Mobile is becoming the most dominant medium for consumers to talk to each other. This is especially true for India with an estimated 314 million mobile internet users by 2017. We’re going through a radical change in how we interact as a species – through frequent, real-time, micro moments. In this new world, messaging is rapidly becoming the de-facto choice of interaction-experience to enable discovery, purchase and support for commerce, believes Srikrishnan Ganesan, business head of Hotline.io, Freshdesk’s customer engagement product for mobile-first brands.
There is increasing evidence to suggest that messaging is indeed taking over commerce in various forms. Customers are increasingly interacting with brands through in-app messages and some companies (like Uber) have bet on messaging being the only form of interaction available.
“It just makes sense. When I see mobile apps whose ‘contact us’ launches a web page, an email or has a phone number, the broken experience, for the consumer and the business glares at me. It pulls the consumer out of context and uses channels that are irrelevant in the mobile era,” says Srikrishnan, who is building the backbone (in Hotline) for businesses to power consumer interactions through messaging.
He believes that customers will increasingly seek out platforms where they can converse with vendors, ask product queries and extend their natural purchase behaviour online.
The rise of messaging
India loves its social and messaging platforms. At the beginning of 2016, Hike announced that they had crossed 100 million registered users with a whopping 40 billion messages being exchanged monthly. WhatsApp has an estimated 70 million active users in India. It is catching up fast with the 142 million users that Facebook boasts of. These are higher numbers than what the e-commerce platforms can claim (with potentially more engaged consumers).
One would feel that the stage is set for these platforms to be exploited. “We need only to look at WeChat in China to see the possibilities of what all a core messaging channel can offer – today, it’s like an operating system in itself,” says Srikrishnan, who started playing with messaging platforms as early as 2012 when he and a couple of friends launched PhonOn – a voice-messaging app.
Incidentally, 2012 was also the year when messaging story began heating up in India, with the launch of Hike, followed by the marketing blitzkrieg of WeChat and Line (2013). WhatsApp, with just over 100 million users worldwide at the time, was just beginning its journey.
Today, we are likely at the cusp of the next phase of growth for messaging platforms – their evolution into commercial platforms.
While PhoneOn did not succeed in the competitive landscape, it planted the seed for Srikrishnan’s next startup: Konotor — a product that would enable businesses to engage with their customers on mobile and within the context of their apps. When it launched in 2013, it was a novel idea tackling an emerging problem and it got selected by the Target Accelerator and won the Qualcomm QPrize, leading to its early adoption and growth. It eventually got acquired by Freshdesk (late 2015).
Today, we are likely at the cusp of the next phase of growth for messaging platforms – their evolution into commercial platforms. The ecosystem is certainly gearing to support it.
Milestones like the passing of the GST bill, UPI, etc. seek to smoothen commercial transactions online. Then, there are events like the launch of Reliance Jio, which, for all its flaws, may have just kick-started a 4G race (dormant until now). All of this likely to feed into a messaging revolution that will see more commerce powered by rising data consumption.
A fragmented world of commerce
Srikrishnan predicts that we will see extreme fragmentation in how brands reach consumers and where consumers conduct commerce going forward. Moving forward, chat apps, e-commerce marketplaces, social platforms and a plethora of apps and websites will vie for customer attention, with messaging likely offering the only common engagement interface to the consumer’s increasingly schizophrenic digital avatar.
Traditional e-commerce platforms will continue to thrive even as they offer more brand and vendor engagement elements to consumers in order to stay relevant. “Ping by Flipkart could really have started out by enabling customers to chat with the vendor or Flipkart support directly, rather than the “ask-a-friend” model. That’s the impact feature!” says Srikrishnan.
Chat platforms are growing into bigger beasts that support more commerce. WhatsApp, where a significant amount of local commerce is happening already, announced that it was testing tools for businesses and organisations to communicate with users and vice-versa. Hike, India’s new unicorn valued at $1.4 billion, is moving to aggressively expand its scope and attempt to be a platform.
Social platforms or Facebook (to be more precise) are increasingly embellishing its engagement elements with tools for commerce. It is unleashing the power of bots and the might of its ecosystem to turn its Messenger into a compelling commerce platform for businesses. In India, it recently rolled out its ‘shops’ and ‘services’ section and tied up with Citrus Pay to enable card and net banking transactions.
WhatsApp announced that it was testing tools for businesses and organisations to communicate with users and vice-versa.
Brands will continue to reach customers directly (through apps and mobile sites) driven by the need to offer their own unique experience, protect valuable customer data or perhaps, even out of fear of dwindling leverage in large monolithic platforms.
This convergence of features (commerce, communication, engagement) and divergence of providers is what the mobile platforms – Android and iOS, primarily – are looking to solve. Google’s ‘Instant Apps’ (that take customers straight to sections of an app on the browser) and ‘Now on Tap’ (that surfaces data out from the apps) are steps toward breaking open the silo-ed, protective shell of apps and make their data and experience searchable. Its upcoming messenger, Allo (also powered by bots), is likely to serve as the engagement interface for commerce taking place across a large universe of searchable modules of individual apps.
Amidst all this chaos, the only common thread is messaging, feels Srikrishnan, whose belief in the rise of voice-messaging is vindicated by its emergence today. Voice-assistants, like Amazon Echo, Google Now, Siri, etc., are opening up new models of interaction that go beyond mechanical screen inputs. As these devices and systems get integrated into more natural settings for conversations (home, cars, etc.), we are likely to see voice interactions play a much bigger role in brand engagements.
Srikrishnan envisions a future where the customer could be engaged with a brand across platforms – whether through text on WhatsApp or Messenger or through voice messaging from in-car interfaces or Amazon Echo-like devices at home – and the context of her issue is available seamlessly for the brand to engage back smarter. Of course, it could escalate into a live conversation or a video chat when required.
Amidst all this chaos, the only common thread is messaging, feels Srikrishnan, whose belief in the rise of voice-messaging has been vindicated
In this explosion of channels and formats, how will businesses keep up with the consumers?
Bots will be of big help here. Their ability to be “always on” will shrink interaction speeds. They will make messaging channels more efficient by engaging customers using standard responses where appropriate.
Even when they lack the ability to solve a customer problem, they will act as responsive gatekeepers that route the problems back to humans or other systems that can solve them.
But the key to powering all this lies in the backend. “You need to flip the traditional thinking around customer support, which views interactions as synchronous engagements to be allocated to agents,” says Srikrishnan who is building Hotline to address this problem through solutions, like intelligent load balancing and prioritisation, that work for this fragmented, distracted world. In time, he believes, automation will increase in the backend from simple standardisation of customer issues to human-free resolution and communication.
One hopes that it rescues us from world of dreadful IVRs and nightmarish on-hold music.