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You're a market leader who's already a force to be reckoned with on Snapchat. What do you do next? If you're cosmetics giant Sephora, you dive into conversational commerce using chatbots.

 

Chatbots are computer programs that can have two-way conversations with humans. These conversations sound natural and colloquial, although it's a computer, not a human, behind the words. With bots, not only can Sephora's prospects and customers interact in a conversational way with the company, but they can also watch tutorials, schedule appointments, gather product information and make purchases, all without human intervention.

 

Why the focus on messaging as a marketing tool? The move away from social media to messaging apps reflects the larger shift in communication tools today. In the last 15 years or so, explains Adelyn Zhou of TOPBOTS, we've moved from SEO to social media marketing to mobile marketing to messaging. With its latest investment, Sephora is leading the industry.

Basic chatbot benefits

"[A] bot enables a brand to have a two-way exchange with any user who invites one," explains Sephora vice president of digital marketing Bindu Shah. Unlike live chat technology, which connects customers with paid employees, bots can stand in for humans and deliver factual information based on data it receives, around the clock. This keeps investments in additional labor at a minimum.

 

For any company, the time, money and manpower saved by automating some customer interactions is a big win. But that's not all. According to information shared with Business Insider by the messaging app Kik, bots increase the amount of time customers spend interacting with a company. Kik reported that users who engage with chatbots spend roughly one-third more time on the app than users who don't. That time equates to a deeper relationship with a company or brand.

 

Bots also increase completion rates, as Sephora discovered firsthand with the survey it uses on Kik. Its bot asks: "Do you want to take a short quiz so we can get to know you?" Each customer's responses are then used to personalize product recommendations and deliver more relevant content. Using a chatbot, Sephora achieved a 40 percent completion rate of its survey, which is substantially higher than the survey's completion rate on other platforms.

Sephora: A chatbot pioneer

When Sephora dipped its toe into the chatbot waters with Kik in 2016, Shah says that the goal was to help customers become more familiar with Sephora on their own terms. Bots allow customers to initiate product conversations 24/7 and get the specific information they want, whether they're seeking tips for contouring eyeshadow or wondering what a specific shade of lipstick will look like on their lips. Sephora's Kik chatbot has proven that this technology can improve communications with a customer base.

 

After its success on Kik, Sephora launched two additional chatbots, this time on Facebook Messenger. The Sephora Reservation Assistant allows customers to book makeup appointments at any Sephora location. And its Color Match for Sephora Virtual Artist tool matches any lipstick in its inventory to a customer's uploaded image. This way customers can find the exact shade they're looking for. A customer can even "try on" the lipstick shade virtually by uploading a photograph of their face. If the lipstick looks good on the photo, the customer can immediately purchase it and have it shipped directly to them or held at their local store.

 

As part of the company's announcement, senior vice president of digital Mary Beth Laughton said: "We're excited to leverage the Messenger platform to create quick and natural conversational interactions that are client-led. This allows us to provide richer, more varied conversations that ensure clients get exactly what they want out of the experience."

 

While chatbots are seen as the latest and greatest in technology, at their core they're a communications tool. By providing prospects and customers new ways to more easily obtain the information they need, Sephora is positioning itself as the premiere one-stop shop for beauty. By employing the platforms its customers already use, making the information-gathering process simple and accessible, Sephora is also deepening its customer relationships. All of which is great for the bottom line.

 

Download our .futurology report to find out more about how chatbots have the potential to a major disruptor.

Marcia Layton Turner is an award-winning freelancer who writes regularly about small business and entrepreneurship. Her work has appeared in Entrepreneur, Bloomberg Businessweek, and Black Enterprise, as well as at Forbes, CNNMoney and Amex OPEN Forum, among dozens of others.

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