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What is ‘conversational’?

Main illustration: Lily Wang

Our mission at Intercom is to “make internet business personal” – to enable online businesses to foster the same sort of relationships with their customers as “brick-and-mortar” businesses.  

The focus on relationships is very intentional – frequent positive interactions encourage loyalty, and loyalty is the bedrock of every sustainable business

Positive experiences require communication between businesses and customers, but we saw how the traditional channels of communication between internet businesses and their customers were broken – fragmented and impersonal rather than coherent and personal. This meant that businesses were facing a difficult choice, particularly as they scaled. Do you prioritize efficiency at the expense of customer experience? Or do you put customer experience at the center of everything at the risk of scaling up an outsize support operation?   

Our response was to create a reliable, convenient channel for positive experiences – the Business Messenger. And what we’ve seen is that the Business Messenger is so effective for this purpose because it enables “conversational experiences” in a way that other channels struggle to emulate. It allows you to provide personal experiences for your customers but has the power and flexibility needed to operate a global internet business.

An animation showing the Intercom Messenger in action

The meaning of conversational

But what do we mean by “conversational experiences”? And why are they so transformational for both businesses and their customers?

“Conversations are the initial building blocks of relationships – by taking turns in pairs or small groups to talk and communicate, we build trust and friendship”

Conversations are the initial building blocks of relationships – by taking turns in pairs or small groups to talk and communicate, we build trust and friendship. That “turn-taking,” as linguists call it, is how we’ve evolved to build not just shared understanding in the moment, but lasting relationships.

It makes sense that we seek something similar, a familiar pattern of interaction, when building relationships with businesses, albeit at an entirely different scale. 

And it’s that change of scale that presents the opportunity – thinking deeply about how the characteristics of conversations can be applied to hundreds or thousands of customer interactions, and not just one-to-one. 

The conversation is changing

We’ve already witnessed a dramatic change in our sense of what constitutes a “conversation.” 

Conversations, and by extension relationships, are surprisingly pliable, as we have seen time and time again with evolving communication technologies.

“Our sense of what ‘conversational’ meant shifted with the adoption of the new technology and the associated redefined parameters”

The most startling example was perhaps the telephone. For decades before its widespread adoption, the telephone was not deemed to be a satisfactory substitute for “real” conversation. As the technology advanced and telephones became commonplace in suburban homes, however, it became apparent that phone calls were sufficient to sustain long-distance relationships. 

It wasn’t conversation as we previously understood it, but it was conversation nonetheless. Our sense of what “conversational” meant shifted with the adoption of the new technology and the associated redefined parameters.

Mobile transforms the conversation 

That shift in definition only accelerated with the rise of the mobile phone. For the first few years of widespread cell phone adoption, text messaging was considered obviously inferior to actual phone calls. They were thought to be abbreviated messages that could supplement real communications, rather than as a substitute for them.

“Above all, messaging was conveniently asynchronous: conversations could be instigated at any moment, rather than when it suited both parties, and continue on over hours, days, or even weeks”

We swiftly lost that perception – in just 8 years, text messaging and its modern variants largely usurped the now “old-fashioned” phone call. The advantages were just too obvious. Texting was fast, cheap or even free in some markets, which fuelled usage by teenagers and other cost-conscious users. But above all, messaging was conveniently asynchronous: conversations could be instigated at any moment, rather than when it suited both parties, and continue on over hours, days, or even weeks.    

Suddenly, you could text all your friends at once and sustain multiple parallel, simultaneous conversations.

The transformation in what we thought of as “conversational” was dramatic. While the telephone allowed conversation to transcend space, messaging allowed conversations to also transcend time – while still feeling immediate.

What remained essential to this broadened definition of “conversational” was the turn-taking, the back-and-forth interaction. But even still, this back-and-forth doesn’t need to be evenly split between the participants to be effective. One party can send multiple messages at once, without waiting for a reply in between – and thanks to the asynchronous potential of this type of messaging, this lag doesn’t detract from its conversational nature. Ultimately, conversations became detached from the shared moment, and became about the shared conversational dynamic.

That dynamic leads to a particular quality that distinguishes “conversational” from mere “correspondence” – it feels personal, more casual and informal. Obviously, the choice of language used will determine how personal and friendly the experience feels, but in a very critical way, so does the structure of the interaction. 

Conversational relationships at scale

All these rapid changes mean it’s now possible to foster conversational experiences at a scale that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. With Intercom, it’s possible to have relationships with your customers via messenger-based interactions that feel conversational in format and tone: lightweight, personalized, and contextual.

This is what has been missing until now: previous iterations of live chat and messaging solutions still relied on connecting to an agent in real time, and lacked contextual history of past conversations. All of this meant they were still tied to in-the-moment, synchronous interactions that were bad for business (because they were hard to scale) and bad for customers (because they made them wait around).

“Once you practice ‘proper botiquette’ by carefully tailoring your chatbot’s voice, tone and its various paths, you can create experiences through the Messenger that actually reinforce a sense of back-and-forth conversational connection”

But when we discuss “conversational support,” “conversational marketing,” or “conversational customer engagement,” we don’t imply businesses will necessarily be having countless discrete conversations with each of their customers or prospects. 

Instead, we see businesses having “conversational experiences” with their customers through the Business Messenger – convenient, possibly asynchronous, turn-taking conversations that bring value and satisfaction. And as the technology evolves, those conversational experiences are increasingly enhanced by chatbots – once you practice “proper botiquette” by carefully tailoring your chatbot’s voice, tone and its various paths, you can create experiences through the Messenger that actually reinforce a sense of back-and-forth conversational connection.

The evolution of communication 

It might be a long way from the sort of conversations we had around the proverbial campfire, but this modern approach is very much in keeping with the broadening scope of “what constitutes a conversation” that we’ve been seeing with each wave of technological transformation. 

“Making internet business personal, then, isn’t about having individual conversations with all your customers, but it is about being able to build closer relationships with them”

Making internet business personal, then, isn’t about having individual conversations with all your customers, but it is about being able to build closer relationships with them – and conversational experiences through the Messenger are the fastest, best way to build those relationships. 

And like all good relationships, it has benefits for both parties: conversational experiences are better for your business and better for your customers. That’s because by providing timely, proactive, contextualized responses for your customers and users, you’re foregrounding their needs, creating a more balanced, stronger relationship – and building loyalty – that ultimately helps you both to thrive.

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