Marketing is once again about to enter a new era. The writing is on the walls and the wheels are already in motion for the next big shift in how businesses will interact with their customers. This tectonic change will bring about considerable transformations in the tools, teams, techniques and technologies employed by both big and small firms.
Before delving in, we need to set the stage and briefly review some of the earlier marketing eras the led us to where we are today.
Outbound Marketing Era
This era is defined by businesses broadcasting (some would say shouting) their messages to customers. Using classic mass media channels like TV, Radio and Print, companies would be indiscriminately “pushing” their products and services to very large audiences. Some were interested or perhaps even open to the message but many others were clearly not. It didn’t matter. It was – some might argue it still is – a shotgun approach to reaching your target audience. The marketer’s toolbox eventually grew to include direct mail, e-mail, cold/robo-calling, billboards and even web advertising, to name only a few. Again, the focus was on broadcasting your message externally (hence the Outbound reference) hoping that a small percentage of recipients would turn into customers. This approach jaded many people who got sick of the incessant commercials. Many of these were willing to either pay a premium for ad-free programming or opted instead to “cut the cord” or “get off the grid” to consume their content (think Netflix or Pandora customers). Turn on any TV, dial into any radio station, go to any news website and open any mailbox, and you will still find Outbound Marketing intruding into your life. The model still works (for some) and continues to this day but it has suffered setbacks as consumers learn to tune-out intrusive messages, distrust mass media and shift their attention to ever smaller & changing niche sources of information and entertainment.
Inbound Marketing Era
Perhaps as a direct reaction to or consequence of the Outbound Marketing onslaught, marketers decided to turn the tables around. Instead of pushing content, they thought, why not create it and have customers come find us. Buttressed by the rise in Social Media and smart phones, many businesses and individuals became bloggers, vloggers and general content creators. Whether by developing original content or by curating it, marketers used the principle that to attract interested/qualified/motivated customers you needed to generate a steady stream of “stuff.” It suddenly became about helping customers find your website (SEO!) and drawing traffic, followers and eyeballs (newsletters subscriptions, keywords, PPC, message boards, webinars, ebooks, apps, …). In the past 10 years, we have seen a veritable explosion of content. Wordpress alone reports 70 million new blog posts EACH MONTH! Inbound Marketing has the significant virtue of being less intrusive by helping inform, educate or entertain its (opt-in) audience. Yet in spite of drawing customers in, Inbound Marketing still falls short in one significant and profound way: Scalable & personalized interaction. But what about Social Media and content sharing/commenting you ask? While a step in the right direction neither constitute a true conversation as in: real-time, bi-directional, personalized, sustained, platform agnostic, automated and made of multiple exchanges.
Conversational Marketing Era
Welcome to the next evolution in consumer marketing: Conversations. Thanks to advances in technology such as AI, NLP, Voice Recognition, IoT and smart phones, it is now possible for marketers to create context-rich and PERSONALIZED conversations with their audience on a massive scale. Chatbots in particular are a natural vehicle for businesses to engage with their customers/patients thanks to the ubiquity of messaging platforms and the relative simplicity with which content and interactions can be created. It is now possible for people around the world to engage at any time with brands & businesses using intelligent automated systems. No, these systems are not perfect. Yes, they are still evolving, but we are very near a threshold where it will be extremely hard to tell the difference between a human and Artificial Intelligence. Emerging research suggests that a significant portion of the population actually prefers engaging with businesses using messaging systems (vs. apps, website, e-mail…). Whether for customer service tasks, business, commercial & administrative transactions, health & wellness tracking or even behavior modification/coaching, chatbots are on the cusp of transforming marketing by enabling businesses to have ongoing conversations with users. On the heels of chatbots, also come a slew of mainstream digital assistants such as Alexa, Siri, and Allo which will expand conversations to include voice.
Conversational Marketing is a natural evolution of the Outbound and Inbound Eras that preceded it. It’s also recognition that we humans prefer having natural conversations to receiving intrusive advertisements or searching for meaningful information in a vast ocean of mediocre content. Today’s forward-thinking “digital marketers” need to start experimenting with Conversational Era marketing tools and platforms RIGHT NOW if they want to stay ahead of the competition. Just as with Phone Apps, Websites and Social Media before, there will certainly be a conversational marketing “revolution” and ensuing “gold-rush.” To the early adopters and experimenters will come the spoils.
Andrew Hyncik is an International Strategic Marketing & Product Development veteran with 20+ years of experience in the Medtech, Healthcare, Consumer and Pharma industries.
Andrew Hyncik and Pascal Malengrez are International Strategic Marketing & Product Development leaders who amplify classical medtech marketing with digital startup thinking.