Challenges for conversational commerce

I’m excited by the prospect of conversational commerce. Accessing the services we want from inside the messaging apps where we hang out is a powerful proposition. No downloads, easier registration, more context, fewer clicks – what’s not to like?

The problem we’re wrestling with is how the vision will be realised.

I wrote before that service discovery will be a problem for startups, and now having read this post from Betaworks investor Matt Hartman I’m mindful of a couple of other issues:

  • The most exciting part of the conversational commerce vision is bots conversing with users on messaging services. At a minimum that will take learning a set of commands and some people are talking about ‘command line interfaces’. The issue is that I can’t see mainstream users learning many commands, let alone any syntax. Matt talks a lot about this and rightly notes that the value of a service deteriorates rapidly with the number of commands a user has to learn. He also points out that services may be able to pull data from the phone which reduces the need for the user to remember commands or answer questions, and that they will be able to use their conversation history to remind themselves of commands they have used in the past. I’m not sure either of these is enough to make services easy enough for users outside of techy early adopter groups. None of the successful services I know ask users to learn anything analogous.
  • The conversational commerce meme is more driven by developers and investors than consumer demand. When suppliers generate hype around a new idea that is designed to make them more money I call it ‘vendor push’, and it often ends with a whimper. Cell broadcast and 3DTV are two examples that spring to mind, but there have been many others, mostly in software and telecoms for some reason.

I’m optimistic by nature, which is one of the reasons I’m excited by conversational commerce, but as an investor you have to look for reasons why things might not work. In this case the growing number of issues is starting to dent my optimism.

  • Letsclap

    As with many (new) technologies, the correct application & context matters to discover the actual value. Nir Eyal summarized 3 scenarios where conversational commerce or assistants-as-an-app could make a difference http://www.nirandfar.com/2015/07/the-message-is-the-medium-3-reasons-apps-as-assistants-work.html . We took this as a guiding principle to find domains and use cases where conversational commerce adds substantially more value than existing solutions (which is another supersimple way of yielding out non-relevant applications).