When Google starts to champion a particular technology it is either going to be a fast hit or a flash-in-the-pan. However, the brand’s commitment to Rich Communication Services (RCS) is a longstanding one that just might change how companies communicate with their customers. But how?
When the first SMS or text message was sent in 1992, it had taken some ten years for telecoms professionals to evolve communications to that point of sophistication. A similar scenario is now in play where the next generation of messaging is concerned. The wheels to set Rich Communication Services - commonly abbreviated to RCS – in motion broke ground back in 2007; but it has taken until now for plans to fully come to fruition.
Meanwhile, during that same time period, the world of internet-based communications moved on considerably. Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Line, and WeChat have transformed the way in which individuals communicate. And one of the biggest game changers for business has been the adoption of many of these platforms as customer service and interaction tools. So has RCS died a death before it has even begun? Not at all. In fact, many are touting it as ‘the future of business messaging’, while others are billing it as ‘combining the high level of reach of SMS messaging and the rich functionality of OTT (internet) applications’. And it has one particularly high profile proponent: Google.
Having killed off social network, Google+, its chat service, Allo, acquired cloud-hosted develop platform, Jibe, and after courting both handset manufacturers and the GSMA to give its bet the best shot of survival, Google is clearly all-in on RCS. But will it really make a difference: to both consumers and businesses? To truly understand the potential of RCS – and by extension, RCS Business Messaging (or RBM) – we need to consider its role in the marketing mix and what its potential for broader adoption might be.
The world is filled with TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms). Communication services are guilty as charged! But it is an area that seems to change so rapidly, so the upshot is that one system will often support multiple types of messaging service. These are the main ones to be aware of:
It’s clear that today’s brands – regardless of whether they are selling toothpaste, security software, or liver sausage – have far more ways of getting their brand noticed by consumers. However, as a society, we have become somewhat tired of the constant interruptions and need for attention: offline and online.
Apparently, a large proportion of us are exposed to between 4,000 and 10,000 brand messages per day. While in real life we are accustomed to filtering what we absorb, online we have other ways in which we do this. According to Hubspot research, one popular ad blocking app has reached 300 million downloads worldwide. That is a lot of people trying to ignore ads. As a result, brands have been forced to continually rethink engagement and consider the overall customer journey. In part, this means ensuring that all of their messaging is consistent across different marketing touchpoints: that what they say on a TV ad reflects how they communicate in outdoor advertising, online banners, social media, etc. It also means they need to demonstrate a greater understanding of each aspect of their sales pipeline and work harder to tailor messaging to different points in the conversion funnel.
However, as data and insight tools have become more enhanced, marketers now have much more opportunity to make the messages they send to customers much more relevant to individuals – and now that is precisely what consumers expect. In a word: they want personalization. The quest for personalization has given prominence to the need for direct brand-consumer communication, or more specifically: conversation. Customers do not want to be spoken to; they want a dialogue with brands. Social media began to make this possible, as more and more brands adopted Facebook and Twitter. The popularity of these interactions eventually transformed social media channels – from a business perspective – into viable customer service tools. Essentially, they evolved into a form of branded utility.
However, as messaging platforms became popular – particularly with the launch of Facebook Messanger back in 2011 – brands began to see a new way to interact with customers and offer an even more direct and less publicly visible personalized service. Business messaging came to fruition; becoming a key part of the branded customer journey. But as all of this continued, SMS remained a key communication channel for companies. And that’s still very much the case. Millions of businesses use SMS to deliver information to mobile consumers: using them to issue everything from flight status updates to package delivery notifications. The big question is: why? And the answer is simpler still: because consumers still use SMS to communicate. The sheer simplicity of SMS as a text-based service obviously holds strong. But SMS has several major differences to the likes of Facebook Messenger and Co. Firstly, it uses the telecoms network rather than Internet (which could be seen as both a positive and a negative). Secondly, it is limited to just 160 characters per message (sounds very familiar, eh Twitter?). Thirdly, they incur individual charges – something that might be moot in an era of data packages and text bundles, but SMS messages are still perceived as ‘costing money’; while their messaging counterparts are seen as ‘free to send’.
SMS still tends to be one sided where business to consumer conversations are concerned. Sure, SMS messages are ideal for sending information to a broad customer base; but despite legislation, they are still open to misuse as spam. But that aside, one of SMS’ major shortcomings is the exclusion of photos and videos. Sure, MMS messages (see above) are adept at facilitating multimedia files; but again the cost of sending these over telecoms networks remains a sticking point. But perhaps the biggest downside to SMS is the fact they don’t give users complete self-expression – not in the same way that messaging platforms do. And for younger consumers who have grown up with emoji, animated GIFs, and memes these things are part and parcel of the communications experience. Actually, scratch that: they are synonymous with how they interact. And they enable users to personalize every message in a much more colorful and meaningful way.
When news broke earlier this year that Google would discontinue its Allo messaging service, word on the street was that the Allo team would transfer across to the Android Messages, and pool collective efforts to boost RCS (which may well end up being called Google Chat). Google seems to have made good on that; evidenced by the company’s continued leaps and bounds.
As this promo video shows, Google’s version of RCS is firmly Android Messages-branded. On first viewing, it has all of the functionality currently offered social media messaging – and Apple’s beloved iMessage, including: seeing when friends are typing and when they have read your message; using GIFs and stickers to express feelings and emotions; and the ability to message anyone on any device. Yup, these messages default to regular SMS messages for those whose legacy devices don’t support RCS.
So: multi-device interfacing? Check. Telecoms network compatibility? Check. Ability to personalize messages with fun stuff? Absolutely. But even if Android Messages/RCS has all of the features consumers want, that is not an immediate indication of success, is it? And considering Google’s ‘create and cull’ approach, could this be yet another entry in the failure ledger?
The business messaging market is projected to reach US$74 billion in 2021, so Google definitely needs to make a play for a piece of the proverbial pie. However, where messaging is concerned generally Google is still playing catch-up – not just to social media messaging, but to Apple – who, through its iMessage platform, has already made a play into the business messaging arena with (the imaginatively-titled) Apple Business Chat. Now, given that Apple Business Chat could quickly scale considering the number of devices it could be pre-installed on – Macs, iPhones, iPads, Apple Watches – the heat may be fully turned on. But Android has 2.1 billion active users (with a forecasted 5 billion by 2019). That relegates Apple’s 1.3 billion active device users to being on a par with Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.
But numbers aside, Google has buy-in from elsewhere too. It has seemingly fought hard to win official hearts and minds on RCS, to the extent that the GSMA has created an RCS Universal Profile - standards which operators, OEMs, and OS producers must adhere to in order to fully utilize RCS functionality. Add to this the fact that Google has numerous hardware manufacturers signed on to RCS – including Samsung, LG, Huawei and HTC - and given the relative ease with which Google’s Jibe platform will ‘provide mobile operators with a simple connection to the global RCS network’ – essentially helping enable developers to build their own RCS ‘channels’ – and it is clear that RCS might just have a chance of success (!).
Stats show that nearly 80% of consumers find RCS appealing. Not only that but 74% say RCS would make them more likely to want to communicate with a brand. So arguably, yes there is a compelling case for RCS business messaging. But scale, reach, and functionality aside for a moment – will Rich Business Messaging do what brands actually need it to do? Will it represent their interests as well as those of consumers?
The simple answer here is that a richer communications experience for users also translates to better brand awareness. Not just by default or through enhanced interaction, but, again, by personalization. Branded business channels will be a key feature of Android Messages and, as the promo video demonstrates, it seems as though the way in which brands will interface with customers will be more akin to the service/utility function outlined earlier. Numerous brands are already on board with Google’s Android-based RBM service, including: Subway, Booking.com, Snap Travel, DHL, 1-800-Flowers – and by the looks of things, Virgin Trains too (possibly). But it is still very much early days. Time, indeed, will tell. Ultimately, today’s consumers want messaging solutions that enable them to share rich media such as high-resolution photos, GIFs, and booking confirmations. With RCS, businesses can bring branded, interactive mobile experiences, right to the default messaging app itself. This boosts both the customer’s experience and the brand’s value. As far as communication goes, RCS is as rich as a mobile experience we can get – at least until voice and video messaging begin to be added steadily into the mix.