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Instant Messaging for Marketing?

Instant Messaging for Marketing?

By Reid Goldsborough

Let’s say you want to reach young people. Maybe you have a product or service to sell, an organization or cause to promote, or a celebrity or politician to publicize.

You’ve probably heard about instant messaging, or IM, a way to communicate instantaneously, or in “real time,” using a computer or computerized device. Despite the fact that IM has been around for nearly a decade now, it’s all the rage among the 18- to 27-year-old Gen-Y crowd, a key demographic.

It’s even approaching the popularity of e-mail. According to a recent survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 46 percent of Gen-Yers use IM more than e-mail. Why not harness the immediacy of IM to spread the word?

That would be a really bad idea, says Sean Carton, and he should know. Carton is a founder and “chief experience officer” at Carton Donofrio Partners Inc. <>, an advertising and interactive media consulting firm in Baltimore, dean of the School of Design and Communication at Philadelphia University, and author of eight books about technology.

But Carton also has some good ideas on how you can use IM to create or strengthen client or customer loyalty.

What you first have to do is understand the differences between how people use IM and other communication media. At first glance, you might think that IM is like e-mail, with people typing to each other. But it’s really more like talking on a cell phone.

Just as people react negatively to having their cell phone space invaded by people they don’t know who are trying to push information in their face, so they react when strangers use IM to disrupt. “Instant messaging is about communicating one-on-one with people you trust, with friends,” says Carton. “It’s a personal experience.”

As hated as unsolicited commercial e-mail is for most people, unsolicited IM pitches would be a thousand times worse. If you want to create instant enemies, buy a list of IM handles.

On the other hand, if you want to build friendly relationships using technology à la mode, cede control. Make yourself or your organization available to those interested in what you have to offer … when they want. IM can be a quick and convenient way for people to get answers from your marketing or customer service department. It’s particularly appropriate for organizations that already have a strong online presence, from airlines to universities.

People don’t have to go offline and slog through a voice-mail menu or send e-mail and cool their heels until it’s returned. Studies have shown that e-commerce sites often lose sales because customers can’t get their questions answered quickly. People can also IM at the office without others overhearing them.

For organizations, IM automatically creates a written transcript of the interaction between a customer and a service agent. This can enhance quality control because these written transcripts are easier to archive and search than voice recordings of phone conversations.

Just as with phone support, though, you have to staff up to handle the message volume and be prepared for spikes during busy periods surrounding product releases or holidays. People engaging in IM expect instant results, and not being able to come through with the goods would defeat your purpose.

Efficiency can be served when IM service personnel have scripted answers available for the most frequently asked questions, letting them copy and paste in a response or post it by pressing a predefined function key.

A further, if riskier, step toward efficiency is setting up an IM autoresponding bot, or intelligent agent, to provide canned answers based on the questions asked, which can save you money. BotKnowledge <>, A.L.I.C.E. Artificial Intelligent Foundation <> and Pandorabots <> are three sites where you can learn more about bots and experience them in action.

There are caveats, of course. No intelligent agent is as intelligent as a person in handling unusual questions or situations, or as personable. Bot stupidity is the IM equivalent of voice-mail hell and just as frustrating.

Popular enterprise IM programs include IBM’s Lotus Workplace Messaging > and Sun’s Java System Instant Messaging <>.

Companies offering IM gateway programs that enhance the functionality of free IM clients such as AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo Messenger and MSN Messenger include Akonix Systems Inc. <>, FaceTime Communications Inc. <> and IMlogic Inc.<>.

The bottom line is you need to think about the best medium to use to serve your purposes.

“IM isn’t like e-mail, only different,” says Carton. “It’s completely different.”

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at [email protected] or <>.

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