Of all the analyst unicorns, none is quite as elusive as the “year of mobile,” a prophecy that has reliably come and gone for nearly the past decade. Each time, we get so close, but somehow, the year of mobile evades us just as the days count down to the end of December. It’s slippery that way.

An alternate perspective is that every year since the release of the iPhone 3G has been the year of mobile — just not the same year of mobile. Each year, our ever-present devices become more integral to the way we shop, communicate, consume content and do business online. As bandwidth grows more plentiful and less costly, the app universe continues to mushroom and more marketers “take advantage of the distinct capabilities of mobile devices and networks to engage their customers and prospects,” the battery life of our devices is practically the only rate limiter to a mobile-dominant world.

With more users reachable globally via mobile messaging than through the major social networks that spawned (or own) them, messaging figures to be integral to the way consumers and brands interact in 2017. Rapid consumer uptake of — and reliance on — messaging apps for a host of communication, content and commerce functions will make an already personal, user-driven medium that much more so. Managed effectively, this holds significant promise for marketers. It also creates new demands.

Take messaging apps’ potential impact on customer service, for example. In a recent research note (Gartner client subscription required), my colleague Charles Golvin estimated that already, as much as 2% of all customer service inquiries are managed over mobile messaging. In two years’ time, Gartner projects, messaging app-based customer service inquiries will surpass those coming through social media. For marketers that currently manage high volumes of social media-based customer service requests, such as travel and hospitality brands, messaging apps represent an important emerging channel, one with significant implications for customer experience and satisfaction.

Realizing the opportunity associated with messaging apps does not come without hurdles to clear, of course. Two in particular are worth calling out:

  1. Retention. App retention is already a well-known problem for marketers (less so with messaging apps, which enjoy higher-than-average usage and retention rates). With messaging apps emerging as a potentially vital marketing channel, marketers’ retention challenge morphs from one focused on their own app to one focused on their presence in messaging apps. Brands need to establish an identity (and a relevant voice and style) within each messaging app. They also have to gain and retain a presence with consumers in those apps. That’s no easy feat, especially for occasional-use brands. You may travel once a month for work, but that doesn’t mean you want to engage in a daily “conversation” with your preferred airline or hotel chain, for example. Consumers’ ability to permanently mute a brand if it talks too much puts a premium on measured interaction.
  2. Dark Social. The progressive shift toward narrower, more focused and more tactical communication has a dark side. It’s not malevolent in the sense of the Dark Side (although with the release of a new Star Wars film upon us, the reference is difficult to resist). But it is opaque in the sense that much of the sharing and referral activity that takes place across messaging apps is directly peer-to-peer and hence not mediated by publishers and brands, rendering this activity less easily trackable. The impact of so-called “dark social” is considerable. In a widely quoted white paper, marketing service provider RadiumOne found that over 80% of mobile sharing globally takes place on email and through messaging apps. Although the white paper doesn’t explicitly mention millennials, it’s safe to assume such behavior is particularly prevalent among this messaging app-obsessed demographic that many brands regard as vital for future growth. In the latest iteration of content marketing, brands like Adidas are organizing groups of influencers to engage peer communities on dark social channels, creating large-scale extensions of their marketing programs, albeit focused on small-scale communication.

The premise — and promise — of one-to-one communication remains alive and well with mobile messaging. But it’s going to take some careful maneuvering between automation and personalized engagement for marketers to deliver on that promise.

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