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How Messaging Apps Are Poised to Transform Ecommerce

Online shopping is in the process of getting more personal thanks to messaging apps, and 2016 has been dubbed the year of conversational commerce. Chris Ricci, one of the lead developers of Amazon’s Kindle and the current CTO of ecommerce platform Indigenous Software, provides a look at what’s changing and how it is impacting merchants.

Drawing on 20 years of industry experience that includes prominent ecommerce and software development positions at Amazon, Dell, and Sears, Chris Ricci analyzes how ecommerce messaging on platforms such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and China’s WeChat will transform how consumers seek out goods and services. He also identifies some of the risks merchants face in implementing an ecommerce messaging strategy. – Editor

How Messaging Apps Are Poised to Transform Ecommerce

By Chris Ricci

Ecommerce is about to get personal. The way we buy and sell everything from car rides to clothing has transformed rapidly over the past two decades, and that breakneck pace of change is not likely to slow anytime soon.

Recently, Uber’s Chris Messina dubbed 2016 “the year of conversational commerce,” highlighting Facebook’s 2014 purchase of messaging app WhatsApp for $22 billion as a sign of a new emerging trend. He is referring to a shift in which online retailers allow whole transactions to happen within an independent messaging app, like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, or China’s WeChat.

What Messina is presenting is a new epoch in online transactions that is more individualized, targeted, and convenient for the buyer.

Here’s how it could work: you add a bot or employee from your favorite online clothing store in a messaging app, ping her when you see a sweater you want (from the store, on your commute, in a blog, Pinterest, wherever), determine together that a size medium is your best bet, approve the purchase, and then watch the sweater appear on your doorstep a few days later. Notice that you never even had to visit the store’s website.

This trend toward ultra-personalized ecommerce will transform the way we make online purchases, but, I believe there’s more to it than that. Much more. It’s important to acknowledge that while part of what is happening here may be unprecedented, conversational commerce is, at its core, a reversion to a more familiar shopping world. Personal ecommerce via messaging apps harkens back to the way we shopped pre-Internet – a way that, in some ways, worked better than traditional online shopping for both buyers and sellers.

For instance, when a shopper visits Target to pick up a pack of socks and some paper towels, they navigate through the superstore, filling the basket with vitamins, a chicken for dinner, tissues, a scarf: a collection of things they needed and wanted but had forgotten about.

This type of happenstance shopping is something ecommerce has always struggled with, and the online basket would have contained just the two items you had on your mind in that moment. Of course, there are recommender settings and various other ways that online retailers have tried to prompt this type of serendipitous shopping that takes place in the store, but it’s never truly replicated the experience.

Shopping through websites has, in some ways, become too efficient. We scrubbed the experience clean of browsing, personalized recommendations, the ability to ask an employee (who seconds as a personal shopper), “What do you think of this one versus that one?”

The messaging apps can bring those aspects back to shopping by offering personalized recommendations based on shopping history, by listening to the customer in a way that recommender settings could never before and offering suggestions based on style, mood and personality, and by incorporating branding opportunities and using the messaging app as a way to leverage key messaging terms that help from a marketing standpoint.

With these seemingly subtle tweaks instituted in ecommerce, buyers and sellers will find that discovery has been re-introduced to the shopping process, along with what I call “happenstance purchases,” in a way that actually feels more like the experience of a brick-and-mortar store.

Personalized ecommerce becomes personal ecommerce.

Of course, chat commerce can take personalization further than anything we could have imagined pre-Internet, thanks to Big Data. Your store representatives will know your size, color palette, and preferences across various spectrums – all of which will contribute to the ease and convenience of your getting what you need and want online.

The particular risks and challenges of this at-once-new-and-familiar mode of purchasing should be highlighted at the outset. One of them also comes with brick-and-mortar shopping: individual employees are more central to a customer’s experience with a company. In other words, a poor representative conceivably has outsize power to damage a brand, or its stock.

Another challenge is more unprecedented: potential privacy concerns make it imperative that companies approach chat commerce sensitively and keep the customers’ best interest in mind. Customers should be able to easily opt in and out of chat commerce interactions, without feeling violated in any way. This creates opportunities and challenges from a marketing perspective, and it will drastically change the way retailers reach their customers.

These are issues that can and will be worked out, so that ecommerce is more personalized, tailored and convenient than it’s ever been before. Elsewhere in the world – notably China – consumers have already signaled their willingness to jump aboard this change.

What these other countries have realized is that when retailers combine ecommerce with conversational commerce, it blends the best of both worlds. It serves the needs of a consumer who desires more from their shopping experience online, but it also allows consumers to choose when, how long, and if they actually want to have an interaction with another individual on messaging apps while still experiencing unparalleled convenience.

The potential is great for those companies who can jump into the ecommerce messaging space, but large brands will once again have to learn how to talk to their customers.

About the Guest Columnist

Chris Ricci is the CTO of Indigenous Software and an accomplished strategic leader with over twenty years of experience in all aspects of software product design, delivery, and support and fifteen years of experience in Internet application development. Indigenous Software is a web-based business management platform that provides the essential components that small businesses, freelancers, and non-profits need to launch and manage their online presences. Key features include web hosting, content management, contact management, social media integration, digital marketing, and commerce supported by comprehensive analytics.

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Ina Steiner
Ina Steiner is co-founder and Editor of EcommerceBytes and has been reporting on ecommerce since 1999. She's a widely cited authority on marketplace selling and is author of "Turn eBay Data Into Dollars" (McGraw-Hill 2006). Her blog was featured in the book, "Blogging Heroes" (Wiley 2008). Follow her on Twitter at @ecommercebytes and send news tips to ina@ecommercebytes.com.