Right now, there’s a silent battle raging on your smartphone. You don’t even notice it. But it’s there, and it’s changing the face of commerce.

A recent article in techCrunch by Sarah Perez highlights and explains the implications of Facebook’s changes to its Messenger app’s bot capabilities. The article covers (and comments on) the issue of UX inside a messaging app to deliver extended services – including e-commerce – to users. It touches on the difficulty of activating some of Messenger’s features (on-board bots in particular) because of a nested navigation structure, and mentions in passing that brands are moving on (and sometimes off) these platforms to be where their consumers are.

This, naturally, leads to questions about natural language interfaces and the closeness of an in-app experience to that of a mobile site: Why have both?

While an excellent article, it reads like a little bit of inside baseball, aimed at app / mobile developers and a small subset of the general marketing population. Brands tend to adopt these platforms when potential ROI (or, at least efficacy) is introduced to them by their agencies. But, as informative as it may be, the CMO is likely not going to read this article.

But she / he should, because it speaks volumes about the way people behave online today.

A Broken Record With A Cause
As with all my observations and commentary on commerce and retail today, the way to find true nirvana with shopping is to understand and engage with the human behavior patterns that underlie it. SMS, IM and other messaging tools have been the consistent go-to feature in the realm of mobile telephony from the very early days. Its volume of use on a monthly basis equals 500x the total world population (and that was in 2014). Furthermore, app to app messaging (see below) has started to eclipse standard SMS, with many apps designed for more localized use based on language, the nuance of how different cultures like to communicate, and the creativity of new features that people might use.

When we say “behavior pattern” we mean it: To dive into these three sources of additional stats about messaging go here, here and here.

A Welcome Disruption
A brand’s approach to communicating to consumers through messaging apps is, first and foremost, to cost-effectively reduce or remove the barriers to providing personalized service. Increasingly, “personalized service” means opening up a pathway to making an online sale. This is an important channel: The Forbes article linked above notes the following:

Based on Shopify’s analysis of 37 million social media visits that led to 529,000 orders, an average of 85% of all orders from social media come from Facebook. The social media giant also has the highest conversion rate at 1.85%.

Most recently, Skift (a well-written travel industry newsletter) devoted an article to Facebook Messenger’s continued development as a “does-it-all” platform:

Facebook quietly launched a City Guides feature in the Facebook app that enables users to book some hotels and restaurants, and message or tap to call other hotels, restaurants, and tours and attractions.

Most of the venues that appear in Facebook’s destination-oriented guides had messaging and calling features when you viewed them but for some, such as the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas and the Eliot Hotel in Boston, users could tap a Book Now button in the Facebook app and make reservations directly with the hotel.

There were also Book Now buttons for some restaurants, such as ROKA Charlotte Street restaurant in London, where dining reservations could be made through the Priceline Group’s OpenTable.

Consumers could already book an Uber, buy an Icelandair ticket, or converse with the U.S. Transportation Security Administration on the Facebook Messenger app, but now the Facebook app itself has added City Guides.

This is the crux of the matter: the shopping cart and cash register (till for our UK-inclined friends) are an expected part of the retail process for brands and retailers today. But not necessarily for the consumer. Messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger have approached the online retail pathway with some compelling experiments into creating retail opportunities that never leave the app. WhatsApp, which for its part has a far more basic features set but extraordinary usage rates in highly populated places like India, attracts third-party teams who create those links between messaging and commerce.

For marketers there is a basic but critically important intellectual leap to take when considering combining commerce with messaging: shopping is a proactive behavior, messaging often is not. One pursues buying an item, but you “get” a text message. It’s a disruption. But it’s clearly a welcome disruption.

Here are some thought starters when approaching commerce through a messaging app:

  • When a friend sends you a message you read it. Would you do the same if it was a brand?
  • What has to happen with your products to make them easily purchased on a phone using only a thumb?
  • Do any of the partners in your current commerce channel support this?
    • If the answer is Yes how best do your brands fit into the existing capability?
    • If the answer is No which players in your current commerce channel need to be ‘brought along’ to make this happen?
  • For your business does a this capability behave like a media buy, a channel tactic, or a technology pilot?

Getting The Message
Bringing on a new retail partner, opening up a new territory, or launching a new product variant is replication of a theme. Your company is good at what it does, and it pursues growth opportunities according to what doesn’t change the fundamentals.

This is what makes the notion of commerce through messaging apps so important: consumers are already there, but most brands and retailers are not. Considerations like managing choice among product variants, the movement of funds, supply chain (what happens after the consumer makes the purchase), and ongoing relationship management are entirely different in this behavior than in “conventional” shopping.

Commerce through messaging (whether SMS or an app) is not a solution in search of a problem, it is a complex undertaking with more than a few gaps that need to be addressed before it becomes a natural part of shopping. In my work I have seen many technology models that show tremendous promise, as well as a few live instances that feel just about right.

While we are definitely getting there, it’s important to recognize that, whether you’re diving or dipping, moving your company into messaging-based commerce is not the same as just opening a new channel. It’s a wholesale change in the way your consumers initially engage and continue to interact with you. Respect that and your disruptive presence in this consumer behavior will be welcomed.