Clearly it is not new to think of marketing as conversations

In the Cluetrain Manifesto of 1999 Doc Searls and David Weinberger remind us that markets are conversations.

For thousands of years’ markets have been “conversations between people who sought out others who shared the same interests.”

Buyers had as much to say as sellers. [..] markets were places where people met to see and talk about each other’s work. Conversation is a profound act of humanity.

The voices taking part in marketing conversations have also proliferated.

Andy Hobsbawm, founder of one of the first digital agencies and now founder and CMO of Internet of Things platform, EVRYTHNG, talks of three ages of ‘voice’:

The first age of broadcast media was built around the brand having a voice, and the second social-media driven age centred on what we might call consumer voice.

The third age will need to focus on product becoming both a media channel and an interface for service delivery.

One of digital’s great promises, along with accountability, is personalisation at scale.

And similarly to accountability, it is questionable how far digital has yet fully delivered on personalisation.

The idea of personalised, one-to-one marketing, was popularised even earlier in the 90s by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers in their 1994 book, The One to One Future.

Could 2016 be the year that conversations actually become a paradigm for realising the promise of marketing as a personalised experience at scale?

And an experience that can take place not just between human buyers and sellers but between brands, perhaps brought alive as bots, and physical products given a voice through the internet of things?

The signs are promising

Messaging is already huge and still growing fast. Last month WhatsApp passed the 1bn user mark.

Last year messaging apps caught up with social networks in user numbers and now dominate mobile.

Facebook and others are investing heavily in messaging and it will be interesting to see how Facebook M develops this year.

As well as more general messaging apps there are also many specialist concierge services springing up like Pana (for travel), Operator and GoButler.

All of these use messaging, and conversations, as the core interface and interaction medium.

There are many mobile-focused challenger brands launching this year, like Atom Bank and Starling Bank, where we can expect to see conversational style interactions forming a much great part of the brand experience.

Conversations as the primary medium for communication is age old.

But much of the experimentation in digital products and services now is about making conversations the primary interface, or jumping off point, for commerce.

Conversational commerce?

2016 has been touted as the year of “conversational commerce”, an early example being Uber’s integration into Facebook Messenger.

We can expect to be sending money not just to friends but to bots in the near future.

As mobile apps have access to rich contextual information about you, including location, social, health and sensor data, the opportunities for friction-free conversational commerce are exciting.

What about conversational content? Quartz recently launched a news app with a ‘whole new way’ to experience news: one whose interface is an ongoing conversation.

It is too early to say how well this will work but it is worth downloading to experience a “conversationalised” user interface, applied to content.

And conversational customer service?

If you have experienced interacting with, say, Slack’s “Slackbot”, you will have glimpsed how service can be effectively delivered via a bot in a conversational interface that, whilst pure machine, can be imbued with the tone, and feeling, of a brand.

Conversations may always have been at the heart of markets and perhaps the most natural expression of personalisation, but digital has made it possible for marketing to be more of a dialogue, rather than a one way voice.

But perhaps only now will conversations really start to power communication, customer service, content and commerce.