Conversational Commerce: What Is It, and How Can You Start Using It?

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What is Conversational Commerce?

As a term, conversational commerce was first used by Chris Messina in an article written for Medium. Chris was working as Developer Lead Experience for Uber at the time, and has since gone on to co-found Molly, an information-based tech startup. However, he will always be best known as ‘the guy who invented the hashtag’.

In his Medium article, Messina drew attention to the rising level of activity within the messaging sphere, accurately identifying a trend that has influenced the way we shop today:

‘From Path’s pivot to emphasize Talk, which enables users to message local businesses, to Facebook’s $22bn purchase of WhatsApp, to Fetch’s texting shopping assistants, or Fancy Hand’s on-demand assistants, to the recent real-time translation innovations in Google Translate, to Ethan’s army of textable Ethans, to Rise, Lark, and Better in the healthcare space… there’s a lot happening in the communications and messaging space.’

Messina for Medium, 2015

Conversational commerce is the point at which the use of messaging services coincides with (or ideally, improves) the sales process. This could mean interacting with a customer advisor over live chat, or letting a chatbot lead you to the right paint color (more on that later).

Four years after the publication of this viral article, conversational commerce is both an established practice and an established term. But is it here to stay? And if you’re a small business without an Uber-sized workforce and budget, is it still worth it? Stick with us as we explore all this and more.

The 'Why' Behind the Trend

Millennial phone call phobia may be real, but that doesn’t mean we don’t love conversation – it’s only the format that’s changed.

Here are some stats on the state of chat today:

  1. 20% of mobile Google searches are carried out via a voice search assistant, such as Siri
  2. 17% of people own a smart speaker, and 34% plan to buy one. This stat is actually from 2018, so it’s fair to assume this number is much higher now
  3. The average WhatsApp user sends 1,200 messages per month

Combine this with the well-documented rise of ecommerce, and you’ve got yourself a powerful proposition.

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Conversational Commerce: Real World Examples

Live Chat

We’re all pretty familiar with live chat boxes. They’re typically manned by a member of staff (or several), and are a way for customers to directly message staff for assistance. They’re a more instantaneous and altogether more appealing option than filling in a contact form, firing off an email, or – heaven forbid – picking up the phone.

Live chat has become a pretty commonplace feature on business websites, and is easy to implement without much technical knowhow. Here are some key benefits:

  1. Replicate the feeling of a store assistant online, offering a personal touch for those who want it
  2. If the demand is there, one staff member can communicate with multiple customers at once
  3. Gain valuable ‘on the ground’ insight into common user pain points through one-on-one conversations

We think Etsy does a really great job of nailing live chat. You have the option to message the seller individually, and each seller comes with an indication of the time they’ll typically respond in.

etsy - a conversational commerce example


Visually, chatbots look quite similar to live chat boxes – in fact, they can often look identical. That said, there are some crucial differences between the two, both in terms of structure and intent.

Chatbots use AI (Artificial Intelligence) to answer user queries. They are robots which ‘learn’ how to answer questions based on historic patterns.

But when we look at ecommerce today, it’s clear that chatbots are offering something above and beyond a live chat simulation; they’re offering a completely alternative way to navigate a website.

Let’s take a closer look at the Dulux website for an example of this. We can all agree that there are few buying decisions more daunting than picking a color of paint from the thousands of combinations of colors and finishes on offer – and it’s an issue that Dulux is no doubt all too familiar with.

dulux - a conversational commerce example

Upon landing on the Dulux website, you’re offered three distinct ways to navigate through the site to find your perfect color.

  1. First, there’s a traditional top navigation bar, with a selection of options including ‘Find a colour’ and ‘Choose a product’. This is for the most confident shoppers, who already have a clear idea of what they want, or are happy to spend time browsing.
  2. Second, there’s an interactive quiz that will lead you to your perfect option based on how you answer the questions. The first step is choosing either ‘I have some colours in mind’ or ‘I would like some ideas’. This is ideal for users who only have a rough idea of what they need, or who are in a rush.
  3. Third, there’s a chatbot, which walks users through a similar process to the quiz, but in a conversational format. This is the perfect solution for the most cautious shoppers, who might be struggling to know where to start when making their choice.

And just like that, Dulux has made sure that every person in their undoubtedly wide demographic can find their perfect color.

Next, let’s take a look at the website of UX designer Adrian Zumbrummen, who harnesses the power of AI in a completely different way.

Adrian Zumbrunnen - conversational commerce example

Everything ‘above the fold’ – i.e. everything in the upper section of the web page, which is visible without scrolling – is presented like a conversation, with the user offered set answers to navigate their way through a ‘conversation’ with ‘Zumbrummen’. 

This is really cool stuff, and instantly makes this site very memorable. Those not interested in engaging with the chat function can simply scroll past it to view the designer’s work and bio in the normal way. 

Using Conversational Commerce on Your Site

How to Add Live Chat to Your Website

Whatever type of website you have, you should find implementing live chat pretty simple.

Olark, Sendinblue, and LiveChat are all popular platforms. If you’re using a website builder, most of the top players should carry a live chat app, either by one of these brands (Wix has Live Chat by LiveChat, as does Weebly) or built in-house.

If you’ve built your site using a CMS system, then there should be a corresponding plugin available, too. Here are ones available for WordPress (there’s over 150 of them).

You might be thinking: is it worth adding live chat to my website if I’ll only be able to answer live queries for an hour or so a day? 

It’s a really great question, and one we asked at a recent conversational commerce MeetUp event in London.

A simple solution to this problem is to offer a simple message along the lines of ‘We’re not online right now, but leave us a message and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.’

Remember, you may know that you’re only online for an hour – but your customer will only be checking the site once or twice in a day, so they’re unlikely to notice.

And on top of that, leaving a message in this way is still preferable to the old-style contact forms. So even if you’re a one person startup, the answer to our question was that it’s still an option worth considering.

Find out more: 

The Top 10 Best Website Builders – our definitive list based on over 500 hours of in-depth research

Wix Review – everything you need to know about the world’s most popular website builder

Weebly Ecommerce Review – owned by payment processor, Square, we take a look under the hood of this easy-to-use online store builder

How to Add a Chatbot to Your Website

While live chat feels like a no-brainer, the question of whether to implement chatbots is a little more complex.

When they work well, they can save you time and improve user experience. Plus, unlike your team, they can happily work round the clock – for free.

But when they work badly, chatbots can simply be more hassle than they’re worth, frustrating users who are already in need of assistance.

Our advice? Start small. Offer basic navigational help, and try combining this with the option to talk to a member of staff if they get stuck (or at least to be able to leave a message).

In terms of how to practically apply this to your site, again, most top website builders will have a corresponding app. There’s also a ton of plugins available for sites built using a CMS.For something really sophisticated and ‘intelligent’, though, you may need to get some extra help from a UX designer or developer.

How to Optimize for Voice Search

If you want to get in on the chat action, but maybe don’t want to install live chat or chatbot functionality, then optimizing for voice search is a simple step in the right direction.

We’ve actually written a whole article about this for Rank Magic, so definitely go check that out if it’s not something you’re super familiar with.

Here’s a recap of our top tips from the post:

  1. Make use of structured data – add schema markup to help Google recognize the format of the data you’ve added, so it can identify where the answer to the question is, and so that a voice assistant can ‘read’ it aloud in a logical way.
  2. Stay conversational – try to write as you’d speak, so that your content will mirror the way people are asking their voice assistants questions.
  3. Prioritize mobile responsiveness – this is good SEO practice anyway, but with so many voice searches taking place on mobile, these two go hand in hand.
  4. Look at long-tail keywords – people are lazy when they type, but will generally offer you more information when they use voice search (think ‘where’s my nearest post office’ rather than just ‘post office near’). By concentrating on keeping your content conversational, you should be optimizing for these keywords naturally – it’s just something to be aware of.

Wrapping It Up

Conversational commerce, like many digital trends, was once dismissed as a fad. Instead, it’s gone on to become a proven and well-established technique for driving more sales.

And as we’ve seen, even small businesses can get in on the action – just remember to start small, and make sure anything you implement actually works.

Have you tried using live chat or chatbots for your ecommerce site? Got any tips, recommendations or cool results to share? Let us know in the comments!

About Hannah Whitfield

Hannah Whitfield

I’m Website Builder Expert’s Content Manager, which means I’m in charge of checking everything written for our site, as well as writing my own articles.

I started writing about the wonderful world of the web around two years ago, and haven’t looked back since. Put simply, there’s never been a more exciting time to get online. Having tested all of the best website builders and ecommerce platforms on the market, I’m in a great position to help you do just that!

I hope you find our articles helpful, and please feel free to pop me a message with anything else you’d like to see here on Website Builder Expert.

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