Chatbots and AI: the future of online sales

Brands have been using voice assistants and instant messaging apps to communicate with customers for the best part of a decade. But advances in tech, voice recognition and social selling mean the opportunities are growing.
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A recent report puts spending via conversational commerce at $290 billion in 2025, up from $41 billion this year. That's 590% growth over four years. And half of all spend is expected to come from chatbots alone, driven mainly by China, Japan and South Korea, where apps like WeChat, LINE and KakaoTalk allow brands to build their own chatbots to engage with customers.

The potential to engage is enormous. A study last September by Google and market research firm Forrester found that 32% of 18- to 34-year-olds had contacted a business on social media in the preceding six months, 22% used the chat function on a mobile website, 17% used a brand's mobile app, and 12% used third-party messaging. 

These days, consumers want 24/7 access to engage when it suits them. More than two thirds of consumers are more likely to buy from a business that offers convenient communications, which is important since the same amount will straight up avoid brands if the buying process is too tedious. Despite this, the Forrester-Google research found that just 51% and 43% of brands offer mobile chat and third-party messaging respectively, compared with more than 70% that offer email and phone contacts. There's still a lot of ground to make up.

More: Trevor McFedries on AI influencers and web 3.0

Opportunities for brands

Conversational commerce is much more than just customer support. It's a way of driving interaction, personalization and engagement with your audience. For example, retailers can send push notifications on Telegram or WhatsApp directly to customers once an item on their wishlist becomes available or goes into the sale. And what's more, it can be done automatically by a chatbot, saving you time and money in the long term.

Jonathan Trimble, CEO and co-founder of creative ventures firm And Rising, says that public acceptance of communication via a human-like chatbot is a ‘surprising but understandable’ phenomenon: ‘We feel oddly safer in the hands of something designed and optimized to meet our needs no matter how quirky [we] are over having to be exposed to the synchronicity, variability and even judgements of real-life human interaction.’

He adds: ‘Somewhere between the physical separation of the past 18 months and Alexa, there's something reassuring about that character or avatar you can quickly interface with. And emotionally powered data collection – not just behavioral – is leading the next generation of AI.’

Who's doing it?

These companies are putting conversational commerce into practice.

• Europe-focused eyewear brand Ace & Tate invites customers to schedule a free video chat with its in-house style advisers for advice and personalized product recommendations. And if they prefer, customers can choose to chat directly via WhatsApp, sending selfies and wishlists when it's convenient for them.

• New York-based cookware company Great Jones has a ‘Potline’ SMS service, offering real-time cooking advice or recipe suggestions from the team (‘Text 1-814-BISCUIT for a good time’).

• Handmade wooden furniture outfit Woodboom, based in Berlin, invites customers to message its founder directly on WhatsApp after integrating conversational commerce software from Charles. Now, 70% of its sales occur through the platform.

HERO is a conversational commerce company that enables messaging and live video access to salespeople, used by brands like Levi's, Nike and Sephora. And Rising's Jonathan says HERO is ‘breaking new ground’: ‘[It's] killed the idea that you'd ever prefer going to a department store, standing on an escalator, picking up a shopping basket or awkwardly talking to a salesperson,’ he says.

A version of this article was published in the Courier Weekly newsletter. For more useful stories, tips, tricks and simply good advice, sign up here.

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