In a fast-paced digital environment where the competition is just one click away, offering a great customer experience is important.

Online retail has tradition­ally fallen behind bricks and mortar store experiences, struggling to produce the same personal service. However, things are changing. The rise of conversational commerce, specifically in the form of chatbots and machine learning, means it is now possible to give consumers a more personal digital experience.This Retail Week Campaign of the Quarter demonstrates just that.

The M&S Christmas Concierge was created to cut through the noise of festive advertising and connect with consumers on a personal level via Facebook Messenger.

It was the business’ first ever Messenger marketing campaign, and was designed and built to help customers make the right choices in the Christmas food market.

“Our Christmas Concierge chatbot enabled us to deliver our customer with a truly personalised experience throughout one of the busiest times of the year,” says M&S social media manager Jimmy Hughes. “Tailored content allowed us to match our products to our customers’ specific interests and needs every day, enabling us to deliver on our mission to help everyone Spend it Well at Christmas.”

Christmas Concierge asked users to complete a few quick questions on the type of food they were looking for, including: whether they were planning a sit-down Christmas dinner or needed to stock up on nibbles for when the neighbours popped over; how skilful a chef they were; and whether they were catering for any dietary needs.

The bot then walked them through menu options, presenting users with curated Christmas suggestions.

“Messenger is about having individual conversations at scale,” says M&S ad agency Grey’s emerging technologies director, Sam Gibbs, explaining that M&S wanted to connect with its customers on a personal level.

“This campaign was about exploring new and innovative channels,” he adds. “It was very different to what was out there. Christmas campaigns are all about 60-second and 90-second TV advertising slots. This was an opportunity for M&S to play in other channels.”

Audience engagement

M&S wanted to reconnect with existing customers and acquire a new audience through the Christmas Concierge campaign. Over the period, one third of all messages sent, reached a new audience for M&S.

“You have to be where people are and be there in a way that is additive to their overall experience,” says Facebook Head of Creative Agency Partnerships KJ Weir. “The majority of the top 10 apps in world are messaging apps – that’s where people are spending their time nowadays.”

“We were using a platform that people want to use to communicate with brands,” affirms Gibbs. “Increasingly, people don’t want to pick up the phone. We are playing into behaviours that are developing as we speak.” In fact, Nielsen’s recent survey for Facebook shows that expectations for businesses have changed. 64% of people would choose to message a business instead of picking up the telephone.

The Retail Week judging team was impressed with the new approach to customer engagement. “M&S really capital­ised on the consumer appetite for Christmas,” says Retail Week director of strategic partner­ships, Charlotte Hardie. “It showed that it can do a big, traditional advertising campaign with Paddington, while also engaging customers on a personal level with Christmas Concierge.”

Grey wanted to ensure the content was as unique and relevant as possible and that users were hooked into the M&S brand throughout the festive period. The agency extended the bot’s capabilities to offer customers daily inspiration tips.

“We wanted it to be like the experience of opening a daily advent calendar,” says Gibbs. “We wanted to build anticipation. People were reading the content on a regular basis, with the majority reading daily. In terms of people unsubscribing it was close to zero.”

Generating sales

While building a sense of connection was important, the project was also about driving business. A huge 60% of users who began the menu conversation received personalised menu recommendations. This achievement, Weir says, shouldn’t be underestimated.

“It is quite easy to create something that provides a bit of fun but harder to create something that drives business,” she says. “With Messenger the real value is utility and providing more than just a bit of entertainment. I think Grey and M&S really found a great balance between utility and inspiration.”

Weir believes that bots can cut through, rather than add to, the advertising noise that surrounds every potential customer.

“We are all overwhelmed with the amount of decisions we can make,” Weir says. “And bots have the ability to facilitate choice through easy user experience.”

“Christmas Concierge is a prime example of how thinking differently can pay off,” says Hardie. “M&S’ great product, Facebook’s social reach and Grey’s innovative thinking created a fantastic campaign.”

The project’s success means that M&S and Grey are looking at developing future Messenger campaigns for next Christmas and throughout the year.

If Christmas Concierge is anything to go by, these next campaigns will be ones to watch.

Facebook and Retail Week will be picking their favourite Facebook campaign of each quarter of 2018. A Retail Week panel comprising senior members of staff will pick a winner each quarter from a shortlist compiled by Facebook experts. Campaigns will be judged on creative, technical innovation, and engagement.