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. It’s 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. Its
popularity is even approaching that 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
Because that would be a really bad idea.
So says Sean Carton, and he should know. Carton is
a founder and “chief experience officer”
at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc. (http://www.cartondonofrio.com),
an advertising and interactive media consulting firm
in Baltimore. He is also dean of the School of Design
and Communication at Philadelphia University and author
of eight books about technology.
Although he has some reservations about using IM to
start customer relationships, Carton does have some
good ideas about how you can use it to create or strengthen
client or customer loyalty.
What you first have to do is understand the differences
between how people use IM and how they use other communication
media. At first glance, you might think that IM is like
e-mail, with people typing messages to each other. But
in actuality, it’s really more like talking on
a cell phone.
People react as negatively to unwanted instant messages
as they do to receiving cell phone calls from strangers
who are trying to push information in their face. “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 a la mode,
use IM to make yourself or your organization available
at all times to those interested in what you have to
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.
Studies have shown that e-commerce sites often lose
sales because customers can’t get their questions
answered quickly. With IM, people don’t have to
go offline and slog through a voice mail menu or send
an e-mail and cool their heels until it’s returned.
They can also IM at the office without having others
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 transcripts are easier to archive and search than
recordings of phone conversations.
Just as with phone support, though, you have to increase
staff to handle the message volume and to be prepared
for spikes during busy periods surrounding product releases
or holidays. People engaging in instant messaging expect
instant results; not being able to come through with
the goods would defeat your purpose. To avoid this,
IM service personnel could have scripted answers available
for the most frequently asked questions. This would
allow them to quickly copy and paste responses or to
post them by pressing predefined function keys.
A further, if riskier, step toward efficiency is setting
up an IM auto-responding bot, or intelligent agent,
to provide canned answers based on the questions asked.
This can save you money. BotKnowledge (http://www.botknowledge.com),
A.L.I.C.E. Artificial Intelligent Foundation (http://www.alicebot.org),
and Pandorabots (http://www.pandorabots.com)
are three companies that offer these devices; visit
their Web sites to learn more about bots and to see
them in action.
There are caveats, of course. No intelligent agent
can handle unusual questions or situations as well as,
or be as friendly as, a person. Bot stupidity is the
IM equivalent of voice mail hell, and it’s just
Popular enterprise IM programs include IBM’s
Lotus Workplace Messaging (http://www.lotus.com/workplacemessaging)
and Sun’s Java System Instant Messaging (http://www.sun.com/software/products/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. (http://www.akonix.com),
FaceTime Communications, Inc. (http://www.facetime.com),
and IMlogic, Inc. (http://www.imlogic.com).
The bottom line is this: You need to use the medium
that will best serve your purposes. “IM isn’t
like e-mail,” says Carton. “It’s completely
Consider yourself warned.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author
of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org