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WHAT DO YOU look for in a friend?

If you’re like most people, you want a friend who is reliable, authentic, and who “gets” you as an individual. Increasingly, that’s also what many of us look for in our favorite brand, according to recent research from Disney and Omnicom.

There are a few reasons why. One is that we choose to associate with brands the way we choose to hang out with our friends, so brands are reacting accordingly. “This is the year that brands that succeed will need to act like humans,” said Mark Taylor, Global Head of Customer Engagement at Capgemini Invent.

Another factor is the way we talk to brands has changed. We might subscribe to a brand’s social media feed because it’s funny or talks about issues we care about,which gives us a chance to trade witticisms or to talk about the news of the day.

Messaging ups the stakes, bringing brands into the inner circle where you talk to your closest friends. Some have dubbed this “conversational commerce”—the practice of living up to consumers’ expectations of real-time communications.

Messaging provides an opportunity for brands to build deeper relationships with their consumers. But to be effective, brands need to navigate the uncharted area between marketing and friendship. Messaging is a new arena for making such connections. It’s not just another advertising channel, but a means of forging deeper connections with consumers.

Reliability Means 24/7 Access and the Ability to Solve Problems

Gone are the days when the only way to get in touch with a brand was to lob an email or make a phone call. Consumers expect brands to get back to them immediately. Always-on communication among friends coupled with a marketing arms race have created this expectation. Airline KLM, for instance, promises to respond to consumers’ requests on Twitter within one hour. Telecom brand T-Mobile is also known for engaging with consumers on social media at any time of day.

Messaging ups the expectation. Unlike email, messaging is an “always on” medium in which an immediate response is the norm—the average first-response time is 47 seconds. Using a combination of live and automated solutions (a.k.a. chatbots), brands can live up to this requirement.

By most estimates, about 80 percent of text-based requests can easily be handled by bots. For instance, if your order hasn’t shown up on time, a bot can help you track your package. Their abilities get more sophisticated all the time. Natural language processing (NLP) used in chat and voice-based search is reaching near-parity with human understanding of speech. Bots can also now intuitively leave conversations and hand them off to a live representative in a seamless fashion.

In such cases, marketing experts advise disclosing when people take over from bots. CapGemini has surveyed 10,000 consumer and found that most are “amazingly sensitive” to transparency issues, Taylor said

Having a Distinct Voice and ‘Getting’ You as a Person

If consumers view brands as quasi-human, then brands need to create a voice that feels authentically human. This is a new discipline for marketers who need to create a living interpretation of their brand. In practice, it’s where a brand’s stated guidelines adapt to a more relatable approach

Branding in this milieu is a new form of creative development. It’s not about an ad or a video or a headline but rather imagining what it would be like to have a conversation with your brand. The need for a brand voice coincides with the rise of voice-recognition systems (which are prompting brands to create actual voices) and a shift away from celebrity spokespeople to founders who don’t look like supermodels or actors. A recent survey by CivicScience found 89 percent of consumers said their purchases wouldn’t be influenced by a celebrity endorsement.

We see glimpses of a brand’s written tone in emails to consumers and even in 404 error messages.  Zappos, a brand known for its fun-loving voice, provides a joke of the day to anyone who calls in to customer service. But being authentic isn’t just how you say something but what you say.

The final attribute is the hardest to pull off. C.S. Lewis once said that the typical expression of opening a friendship was something like “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.”

To gain this level of insight, brands have conversations with their consumers. Such interactions allow brands to create a complex portrait of the consumer’s needs and desires. Over time, brands can provide uncannily accurate suggestions that illustrate a level of understanding that is based on firsthand knowledge and interaction. Such anticipatory suggestions will help consumers remove friction from their daily lives.

The Race to Solve Messaging

As more consumer conversations shift to messaging, there’s a fundamental change in how we engage with brands. Marketing has traditionally been a top-down activity: brands create ads or messages that are designed to filter to the masses. But consumers are looking to establish a dialogue with their favorite brands. Marketers that aren’t aware of this shift will be left behind.

“If you’re not doing it, your competitors are,” said Derek Top, head of editorial for Opus Research, a conversational commerce consultancy. “Brand are already having conversations and learning from them.”