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Conversational Internet is digitizing the other half of the world

On December 6, 2023 | 7 Minutes Read
ChatbotsConversational AIConversational MarketingGeneric
In this new era of Conversational Internet, chatbot is the new website, and the messaging app the new browser

Far away from Silicon Valley, a new kind of internet revolution is sweeping through countries around the world. Though some of it is driven by ideas and products from Silicon Valley, it’s surprisingly below the radar of most tech leaders and investors.

It’ll take some context to understand. The commercial internet as we know, emerged in the mid 90s, in an era of laptops and desktops, long before the smartphone was invented. New frameworks, based on hypertext formats, enabled websites, as the way for businesses to offer their content, product and services, and browsers, as the way for consumers to discover and consume them. The website-and-browser habit got super well established with users in the developed countries, long before the smartphone came about a decade later.

However, most of the emerging countries essentially skipped the first part and leapfrogged straight to the smartphone. These mobile-first ecosystems operate very differently. The most heavily used app in these countries is the messaging app (can be WeChat, WhatsApp, Line, Kakao, Telegram, Viber, even SMS / RCS, etc.) Therefore, as businesses now try to engage consumers where they are i.e. in the messaging app, they find it very effective to build chatbots to engage consumers.

Conversational Internet

Think of the chatbot as the new website, and the messaging app as the new browser, and this whole framework as a new Conversational Internet.

Unlike the prior “Hypertext” Internet, the Conversational Internet is more convenient, natural and easy to use. Gupshup, having driven 10 billion conversations per month with over 45k businesses, has played a significant role in enabling this conversational internet. This gives us a great perspective on this emerging phenomenon.

Conversational interfaces enable users to chat with businesses just as easily as chatting with a friend or family member. Businesses in the emerging markets are finding that users’ open, read and engagement rates are generally far higher than email, websites or apps. The messaging app contains the identity, which eliminates the need to log into every service. It often includes or is integrated with wallets, which makes payments easier. The mobile device includes camera, gps, and fingerprinting, to enable location-based or strong-auth services as well.

If any of this sounds surprising, a version of this phenomenon has already happened in China, where WeChat is the super app that provides access to mini-programs created by businesses. It is the de facto Internet browser in China. Mini-programs are not exactly conversational – they have more structured interfaces like apps and websites. However, it does illustrate the fact that the Internet, delivered via the messaging app, is the preferred mechanism in mobile-first ecosystems.

Other messaging apps prefer not to mix metaphors like WeChat does where web-like screens are juxtaposed with messaging threads. Instead, apps like WhatsApp, Telegram, RCS etc. keep the UX consistently conversational. All it takes is a “Hi” or “Hello” to initiate a chat thread, similar to how you would begin a conversation in the real world.

Isn’t messaging being used quite heavily in the developed markets, some may ask. Yes, websites do have those little widgets in the bottom right corner. Or businesses do send email and text messages to users. In all these cases, the messages give you a link which clicks through to the web page where the rich transaction gets done. In the emerging markets, users don’t click through to those web pages as much. Therefore, instead of adding a little bit of messaging to the web in the Hypertext Internet, the web is squeezed inside the messaging experience, in the Conversational Internet. The messaging experiences are so much richer and more advanced (examples below), unlike anything seen in the developed markets.

Structured interfaces like websites and apps require users to click screens, tabs, links and buttons to make something happen – they force humans to behave like computers. By comparison, conversational experiences require users to just talk – they force computers to behave like humans. Humans learn how to converse at toddler age and that’s how they converse with other humans. Therefore, conversational experiences are arguably the logical endpoint, the most highly evolved form, of computer-human interfaces (until we figure out thought transmission through brain implants).

conversational experiences require users to just talk

Today, except for cash withdrawals, every banking service is available on chats, eliminating the need for in-person branch visits. Loan sanctions, account opening, investing/trading to balance checks, you name it and it’s there. If banking is done, there’s retail therapy as well, to shop and splurge from detailed catalogs, build a shopping cart and make payments- everything on the messaging app itself. Hungry? Restaurants are offering food ordering and delivery tracking. Airlines, hotels, hospitals, pharmacies, government agencies, and virtually every business is just a chat away.  To use a physical world analogy, the messaging app in effect has become a shopping mall of sorts where one can find almost everything they need or want.

Conversational experiences were already gaining widespread adoption over the last few years, and now with breakthrough developments in Generative AI solving for natural language understanding of computers, these interfaces are set to get a huge boost. Improvements in translation and voice technologies have led to chatbots crossing the language and literacy barrier. Naturally, the largest impact will be felt in emerging markets where these interfaces are defining a  new way of buying, payments and seeking support.  

People deeply conditioned by the Hypertext Internet often ask why tech ecosystems everywhere won’t eventually become just like America’s. Anyone who’s traveled to these markets even for a day will instantly realize how different the mobile-first tech landscape is. The Conversational Internet is perfectly well suited to mobile-first ecosystems. In fact, the more interesting question is whether such behaviors will find their way into the developed markets.

With the rise of LLMs, this looks  increasingly possible . Advanced conversational interfaces, adept at conversing like humans are already threatening search engines. In the age of GPTs, who wants to wade through a set of blue links. Not just search engines, it may actually threaten every website, forcing every UI to be conversational.  Perhaps every dashboard, form, report, every website will have a conversational layer atop it that hides the web complexity underneath. 

It may take a while as businesses in developed markets are hesitant to move away from the UX that they’ve spent maybe two decades optimizing. But that’s the nature of paradigm shifts – when technology enables it, and consumers like it far better, businesses have no choice but to adapt or risk getting left behind. Instagram Direct already offers APIs to enable rich experiences that continue to grow worldwide. Even text messaging affords some conversations, however the features are fairly limited.

As we evolve from the Hypertext to the Conversational Internet, from a computerized to a humanized Internet, from an exclusive to an inclusive Internet, it will have huge global implications on economies and societies around the world. The Hypertext Internet wave digitized the developed markets unleashing massive transformations, disruptions and value-creation, there’s no reason to think the Conversational Internet won’t do the same for the rest of the world, and perhaps even more as it cycles back to the developed markets. It’s time to put the Conversational Internet on the tech radar, because even if we don’t, it’ll muscle its way on to it.

Beerud Sheth

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