Article

Conversational marketing: Answering your 9 biggest questions

A Zendesk expert shares everything you need to know about using messaging and chatbots to generate leads and engage customers.

By Patrick Grieve, Contributing Writer

Published August 19, 2021
Last updated August 31, 2021

As technology becomes more sophisticated, so do virtual sales and marketing techniques. Newer channels and automations allow brands to bypass the “hard sell” and engage consumers with something a little friendlier and more conversational.

You may have heard of “conversational marketing” as a more modern alternative to other lead generation and customer engagement techniques. But what is conversational marketing, and what makes it different? To get the answers to those and other common questions about conversational marketing, we went straight to an expert.

1. What is conversational marketing?

Conversational marketing definition: A way of speaking directly to consumers in real-time, often through live chat, messaging apps, or conversational AI.

When brands want a more casual, friendly, and effective way to connect with prospects and customers, they often turn to conversational marketing.

“Conversational marketing is about having a way to interact with your website visitors,” explains Paul Lalonde, a Zendesk product expert. “It’s a way to collect leads in a way that doesn’t really feel like you’re collecting leads.”

The conversational marketing experience typically involves a widget and some form of automation. For example, someone checks out a brand’s website, and a chatbot pops up to ask, “What brought you to our site?” The visitor selects one of the available answers, which prompts another question. Eventually, the chatbot may ask the visitor if they want to speak with a live sales representative or schedule a future meeting with one. Even if the visitor declines, the company will have successfully captured a new lead and all the information they shared.

“It kind of feels like you’re just having a conversation, and you don’t even realize that you’re basically filling out a form,” says Lalonde.

As the lead progresses through the sales journey, the company can continue to engage with them through various conversational marketing channels. Once they become a customer, they may still use messaging and chatbot tools to connect with customer service and support agents.

what is conversational marketing

At its best, conversational marketing starts a discussion between a consumer and a brand that will continue over the entire customer lifecycle.

“Conversational marketing lets you design end-to-end conversational experiences that quite literally invite customers to start a conversation with your brand and find out about your product,” Lalonde says. “It also allows you to keep the conversation going beyond that initial stage of, ‘Here, give us your information and somebody will get back to you.’ ”

2. How is conversational marketing different from other lead generation strategies?

Conversational marketing is a more personable alternative to typical lead generation methods.

The “old-fashioned” lead gen approach would be to include a simple CTA (call to action) on your brand’s website. When a potential customer visits, they’ll see a button that says something like “Download our exclusive report, “Start your free trial,” “Talk to sales,” or “Book a meeting.”

Once the visitor clicks on the CTA, they’re presented with a lead generation form to fill out. Depending on the type of product or service being sold, the lead might have to provide their name, contact info, location, industry, or job title. Using that data, sales reps score the lead and then likely nurture them with a sales email campaign. Ideally, the prospect will eventually respond to one of the emails and schedule a call with a sales agent.

But the conversational marketing experience is notably different, striking a far friendlier tone. Instead of clicking on a CTA, the visitor is greeted by a chatbot that offers to provide guidance. And instead of filling out a form, the lead’s information is gathered conversationally.

Most importantly, the discussion continues on the lead’s terms—they decide whether or not to proceed. The consumer might choose to schedule a call in the future or ask to chat in real-time with a live sales agent, rather than hand over their data and then wait for a rep to reach out.

3. What is conversational messaging?

Conversational marketing is closely related to conversational messaging. The former is the strategy, while the latter is the execution.

Most conversational marketing occurs through some sort of messaging channel—whether that’s webchat, in-app messaging, SMS/text, or social messaging apps like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.

“Conversational messaging is basically a way of meeting your customers right where they are,” Lalonde explains. “Whether they’re on your website, on your mobile app, or on social channels, if your customers try to get ahold of you, you’re available to them.”

More and more consumers are now using messaging to connect with companies. The Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2021 found that messaging experienced the biggest surge in popularity of any customer service communication channel over the last year. Messaging also saw the largest increase in first-time users, thanks primarily to Millennials and Zoomers adopting the technology.

It’s easy to see the appeal—messaging is device-agnostic. Whether a customer is visiting your website on their laptop or opening your app on their phone, they’re able to strike up a conversation from anywhere, at any time. That means consumers can interact with your brand on their terms instead of the other way around. Plus, most people already use messaging apps to chat with their friends and family, which helps put the “conversational” in “conversational marketing.”

“Ideally, all these conversations are connected across different channels, without any siloing happening,” Lalonde adds. “Whether customers are reaching out to you through WhatsApp one day or visiting your website a week later, that same conversation history should be maintained.”

This helps ensure that agents have all the context they need to engage with customers. Using a tool like Zendesk messaging allows teams to store all customer conversations and information in a centralized workspace, empowering them to easily move a conversation from one channel to the next or to seamlessly take over for a bot.

4. What is a conversational marketing chatbot?

Conversational marketing hinges on messaging, and messaging often depends on AI-powered chatbots.

“If you’re using messaging to do conversational marketing on your website, you’re going to need to collect data from each visitor in order to follow up with them and start a dialogue with them,” Lalonde explains. “And a chatbot is an easy way of helping to facilitate that.”

A chatbot is a good “first line of defense” for connecting with customers. You can program bots to answer a lead’s preliminary questions and gather their information. Eventually, if the lead says they want to speak with a sales rep, the bot can hand them off to one of your agents. The agent will be able to see the full interaction history, giving them the context they need to jump into the conversation.

You can also program a conversational marketing chatbot to automatically monitor important behavioral details of website visitors, including their:

  • Visited webpages
  • Abandoned carts
  • Web browser
  • Geolocation and chosen language

And that’s just the “lead capture” application of conversational marketing chatbots. There are various types of chatbots a company might use over the course of the customer lifecycle, from sales to support.

“Chatbots serve many different functions,” Lalonde says. “You may have a sales chatbot as well as a service chatbot that answers customer support questions.”

Despite the different applications, both types of chatbots essentially serve the same purpose: automating basic customer interactions. Bots can look up information—such as a customer’s order number or a helpful knowledge base article—faster than human agents can, and they’re capable of providing 24/7 customer service.

Still, chatbots can’t (and shouldn’t) replace your entire human workforce. A chatbot should always give customers the option to connect with a live sales or support agent. If buyers are ready for a sales call or need help with a particularly complex support issue, it’s time for the human touch. An agent can take over the conversation, see the customer’s details, and read through the previous exchange so the customer doesn’t have to repeat themselves.

5. Does conversational marketing really drive leads?

Generally, the answer is yes. “In most cases, businesses that implement conversational marketing are going to see more lead volume and higher conversion rates,” Lalonde says.

Why? Because brands that adopt conversational marketing are no longer solely relying on prospects to click the “contact us” button on their websites. That method depends on people having the patience to fill out a form and wait for someone to get in touch with them.

“By contrast, conversational marketing puts the business in the driver’s seat, where they can easily kick off the conversation with a proactive message,” explains Lalonde. (Once the business initiates it, though, the customer should be able to choose whether or not to respond and how much to share.)

The automation component of conversational marketing chatbots also greatly increases efficiency.

“From the consumer’s perspective, there’s that perception of being able to get instant help, and in a more human and personalized way,” Lalonde adds. “So, people don’t feel as if they’re getting in some funnel machine where they’re just signing up for a torrent of impersonal emails.”

Bots have the capacity to handle an extremely high lead volume. Meanwhile, prospects and customers alike will appreciate the convenience and familiarity of a chatbot available at any time, on any messaging channel, to answer any question.

6. What are some real-world conversational marketing examples?

Conversational marketing is most frequently used as a lead generation tool. But it can also take on other forms long after a lead has converted to a customer.

Some brands use messaging apps to provide their customer base with creative, playful conversational experiences. For example, H&M’s Kik bot lets users chat with the clothing retailer for some “instant outfit inspiration.” Customers pick a piece of clothing, and the Kik bot acts as a high-tech personal stylist, building an entire outfit around it.

Consumers have shown a willingness to use conversational marketing tools for big-ticket purchases, too. When Acura was looking for a way to help customers personalize their own 2018 TLX sedan, the company decided to create a chatbot-driven messaging experience. By answering a series of questions about everything from the type of transmission to the exterior color, buyers were able to build and price their dream car. The messaging tool also helped consumers learn more about the vehicle and find the closest dealership for a test drive.

Acura’s chatbot initiative moved quite a few leads through the funnel. Over 50 percent of people who used the messaging app actually built a car with it. And over 90 percent took at least some form of lower-funnel action, like locating a dealer or requesting pricing information.

Notifications are another common type of conversational marketing. How many times has a brand sent you a text, push notification, or social media message to let you know about a BOGO special or limited-time sale?

phone notification

Some consumers are understandably skeptical of notifications. Scammers have been known to use text messages to engage in SMS phishing (or “smishing”), an attempt to trick customers into installing malware or handing over their financial information. But messaging apps have become increasingly regulated in recent years. In 2020, WhatsApp created new penalties for brands that misuse its business API for spam.

If you’re going to connect with customers over messaging apps, make sure that you have a verified account and that you’re not overly aggressive or spammy when engaging them.

7. What are the key elements of conversational marketing?

From lead generation and customer outreach to service and support, conversational marketing can take many forms. But there are some universal characteristics that all good conversational marketing solutions share.

  • Two-way dialogue designed around the customer’s time: The consumer can engage in a real-time, synchronous conversation or have an asynchronous interaction at a future time. The nature of the conversation is decided by the customer.
  • Personal and helpful: The conversation itself mimics a direct one-on-one between the business and the consumer. The conversation flow feels natural and adapts to what the customer is trying to accomplish. The chatbot actually helps the consumer achieve specific goals, like setting up a sales call or finding the answer to a product question.
  • Scalable: The conversational marketing technology can grow with your business, thanks to the power of automation and chatbots.
  • Allows for continuous engagement across all channels: The customer can keep the same conversation going anytime, from anywhere, and through any device on any channel.
  • Does more than collect leads: Instead, the tool allows you to have an end-to-end, ongoing conversation across the entire customer lifecycle. And it makes such conversations possible by storing every customer detail and interaction so that context is never lost.

If you’re considering a new conversational marketing system, make sure it meets all the essential criteria highlighted above.

8. What is the ROI of conversational marketing software?

Zendesk’s CX Trends Report 2021 made it clear that businesses are investing more in conversational marketing tools. Among the 40 percent of companies that added a new customer support channel in 2021, over 50 percent invested in messaging—including embedded messaging, apps like WhatsApp, and SMS/texting. No other communication method broke 35 percent.

Our data also showed companies that invest in messaging reap the rewards of superior CX: The businesses that achieve the fastest resolution times and highest satisfaction scores are more likely to use messaging to connect with their customers.

Providing elevated CX can have a huge impact on customer retention and revenue. Our global survey found that 75 percent of customers will happily spend more money to buy from businesses that give them a great customer experience. Additionally, half of all consumers say customer experience is more important to them now than it was a year ago.

conversational marketing ROI

And those are just the benefits of using conversational messaging for customer service. There’s also a significant ROI when using conversational marketing to generate leads.

“The way that I think about conversational marketing is that it’s going where your customers are now, so you’re much more likely to reach them,” Lalonde says. “So, just by the nature of the way that the technology works, it’s going to increase your funnel.”

Thanks to automated conversational marketing tools, organizations can really punch above their weight when filling that funnel.

“With chatbots, you’re going to turn into a 24/7 lead-generating machine,” Lalonde adds. “You’re not going to be a nine-to-five that’s limited by how many salespeople you have on hand to answer the phones or respond to emails anymore. You’re going to have an army of bots that will make your business seem like a much bigger outfit than it may actually be, which isn’t a bad thing.”

9. What are some common conversational marketing tools and software solutions?

Conversational marketing runs primarily on messaging and automation, and there are several different providers that specialize in those technologies. Here are some of the most popular options available today:

Intercom

Founded as a business messenger in 2011, Intercom is one of the older and more established conversational marketing tools available. Intercom users are able to deploy custom bots that engage website visitors and pre-qualify leads. There’s also a live chat feature for real-time communication with leads and customers on your website.

Drift

Founded four years after Intercom, Drift is a younger conversational marketing startup that’s emerged as a strong competitor. Drift also provides live chat and integrated chatbots, plus automated email campaigns and email bots. Though Intercom and Drift basically offer the same features, their respective widgets have very different designs. Drift has fewer pricing tiers than Intercom, too.

Facebook Messenger

Facebook Messenger is the most popular social messaging app in North America, so it’s no surprise that many businesses are using it to connect with customers. Facebook Messenger tools allow brands to easily:

  • Prompt users to “get started” with automated greetings.
  • Send and receive texts, images, videos, and easy-to-click CTAs.
  • Collect information, recommend products, and take orders.

Some conversational marketing software solutions are created primarily for lead generation, but not much beyond that. Zendesk, on the other hand, is a holistic sales and support solution designed for continuous engagement across a customer’s entire lifecycle.

Zendesk messaging is also simple to deploy and automate across all web, mobile, and social apps. Unlike Intercom or Drift, Zendesk provides teams with a unified agent workspace that is seamlessly integrated with messaging. Agents can easily view customer context and pull up the customer’s entire history of past conversations on any channel.

All messaging conversations flow into Zendesk's unified agent workspace to make support teams more efficient.

The Zendesk platform plays well with other tools, too, so if there are other software solutions you use for conversational marketing, sales, or support, you’ll likely be able to connect them. In fact, there are already Zendesk integrations for Intercom, Facebook Messenger, and similar tools.

Get ahead of the conversational marketing trends with Zendesk

Amid the increased popularity of messaging and chatbots, conversational marketing is becoming more and more of an expectation. Customers want to be able to engage with your brand in a way that feels casual, convenient, and entirely on their terms.

Conversational marketing provides an opportunity to grow your funnel while also striking up a customer conversation that can last a lifetime.

Messaging best practices

Check out eight ways to transform your strategy with messaging—from WhatsApp to live chat and everything in between.