Connecting with customers has become both easier and harder. It's now easier in that technology has enabled us to overcome time, space, and cost constraints through digital messaging, but harder due to the proliferation of digital channels (email, text, IM, social) and issues surrounding their use.

As a result, it should be of concern to every CMO that changes in customer behaviors, expectations, and control could put their digital messaging at risk. So, the challenge before us today is compelling: staying connected with customers. How brands respond will define tomorrow's winners and losers.

Digital messaging isn't just becoming multi- or even cross-channel. Its whole pattern and nature is changing. It's becoming about highly individualized, two-way conversations occurring in the moment. And customers aren't just using multiple channels and conveniently staying in the one the conversation was initiated in. Instead, customers are moving fluidly between channels so that an interaction initiated in one (email), may be discussed in a second (chat), and consummated in a third (text). Or not. It all depends on their needs and preferences, and those are ever-changing.

As rapidly as these behavioral shifts are occurring, customers expect the brands they do business with to keep up. In fact, the freedom of choice that technology has afforded them has only fed their appetite for instant gratification and heightened their expectations. Customers expect their favorite brands to know who they are, deliver the right message through their channel of choice, and to do so right now. Armed with their converged devices (smartphones) and, in some cases, converged inboxes (Facebook), customers can readily see the messages from those brands in one place and judge whether their expectations are being met.

Add the element of customer control into the mix of changing behaviors and heightened expectations and the challenge of staying connected becomes clear. Facebook Messages is a harbinger of things to come. It not only provides for a converged, cross-channel inbox, but it also empowers members to make their own decisions about how to manage it. Soon 550 million Facebook members will be able to directly determine what messages they do and don't want to get, but more important, what messengers they do and don't want to hear from—and to apply those determinations across channels. Imagine the impact of this form of empowerment when it spreads to other inbox providers—and it will—and what happens when customers begin to wield their newfound control.

So the future isn't just about digital messaging becoming at once one-to-one, real time, interactive, multichannel and converged, as radical as that may be. It's also about customers controlling the fate of both messages and brands based on whether their expectations for content and channel relevancy are met. It's about an environment where access to their inboxes is an earned privilege granted to some brands but denied to others. To those denied access, the loss of vital cross-channel customer connections for communication and commerce could not be more profound.

Most brands are seriously lagging behind these changes in customer communication behaviors and expectations and are ill prepared for an environment of customer control. For validation, simply look at their siloed structures, which inhibit a consolidated customer view and impede coherent communications, metrics that foster cross-channel competition rather than collaboration, and practices like blasting messages, which exhibits blatant disregard for customer-centric marketing principles.

No doubt, responding to these transformational trends will be disruptive. Responding to just one would cause business disruption, but responding in unison to all, as brands must, will greatly magnify the disruption. Yet, disruption of old ways of thinking and operating is exactly what the challenge of staying connected with customers demands.

The strategy for responding to this challenge is called Message Convergence. Simply put, Message Convergence is where brands know their customers' needs and preferences, and then act on what they know to actually coordinate their messaging so meaningful content is delivered at the right time and in the channel that's most contextually relevant.

Admittedly, Message Convergence is easier to envision than to execute. Its fulfillment will force a fundamental realignment in how brands interact with their customers, starting with a mind-set change and decision to move beyond silos. It will then need to be reinforced by new metrics, supported by new business processes, enabled by new technologies, and sustained by a renewed commitment to customer-centric practices across the company.

At a deeper level, Message Convergence will require brands to rearchitect their marketing and sales cycles, giving attention to such things as managing cross-channel message flows, real time data management, and on-the-fly message decision making. Customer care standards and operations will require revamping, too. And, of course, to make Message Convergence a reality, companies will need to invest in the kind of integrated, next-gen technologies that enable coordinated, interactive communications across channels and the transformation of messages between them. Cobbled together point solutions simply won't do. 

No, Message Convergence won't come easy or cheap. But as the only viable strategy for staying connected with customers, the rewards for brands that get Message Convergence right are as enormous as the risks for those that don't.

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About the Author: Dave Lewis is CMO of Message Systems