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Maria Giulia Ganassini
24 October 2018
Reading time: 6 min

Conversational Marketing, Hashtags and More: Interview to Chris Messina

Chris Messina has changed the digital world by inventing the hashtag, and was among the very first ones to get into conversational marketing. On November 30th he’ll be on stage at MailUp Marketing Conference. In the meantime, we’ve asked him his views on the future of digital.

He has spent a decade living on the edge of social technology. Designed products and experiences for Google and Uber, founded startups, and changed the world by giving away many of his creations, including the hashtag.

Chris Messina’s involvement in conversational marketing theories goes a long way back. This will be the focus of his talk on stage at MailUp Marketing Conference on November 30th, in Milan. His speech – Welcome to the age of Conversational Computing – will be about what it means to be a marketer in the era of artificial intelligence, personalization and voice search.

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While waiting for the event, we’ve had the chance to chat with him about the future of marketing and the challenges companies face in approaching conversations with their clients. Plus, we finally got our question answered – how did he come up with the hashtag idea?

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Conversational Marketing according to Chris Messina

How is Conversational Marketing changing marketing as we know it?

For most of the 20th century, advertising and marketing strategies have assumed a one-to-many broadcast model. Mass mediums like radio, billboards, and TV made it easy to create a message a blanket the population with the same idea. The winning tactic was all about repetition, repetition, repetition.

The internet upended that paradigm — offering new, more intimate channels that support many-to-many and richer one-on-one conversations. And in the last decade, with the widespread adoption of mobile devices predominantly used for messaging and games, consumers’ expectations towards brands and companies have begun to evolve, demanding personalization, responsiveness, and ubiquity that they get from their friends and family members.

It’s easy to think that this is just a problem for customer service — but increasingly service is inextricable from the product experience itself. For example, if you buy an Apple product, it’s supported by the Genius Bar, which an extension of the product experience — it’s not a separate add-on. In fact, there are dedicated features in the operating system that help connect you to support resources provided by Apple.

Customer service should no longer be thought of as a mere cost center to be minimized — increasingly it’s a foundational component of successful customer relationships. And it’s the strength and depth of those relationships that will determine which brands survive, thrive, or die in the coming conversational computing era.

What is the very first thing companies should do, in your opinion, when approaching the world of conversations?

Conversational computing requires a more considered approach to how relationships are built for trust, transparency, and mutuality. This requires an entirely rethought approach to building an organization that values user centricity, empathy, clear and transparent communication, active listening, and supporting multiple forms of diversity and inclusivity at all levels of the company.

This is even more true in the intent-driven world of voice computing — where it’s no longer about the apps you make but about the jobs you do, how well you do them, and whether anyone can remember your name. In the world of voice computing, if you’re not top of mind and offering loads of good feels and usefulness, you’re dead.

How do you do this? Well, unfortunately there is no one-size-fits-all solution. However, having worked at Uber (a model of an early “conversational brand”), several thoughts come to mind:

  • Get clear about your core value proposition as its expressed in your customers’ language
  • Dig into where your customers are doing most of their conversational computing (which contexts are they expecting you to be in that you’re not already)
  • Clarify your offerings with Christian Claytonson’s Jobs to Be Done framework and develop a strategy for designing products that satisfy specific user intents within specific domains, contexts, or channels.

Use these insights and discoveries to plot out a strategy for delivering personalized conversational services that provide utility, meaning, joy, and delight. You can start fresh or enhance your existing offerings — and make sure to test and iterate with real people.

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And, on the other hand, what’s the worst pitfall they could encounter?

I hear a lot of reluctance from people when I suggest that brands and companies should become more intentional and thoughtful when “designing their relationship” with their customers. It seems like the bar is so low that many people just want to be left alone. This is one of the reasons why I position relationships as being more important than commerce (I first wrote about conversational commerce in 2016).

If you don’t aim for a fundamentally different outcome (i.e. developing a relationship), then you’re likely to come across as lame, obtuse, or just ineffective because the expectations and norms within this new computing environment are much harsher and unforgiving than the previous eras. Before, there was an expectation that the user would do more work to express their needs or navigate around your website and customer service was seen as a last resort, typically because it was so annoying or arduous to get useful help.

Now, people are busy, their attention spans are shorter than a goldfish’s, and they have more choices. People are now spoiled and brands are realizing that the competitive goalposts have moved to the realm of experience design. The worst thing you can do is keep doing what you’ve been doing up and until now (unless you’re already incredibly user centric and have established deep and meaningful relationships at the level of the individual!) and expect the same results. We’re entering a new era and the same old assumptions no longer apply!


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In your incredibly rich career, you have developed ideas and experiences that have changed the (not so) digital life of many. How does that make you feel?

I’m incredibly fortunate that so many of the ideas I’ve developed and given away have resonated and helped people use technology more effectively and in ways that, I hope, have served the interests of humankind. Of course, I chose to enter the world of internet-connected design and technology at a rarefied moment in history — right as open source was becoming a thing and before Facebook or the iPhone had permeated culture.

Most of my career has been about trying to give away my ideas so that more people can benefit from them just as I was given a shot at success when I volunteered for the Mozilla open source project (of Firefox fame) in 2004.

I feel proud of the success I’ve achieved and humbled by the impact many of these ideas have had!

Where did the idea of the hashtag come from? And why did it turn out to be so tremendously disruptive?

Twitter launched in 2006, a year before the iPhone came out. Early Twitter users would publish status updates using SMS, which is where the original 140 character limit came from. A number of these users wanted a more relevant Twitter, but the proposals mostly centered on adding cumbersome forum-style groups to the website. I could tell that Twitter was going to be a mobile phenomen and realized that a simpler way to label an individual tweet simply required the user to prefix a tag with the pound (#) symbol.

Why the pound symbol? Because most of our phones still had plastic numeric keypads and there were two keys that weren’t used often: * and #. In internet chat (IRC), channel names were prefixed with #, and so it seemed convenient to merge these two ideas together — hence my original proposal called hashtags “tag channels”.

In contrast to the more arduous task of forum administration, hashtags were egalitarian and ephemeral. Everyone could participate, and you didn’t need permission from anyone. You also didn’t have to change your behavior very much — you just posted a tweet and marked the tags with the pound symbol and then others could emulate you or join the conversation.

It was an incredibly simple idea that fit the technology at the time. Of course the real challenge was in convincing everyone to follow my lead and do what I was doing, but how I managed to do that is a slightly longer story 🙂

What’s next for the digital world and what’s next for yourself?

As I’ve suggested above, I’m fascinated by relationships — between people and between people and the technology that they incorporate into their everyday lives. We’re living in an incredibly challenging and confusing period and I believe that supporting healthy relationships and mutuality is critical to helping humans come together to tackle many of the crisis that are just around the corner.

We’re struggling to answer questions about how we live in the world and how we get along with each other and I’m optimistic that technology can facilitate faster and deeper understanding between us — but it won’t happen accidentally. We have to make a choice that our technology should support building better relationships and that’s what I’m currently focused on.

Who is Chris Messina?

Chris Messina’s skillset is broad, anchored in product and user experience design. Most recently, he lead developer experience at Uber and co-founded Molly (YC W’18), a conversational social AI. Chris has created movements online and off, and has acted as an agent of change in large and small organizations. In 2004, he helped organize the grassroots movement that propelled Mozilla Firefox to its first 100 million downloads.

In 2005, he co-organized the first BarCamp and then popularized the unconference event model to over 350 cities around the world. In 2006, he opened the first dedicated coworking space in San Francisco, giving rise to a global movement. Then in 2007, he brought the idea of the hashtag to Twitter, changing social media forever and galvanizing social revolutions across the globe.

He has spoken at conferences like SXSW, Web 2.0 Expo, Google |/0, and Microsoft’s Future Decoded, and has frequently been quoted in media outlets like The New York Times, Business Week, LA Times, Washington Post, and Wired. Come and meet him in person at MailUp Marketing Conference!

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Maria Giulia Ganassini

As content creator at MailUp, my mission is to make email marketing strategies accessible, useful and interesting for everyone, newbies to experts. Behind every 'send' button there is a complex world, and my goal is to unravel it for marketers. I am an avid reader, a restless traveller, a self-confessed grammar nazi and a proud cat owner.

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