Conversational Commerce Makes Its Voice Heard 

Text Marketing

Conversational commerce for merchants is taking another step forward today (Feb. 24) with the release of AI Annotator by the conversational artificial intelligence (AI) firm LivePerson, Inc. The new tool, according to the company, is designed to make it easier and faster to automate brand-consumer conversations.

The new release is designed to remove the lengthy and often costly optimization process that adds conversational bots into the mix for merchants. Instead, the AI Annotator allows for improvement areas to be flagged and addressed within seconds, without a major disruption to the contact center process. The new methodology is based on the idea that optimizing conversational AI is best guided by the crowdsourced insights of contact center agents, who are already experts in working with customers.

“Without AI Annotator, new automations typically require a protracted optimization cycle by technical experts before they’re ready for prime time. In a world that changes overnight, brands simply can’t afford to settle for this stagnation,” said Rob LoCascio, founder and CEO of LivePerson. “With AI Annotator, the agents that know customers best can make these changes in an instant, helping brands stay on the cutting edge of conversational commerce with no need for additional expensive headcount to get the job done.”

And the segment isn’t just generating technology releases, but also big funding rounds for the startups that are supporting it. Conversational commerce firm Emotive has just announced the raising of $50 million in Series C funding, following a year when the firm logged 466 percent year-over-year revenue growth, according to TechCrunch reports.

According to its CEO Brian Zatulove, Emotive aims to use text messaging to digitally recreate the physical sales associate experience for online channels via text marketing that feels like a real conversation with another human being, rather than just an automated email blast delivered via text. The firm works with businesses of all sizes, but its reported sweet spot is with mid-size eCommerce players such as Shopify, Magento, BigCommerce and WooCommerce. Firms that lack salespeople that can leverage the Emotive experience to fill that role and promote sales. On average, Emotive reports that it can bump conversion rates for eCommerce players by as much as 10 percent from the standard 1-2 percent.

Zatulove says the firm’s success lies in the effective blending of automated and human responders. The firm has become increasingly automated over time, he noted, but will never become entirely so. “We never plan on losing that human touch as part of the dialogue,” he added. “We see ourselves as a human-to-human marketing platform. That’s our biggest differentiator.”

And being differentiated is becoming increasingly important, as the conversational commerce field is expanding and becoming increasingly diverse by the day. While large and mid-size players have been able to capitalize on the opportunity, Chase Petrey, vice president and general manager of payments at the customer messaging and interaction management platform Podium, observed in a conversation with PYMNTS  last fall that conversational platforms are becoming increasingly relevant to SMBs’ omnichannel ambitions.

Conversational commerce, according to Petrey, sits  “smack in the middle” of brick and mortar, locally-based commerce and eCommerce, in such a way that “there’s an expectation and a growing demand that consumers will be able to message with a local business” — and through digital means, get what they want and need with little friction. Consumers are becoming more interested in, and comfortable with, communicating via text messages, which means layering in  payments functionality is a natural next step toward completing the commerce loop between consumer and merchant. “Having messaging without payments is like having an eCommerce site without a checkout page,” noted Petrey.

In the era of  COVID-19, there’s been a veritable explosion in curbside pickup activity, representing about 15 percent of Podium’s volumes, as consumers are looking for easier and more intuitive channels to reach their familiar merchants in new and different ways. “This is where conversational commerce really is the answer, because you have the convenience of a digital experience with the support of a real person behind it, educating you and helping guide you through the purchase process,” he explained.

Moreover, Mike Herrick, senior vice president of technology at the customer engagement platform Airship, told PYMNTS in a recent conversation that while voice technology and commerce tend to eat up more of the headline space in terms of contextual commerce innovations, the conversational commerce opportunity is unique — and quite expansive. “We’ve come to see conversational commerce as something that takes the friction out of a transaction,” Herrick said. “It can drive user attention effectively, and it personalizes the way our technology works. By removing friction, we can provide more value and ultimately help our customers grow faster.”

It’s something that has presented itself with a new level of urgency in the era of COVID-19. Pre-pandemic, said Herrick, retailers could rely on people coming into stores at the end of the day. Now, they know better than to have all their eggs in the physical store basket, and are more keyed into the idea that to be relevant in the next normal, they must be wired into digital channels. “I wouldn’t say [conversational commerce tools] are the only way to grow digital channels, but customer engagement and conversational commerce have become even more important than before,” he noted.

Retailers across the board are aiming to perfect their digital consumer interactions. According to statistics, 98 percent of all retail text messages were opened, and 95 percent are responded to within three minutes of being delivered. According to data released by call management-based solutions company Numa, contactless and test-to-order revenue was up 393 percent in 2020, while curbside check-in via SMS messaging was up 748 percent. As Numa CEO Tasso Roumeliotis noted, the people have made it clear what they want — and what retailers will have to do going forward to keep customers satisfied and returning.

“Before the pandemic, I think there were definitely the beginnings of momentum for conversational commerce,” noted Roumeliotis. “Retailers started to be introduced to the concept of messaging for their business, which is the start of it, but we didn’t see a fully integrated system until the pandemic made it a necessity. The pandemic was definitely an accelerator.”

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