Why non-profits are rushing to messaging

This podcast is based on a post written for 101fundraising.org. I’m presenting at the Resource Alliance virtual conference June 12th. The talk is about how non-profits use messaging for supporter acquisition and fundraising, and the ideas in this post and podcast set the stage for the conversation.

If this topic is interesting, the conference is free and you can register here.

How can organizations use WhatsApp?

WhatsApp provides some new tools for non-profits and business to communicate on using their app. Below is the podcast, and then a written overview of the basics as to how and where where an organization can start with WhatsApp.

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As messaging channels go, it can be pretty easy to get bored with SMS. It’s old and really is quite boring – it’s just text messaging. With more thought it becomes obvious that SMS is here to stay, but it’s still fun to imagine the possibilities on other messaging platforms. There are no other messaging platforms more interesting than WhatsApp.

The stats are outrageous. WhatsApp has 1.5 billion users, with 1 billion daily active users and more than 65 billion messages sent daily. A better description of the ubiquity is that in the messaging space I will often here, “In this country no one texts, the are all on WhatsApp.”

Users are definitely on the platform, but does that mean that a business or non-profit can find success on the platform?

The short answer is that we just don’t know. In a single sentence, I would describe WhatsApp messaging for business as appealing because of the numbers, but absolutely no one knows how it should work or has good use cases.

Let’s begin the discussion by outlining whats available in WhatsApp. On the WhatsApp, any organization is called a Business. So even though non-profits and government agencies do a lot of messaging, we’ll refer to all organizations as “Business” moving forward.

The central place for a business on WhatsApp is their Business Profile. No matter what direction your organization chooses to go with WhatsApp, setting up a Business Profile is the first step. The Business Profile is the organization’s page on WhatsApp and this profile allows users to find the business without knowing the phone number. So setting up a Business Profile makes the business searchable/findable in the WhatsApp directory.

The WhatsApp platform has different offerings for SMBs and large enterprise businesses. If the organization is small or medium, WhatsApp provides Business App. This app has special tools for business like quick replies and labels for people messaging in. With the Business App everything is still manual and the idea seems to be that customers can WhatsApp the store instead of calling the store.

Larger businesses can connect to the WhatsApp Business API. The idea with the API is to build automated conversations and potentially connect those conversations to customer service or CRM platforms. This API idea is similar to whats available with Facebook Messenger or SMS. Obviously, this is the more scalable approach.

The line that WhatsApp seems to draw between SMB and enterprise – the Business App and the API – is half a million messages per month. To frame it another way, to get access to the API an organization needs to send at least a half million messages per month. That’s a lot of messages! Especially on a platform that’s new, with unclear opt-in rules and not many examples of how to build a list.

The last important aspect to review is how WhatsApp deals with subscription messaging. In one respect, WhatsApp subscriptions use the 24+1 rule, similar to Facebook Messenger. In every situation, the user needs to message in first. When a user messages in, the business can send a message back. In fact, the business has 24 hours to send the user any message they like. Any and every incoming message from the user opens this 24 hour window for the business to send a message. Let’s call this a “response message” which is how FB/WhatsApp refers to it I believe.

Outside of this 24 hour window an outgoing message is considered a “Subscription Message”. The idea is that the user must subscribe to receive these messages. 24+1 messaging policy means that the business has the 24 hour window and can send 1 subscription message outside of that 24 hour window. This is how both Messenger and WhatsApp Business API work.

WhatsApp has a unique mechanic to how the broadcast messages work. WhatsApp broadcasts use templates. In the API, instead of pushing the recipients and the message to send to the recipients, the business sending the message needs to add the message and save it as a template. Once the template is saved, the API call would then list the receipts and identify the template to send. This is fairly boring and a little technical, but it gives WhatsApp a spot to approve or decline the messages that a business is sending. This is different from Messenger where Facebook approves or declines the Pages that can send broadcasts, WhatsApp seems to be focused on the content of the broadcast instead.

All in all WhatsApp is an exciting new channel. If you need to talk to populations where the only way to do that is WhatsApp, it worth it to start exploring the channel. If WhatsApp is a nice-to-have for your organization, it probably makes sense to wait and see where everything goes.

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Derek Johnson, Tatango CEO, joins The Chat Bubble to discuss 10DLC and shared short codes

Derek Johnson is prolific, talking about SMS, RCS and the messaging space on the Tatango Youtube Channel and LinkedIn. He chats with me today about changes to how the carriers plan to manage shared short codes and long codes.

Derek provides valuable information, echoing what the carriers are saying about shared short codes and providing insight on where he thinks the space is heading.

Find out more about Tatango at tatango.com

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Messaging brings more people in contact with an organization

The framework that I like to use when an organization is thinking about their messaging strategy is “More People + More Action”. When an organization ads messaging as a channel, it brings More People and drives More Action.

In this episode we talk through the “More People” benefit and how that works through messaging.

Opt-in vs. Peer to Peer for SMS Messaging Campaigns

Kate Myers joins The Chat Bubble to help explain the differences between opt-in and peer to peer SMS messaging. 

The short answer is that if an organization wants to do automated messaging they’re required to have users opt in. An organization can manually send messages to people without getting their opt-in first.

SMS Keyword Best Practices

Last week’s episode was about call to action best practices. This week we are going to focus on a specific piece of the call to action – they keyword. Here are keyword best practices.

I like to capitalize the keyword. It highlights what the user should text in, but doesn’t confuse them with quotes. Any text message vendor should be able to handle capital or lowercase letters, just like a URL.

Keep the keyword simple. Just use a word. Again, think like an ideal URL and focus on simple and understandable.

Sometimes teams want to squeeze their brand message into a keyword. Imagine if Skittles tried to make “Taste the rainbow” their keyword. Think of all the potential for misspellings. The keyword is for response, not branding.
Use different keywords to track different promotions.

Similarly, the worst possible misstep is making a keyword that feels like a tracking code. Yes, the keyword can track the promotion channel, but it shouldn’t feel like a tracking code. I’ve seen customers try to make TV2 or RADIONYC their keywords. DON’T DO THIS. No numbers in keywords, no weird combinations. Just a simple word.

SMS Call to Action Best Practices

To review, a keyword call to action (or text call to action) is when a promotion tells the viewer to text in. This takes the form of “Text KEYWORD to SHORTCODE”, where the short code is a 5-6 digit number that is statice and the keyword can be chosen and tracked to the promotion. If I were a marketer with the Cleveland Browns I might have a call to action that reads.

“To put your name down for 2019 season tickets, text BROWNS to 216216.”

Let’s break down how all of this might work.

“To put your name down for 2019 season tickets,” Good calls to action don’t say, “For more info…”. There is a specific reason that someone should text in. If people want more info, they already know what to do. A newspaper I worked with wanted people to text in and join a database of sources for stories. If the paper needed to speak with a doctor that was over 65 and ever delivered a baby on a plane, they would have a database of people to connect with.

When they paper’s call to action read, “Would you like to be a source? Text SOURCE to 12345”, no one texted in. When the paper ran a story about a dog attack and the call to action read, “Have you been attacked or almost attacked by a dog? Text DOG to 12345”, the results were great.

The reason that someone might text in is the most important aspect of a call to action although sometimes it’s overlooked if the organization is focusing on the more technical aspects. The keyword and shortcode part of the CTA should be kept simple.

Helping hundreds of organizations understand text message calls to action, I’ve developed a few best practices.

Make the call to action clear. The call to action should avoid confusion. No one needs to remember the call to action. If they are going to text in, they will do it immediately. Make sure that the call to action doesn’t stop them from texting in.
Repeat the call to action. This is true for any response channel – if you’re promoting a URL or phone number, it’s important to repeat it. This is especially true with text messaging where an SMS call to action may be new for viewers.
Show and tell the call to action. Some people are more visual, and some people focus more on audio. No matter who the audience is, it’s best to do both. Show the words on screen – “Text JOIN to 12345” and say them at the same time. This will just get the best results.
Share a good reason to text. As mentioned before, the reason behind the call to action is the most important aspect. If it’s interesting and valuable, people will take action. If the promotion isn’t that interesting, any response will be an uphill battle.

Last note, use calls to action to test different messaging, ads or media channels. Keywords naturally act as tracking codes, so you can measure and compare response for each keyword that’s promoted.

What the heck do I know?

It was pointed out to me that I should share some of the campaigns I’ve been a part of and my experiences in the messaging space. So that’s what this episode is about. 

Why bots were D.O.A but messaging is still thriving.

(Get this article in a podcast here) In early 2016 Facebook released an API for Messenger and introduced the age of bots. Quickly it became obvious to everyone that bots were the next huge trend, startups got funded, Medium posts were written and the space was officially hot. I’d been doing messaging for about 8 years at the time and the it wasn’t clear to me that bots would work. Other people that had experience with messaging didn’t jump on the bot bandwagon either.

It’s safe to say, 3 years later, that the bot era hasn’t happened. I don’t think it’s coming soon. This podcast digs into why bots didn’t make it between 2016–2019, and why messaging is still thriving. The reasoning starts with the boring basics, but gets more advanced. So please stick through obvious stuff.

The first big problem with bots was the hype. You could see it from a mile away. Every tech publication featured articles titled, The Bots are Coming with images showing 1980’s robot toys explaining how every interaction that we were having on the web would now take place with a bot.

Oh you want to buy shoes? Soon you’ll just message into Zappos with your shoe size and their AI will automatically pick out the best shoes for you. Then you can just press a single button and complete the purchase. They hype was outrageous. These interactions would play out everywhere, from doctors offices to ordering pizza.

It was clear that tech was thirsty for the next big thing and the public oversold in the process. Of course Facebook and the promotion around the Messenger Platform launch played the biggest part. But hey, it was early 2016 and Facebook was on a winning streak, riding high. It was still before the other (Russian) bots came.

Which brings me to the second reason that the bot-craze crashed and burned — the word “bots”. I couldn’t think of a name with more baggage hanging on it. Russian bots ruined the American election. Twitter bots are spreading fake news. And both social networks are now cracking down on bots on their platform.

There are also the bots coming for your job (a lot of headlines when I was googling for this post). The robots are coming for your job and if they don’t get you, AI bots surely will. Until Facebook coopted the word, “bots” were just spam accounts on social media.

Did we mention AI? A few paragraphs back I talked about sending a message in to a webstore and that store knows exactly the right product for you. How will that happen? AI. How about when I message in to reschedule my delivery. How will the system understand my request? AI.

The tech press projected bots as the coupling of messaging with AI. The problem is that AI doesn’t exist. For some reason when the interface changed to messaging, AI came closer to possible. But this doesn’t make sense. You’ll know when it’s possible to produce the 1 correct answer to any query because google search results will just include one link.

Positioning bots as AI, spreading this through the hype cycle and at the same time conflating messaging interactions with Russian troll farms attacking American Democracy caused a little cynicism and backlash. But none of these reasons are why bots were DOA and messaging is still a strong and growing channel.

From the descriptions above, a simple explanation of a bot is that a user can text in, there will be some logic to understand what user is saying and the bot will respond back with the correct answer. This type of interaction lends itself to customer service or the actual usage of a product (what I call customer operations). Specifically this interaction is started by the user, it’s not meant to be driven by the organization. Because these bot conversations are directed by the user they aren’t marketing.

I want to quickly distinguish another approach that I call messaging as a marketing channel. The idea of using messaging for marketing means building an opt in list and then sending outgoing messages to this list. This is exactly how email marketing works. From all my experience, this is where messaging makes the most sense. This list building and activation approach is not what people are thinking when they use the word bot.

A simple way to distinguish the two approaches, when a user directs the conversation it’s a bot and when the organization is driving the conversation, it’s a marketing use case.

With this context for bots, here are the specific problems that kept bots from taking off:

It’s extremely complicated to let the user drive a conversation, understand understand that user and respond appropriately. For the user to find value the scope of conversation topics must be wide enough to address anything the user might ask. It’s just an incredibly hard problem to be able to parse and respond to so many potential inquiries.
Compounding this core problem described above is that the bot must be correct. Even a 5% error rate will be noticed. On messaging channels, it’s not particularly easy to help the user when there’s a problem. Sending the user a menu/list is a horrible UX (and contradicts the reason to use a bot) and starting the conversation over would super frustrating.
Focusing on customer service or customer operations (like calling an Uber) use cases are not easy places to build & test MVPs. These use cases can require deep integrations, and the stakes are high in these interactions. A frustrated customer failing to get an answer from the customer service bot is a much worse situation than a marketing lead not converting. Marketing departments are constantly testing and failing ideas — customer service, not so much
Which leads to the final point, customer service (and potentially customer operations) aren’t revenue generating divisions A hit strategy in marketing can drive growth. So marketing departments are looking to innovate, have test budget and will grow the channel quickly when something works. An amazing customer service bot might reduce cost, but it won’t significantly increase growth.
In summary, bots were a new interaction that tackled incredibly hard problems in high stakes company functions with little room for errors. Bot makers were pitching to teams that aren’t built for innovation and even if things work amazingly well, the upside is limited. That’s why bots were DOA.

This was a hard article to write. If you’ve made it this far, listening to the podcast might explain some of the ideas from a different angle. I hope you’ll subscribe on itunes.

Finally, I think that AI and customer service automation will start working soon. I just don’t think it will happen on messaging first. It’s more likely that call centre audio + AI is the place where humans will first start to interact with bots, if we aren’t doing that already.