Since commerce first came online, companies have aimed for the ultimate: one-to-one communication.
Direct mail on steroids.
There is no doubt CRM and email personalization programs have taken great strides in delivering timely and relevant information. The first site that jumps to mind when I think of these advances is BabyCenter.
BabyCenter does a great job of sending expectant mothers information that’s highly relevant to the exact stage of their pregnancies. But what it delivers is not one-to-one communication. It’s simply relevant and timely information. Everyone who completes the registration profile with the same answers will receive the same version of the emails and newsletters.
In an attempt to become truly one to one, online companies have been working hard to take advantage of instant messaging technologies.
I was inspired to take a fresh look at progress in this area by Sean Carton’s excellent article on the subject this week. Sean talks about ActiveBuddy, a chatbot that will interact with users through a familiar instant messaging interface.
As I write, it’s a national holiday here in Canada. So I figured I should be allowed a little fun. I put the ActiveBuddy chatbot to the test, with the following result:
Nick: Where are you?
SmarterChild: I live in a clean room at a high-tech hosting facility in California!
Nick: That’s cool. Do you get lonely?
SmarterChild: You don’t say.
Nick: Do you have any friends?
SmarterChild: You can find out what other interactive agents like me are available by visiting activebuddy.com at http://r.activebuddy.com/?146.
Nick: Can I come and visit you one day?
SmarterChild: Possibly… I’m not quite sure!
SmarterChild: Whatcha laughing about?
Nick: You, ’cause you’re so frickin’ stupid.
Nick: I rest my case.
SmarterChild: You humans always say the most interesting things!
Of course, I was being unfair. This chatbot was never designed to hold a random, personal conversation with someone. (But I do see potential for an interesting new form of creative writing here!)
That said, I would almost certainly have been disappointed anyway, because I have a set of expectations whenever I open up an instant messaging window. For me, and tens of millions of other users, instant messaging is about immediate and highly personal conversations. However smart a chatbot may be, it will never deliver the experience of a true one-to-one exchange between two individuals.
In an attempt to be a little more fair, I went to the Wonderfulbuys.com site and opened its live service link, which functions within an instant messaging interface:
Please wait for a site operator to respond.
You are now chatting with “Gloria.”
Gloria: Welcome to Wonderfulbuys.com, Inc.
Nick: Hi, I wonder if you can help me.
Gloria: May I know what exactly would you like to know so that I may help you accordingly?
Nick: I’m a 45-year-old man, a little overweight, and I want to lose some fat and look a little better.
Gloria: Are you looking for an exercising machine?
Nick: Yes, I think so.
Gloria: As we have the Total Gym 3000 which works great.
Nick: Will that help me lose weight?
Nick: How about diet?
Gloria: Well if you control your diet along with exercise, then it works wonders.
Nick: OK, thanks.
Did I get the sense this was a truly one-to-one experience? Not really.
Take another look at what Gloria said at the beginning.
Would regular people on instant messaging say “Wonderfulbuys.com, Inc.”? Of course not. That line was inserted automatically.
Is the quick-fire, casual communication of instant messaging consistent with “May I know what exactly would you like to know so that I may help you accordingly?”
Absolutely not. It looks like a prepared response that has been dragged and dropped.
Of course, throughout our exchange Gloria really only wanted to sell me the Total Gym 3000.
Whether you use a chatbot or a semi-automated Gloria, you will never provide your user with anything approaching a true, one-on-one conversation.
So what can you do?
First, you can follow BabyCenter’s example. Deliver a timely and relevant experience whenever possible.
Second, instead of trying to engage your visitors one on one, recognize the limitations of online technologies.
Finally, instead of trying to be personal by pretending you are a person, be personal by writing all the text across your site, your email, and your newsletters in a much more personal way.
Create a unique voice, show a little character, let the personality of your company shine through in every line you write.
That’s the only way you can really get personal online.