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What Business Leaders Need to Know About the Evolution of Messaging and Chat

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Consumers today live on their mobile devices. They are spending more time on messaging apps like Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, WhatsApp, and others. Naturally, companies want to be part of these conversations. And increasingly, they’re using messaging services to do it.

Messaging services like Apple Business Chat, direct SMS texts, and in-app messaging allow brands to personally engage at scale with people on the platforms where they’re already spending a lot of time. The potential for messaging to enhance customer experiences has companies betting on them as a new way of interacting with consumers.

Messaging features extend through the customer lifecycle

The initial appeal of messaging apps was that they offered people the ability to communicate via mobile for free, unlike SMS text messages that are billed per text, notes Jason I. Hong, an associate professor in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, who is studying human-computer interactions. Since then, messaging apps “have expanded to have a lot of cool features for connecting people,” Hong says. “These include games, animated GIFs, multimedia content, video conferencing, asynchronous voice messages, and sharing one’s current location—along with maps.” And with the launch of Apple Business Chat and other services that connect to product, payment, and customer information, it’s now possible to complete purchases, provide customer support, and pretty much manage the entire end-to-end customer experience via messaging.

“The most important driver [of messaging apps] is the ability to multitask,” says Kartik Hosanagar, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, whose research focuses on the digital economy. WeChat, a Chinese mobile messaging app, for example, makes it easy for users to manage multiple tasks besides texting. WeChat’s platform is simple enough that children can use it to communicate with their parents and adults can use it to shop online, pay bills, order a taxi, and book medical appointments, all without leaving the WeChat platform.

And in the U.S., Apple Business Chat (currently in beta) integrates Apple Maps, the Safari search engine, and iMessage on a user’s iPhone to connect consumers directly with brands like T-Mobile, Home Depot, and Hilton. Users initiate direct messages with a human brand representative via iMessage. The service can then sync with iPhone apps like Calendar and Apple Pay to schedule appointments or make purchases, which creates a holistic customer experience built on messaging.

Google is working on similar functionality with its Google My Business app for Android users. News outlets also report that it may be planning to add messaging options to search results from its search engine as well, which would open up messaging to even more consumers.

Technology meets humanity as messaging evolves

Messaging technology is innovating very rapidly. “In the next three to five years, messaging apps will rise in tandem with adjacent technologies,” according to a recent Forrester Research report titled, The Future of Messaging Apps. “Technology innovation in natural language processing, semantic search, image and voice recognition, and especially A.I. will progressively blur the lines between messaging apps, bots, and voice-based assistants,” the report states.

In other words, messaging apps will soon leverage more data sources and technologies to deliver smarter, contextually driven services on branded accounts. “I think a big one will be improving effectiveness of communication,” Hong says. “This might include using sensor data to let people know you got home OK, or that you’re driving and can’t chat right now.”

But along with technology advancements, people will expect more personalization because of the one-to-one nature of messaging. “The expectation of a more personalized and more human form of interaction means brands can’t have a one-size-fits-all type of approach to messaging,” Hosanagar says.

Competition is heating up

The race is on among companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft to build more powerful messaging apps. “We think we’re on the cusp of messaging version two,” Nick Fox, who oversees communication products at Google, recently told Wired. “Messaging is going from being just about sending text to really expressing yourself much more fully, much more broadly, much more naturally. And then to getting stuff done in your chats.”

The first phase of the messaging/chat app revolution was dedicated to growth and driving adoption rates. Companies are beginning to enter the second phase, which is about building out services and monetizing a chat app’s user base. But this phase will likely be more challenging as developers try to figure out how to create the most engagement. Lead with the customer experience ahead of the technology, and adoption will follow.

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