A new web startup is betting that live chat services will be the easiest way for websites to draw customer traffic away from Facebook. Israel-based Tokkster, entering beta mode this month, has already signed a deal with McGraw-Hill and is basing its strategy around real-time brand engagement. However, there are dozens of competitors in the race to monetize webchats ... and the industry has some very unique challenges.
Tokkster is designed to allow users to chat with each other in real time. Users don't see each other's real names or aliases—avatars are limited to a user's thumbnail picture. Chats can be conducted in either a one-on-one format or in a larger group format (see photo below). According to cofounder Asher Adelman, Tokkster's backend is designed so that client sites can use it for purposes ranging from real-time customer service to holding larger meetings for specific target audiences. A small strip at the bottom of the user's web browser displays avatars belonging to site visitors and allows them to chat in real time with each other.
The service will enter public beta mode shortly before Thanksgiving for the one-on-one chat service. Group chats, however, will not be launching until January 2012. McGraw-Hill will be using the service in early 2012 to hold an online Q&A session with one of the publisher's authors.
In order to use the Tokkster service, you will be required to download a plug-in in addition to the web browser. So far, Tokkster is web-only although smartphone and tablet editions will be available in the future. Adelman stressed that the service would not save the personal information and data of users. However, Tokkster does keep track of word frequency and brand mentions made on the platform. Companies using the service would be able to keep track of customer perception and of recurring keywords, but the information would not be tied to any individual users. Client companies would have access to aggregated discussion data through their dashboard.
For commercial websites, using online webchats is a win-win. Users enjoy the fact that online customer service allows them to multitask more effectively, while companies are able to access data and customer service records more quickly while simultaneously cutting down on costs. Website-integrated customer service chats are already a popular industry, with dozens of specialty services fighting for the almighty CSR dollar.
But the major problem that many of these services face is a familiar one—convincing users to interact on a company website when Facebook is the well-established 800-pound gorilla of social networking. The massive selection of social networking plug-ins out there is testament to this. It's easy to engage users on a website, but harder to retain them when Facebook manages to become a user's first and last web destination—collecting those valuable online advertising dollars along the way.
Tokkster has several advantages: The service is streamlined and easy to use; end users are unable to get lost in sub-menus and chatting appears to be straightforward. Clients also get an easy method of customer engagement that is more inviting and subtle than most of the stand-alone alternatives out there. However, the question remains of whether it will be enough to make a dent in Facebook's brand engagement wallet.
[Image: Flickr user garryknight]