Talking to a target audience has long been essential for marketers. That’s not new information, however, the way these conversations are conducted has changed dramatically over the years. 

Today, the term ‘conversational marketing’ is rising in popularity. Some businesses are leading the charge in its implementation, experimenting with new techniques – whether through social media and digital tools, or old-fashioned personal contact – to enable it. 

However, to understand the current state of conversational marketing, and all the other forms of conversation we are seeing a rise in prominence today – whether in sales, customer service or presenting  – we need to look through the different stages in the evolution of marketing. 

From product to people: a brief history of marketing

The 1950s marked the birth of mass marketing, and at the centre of that big-bang was the product, not the customer. In the industry’s infancy, marketers focused on great products and made big generalizations about their customers. Businesses developed the best products they could and set up emotional mass media campaigns to sell them.  

This trend broadly continued into the 1990s. However, as mobile phones were introduced into daily life, the conversation became more important. Marketers were able to get closer to the customer and became less product-oriented – this became known as relationship marketing. 

Like the internet, smartphones and social media accelerated in use, we quickly entered the era of inbound and digital marketing. This combined rapid communication with new technology and the focus shifted from real conversations with people to online interactions. As more data was being gathered, brands began to focus more on automation with machines deciding who to target with what. 

The fallout from the digital marketing movement was that brands became voyeurs toward customers, rather than participants in a conversation. They learned about customers but often remained silent themselves. Even social media – which promised two-sided conversation – simply became another broadcast channel for brands.

The evolution wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t surprising. Marketers suddenly had channels – from email to social – that required no budget to use but which, if used in a two-way conversation, would require serious investment. The digital world offered the chance for everyone to talk, but nobody had the time.  

Intelligent marketing

Today, we are in the age of intelligent marketing, with brands using chat apps, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to get even closer to the promise of automated 1:1, tailored communications with customers. 

Drift is one good example of how marketing and sales teams can use technology effectively. The platform allows visitors to have real-time conversations with support, sales or marketing teams through their website. However, before they are connected, a bot uses AI to investigate which visitors are serious leads and only connects legitimate leads with the human team. It increases customer satisfaction and reduces conversion time. 

The risks of over-automation 

Nevertheless, brands face a tightrope walk when striking the balance between automation and human interaction and companies must be careful to avoid automating too much. 

Some brands are, positively, moving in another direction. BMW, for example, has replaced the typical sales role in their showrooms with what they call ‘BMW geniuses’. Geniuses have a conversation, understand the customer’s knowledge gaps and share the information they need. BMW saw that customers today visit the showroom only once – it used to be eight times. Those other trips have been replaced by online research. So, it makes sense to have a product expert who can have a conversation and understand information gaps, over someone with a canned sales pitch.

Giving control back 

In the past few years, sales presentations are also increasingly changing into conversations. It’s not just car buyers undertaking online research – almost all buying decisions now start with discovering lots of information and reviews online. 

As such, only presenting what is relevant to the conversation at each moment is essential for sales presentations. This is known as conversational presenting. It’s a shift from the sales presenter’s role, from transferring information to helping discover gaps in knowledge or alleviate worry. 

However, presenters can find presentations themselves worrying, so adding uncertainty by encouraging audience participation can sound intimidating. However, it works well and with a bit of practice, a more natural, engaging presentation will be achieved. 

Open canvas-style presentations, in which the presenter can move around freely rather than simply forward or backward, lend themselves directly to this conversational form of presenting, and were shown, in a study done by Harvard researchers, to be more effective at engaging an audience than a slide-deck. 

Tech tools or human contact? 

All of this essentially shows the changing approaches to how we buy and sell things. But, one thing is clear – people want fast, clear and hyper-relevant information today, and they want in on their own terms. With conversational marketing, it’s possible to achieve this. With the right technology, you can streamline certain parts of the journey. However, in the end, this should all be done with one goal in mind: giving time back to the conversations that really matter.