in all of iOS and had previously been reserved only for friends, family, and colleagues, plus anonymous green-bubble SMS messages.

Google is promoting RCS (Rich Communication Services) — think of it as “SMS 2.0” — which brings the security and rich functionality like graphics, payments, and so on that was missing from the now-ancient text message standard. It’s looking to get RCS live on billions of devices. Facebook is pushing hard as well, opening up Messenger and WhatsApp for brands.

It’s now easy to see a path to killing off the website. Costing less than 50% of voice calls for customer care, messaging can slash the $1 billion brands spend on contact centres. With bots and automation, it’s 75% less, and this is just an early stage: software always gets better over time, and bots will take increasing chunks of this conversational traffic.

Because consumers expect messaging and like it so much more than 0800 numbers (“Your call is important to us…”), it is a win for executives across other functions in a company as well as care: sales, marketing, operations. With most marketing channels saturated — obnoxious ads on the web, spam in email — it yields (for now) much higher conversion rates than today’s main channels.

The path of least resistance

Once conversational options are up and running and consumers aware of them, the law of the “path of least resistance” kicks in. We have now seen it many times: If a consumer can simply text what they want, instead of sifting through a website or app, and get a good result, they’ll do it instead. They don’t care that the option is on your site or that it costs the brand more to have a contact centre agent take care of it than if the consumer did “self-serve”, because that’s the brand’s problem, not theirs.

Consumers want a better experience. All the tech giants — Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google — are behind it. And the cost and revenue benefits for brands, plus the consumer and platform pressures, mean that conservative call centres have flipped into action mode, a race to do conversational commerce well and ahead of their competition.

As conversational commerce becomes ubiquitous in 2018, we’re about to witness an explosion of creativity — like the early days of TV, or the early years of iPhone and Android, as brands raced to launch the coolest apps. And once conversational interfaces become available everywhere, handling any question a consumer cares to ask, it’s hard to see why a website would still exist.

They had a good run (almost 25 years), but the twilight of the web is here — at least for business uses. For content, the original idea of the web, there may be a longer lifespan, though the publishing industry is not in the best financial state. In e-commerce, however, the 2018 mass migration to conversational commerce is also the beginning of the end for the website as we know it.

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