Article | 7 min read

The difference between chat and messaging

Chat and messaging are already common features of many websites and apps—learn why certain types of conversations provide a better user experience.

By Jesse Martin, Content marketing associate

Last updated November 3, 2021

It’s no longer surprising that consumers want to message businesses. Chat and messaging are already common features of many websites and apps, whether for live support or peer-to-peer conversations. Simply put, the face of conversations is changing.

Conversations are important—they’re the building blocks of relationships. Relationships with our families, friends, colleagues, even our rivals, are mediated through conversations—or a lack of them.

Today, there’s a lot of buzz round conversational business. It’s important to understand why certain types of conversation provide a better user experience. What is the most natural, intuitive and accessible? Because chat and messaging intersect support, ecommerce, marketing and sales with industries like travel, healthcare, finance and retail, businesses need to get the lay of the land. It’s also important to note that the contrast between “chat” and “messaging” is misleading, as the terms are often used interchangeably. The real difference is how we understand the legacy function of live chat versus the function of asynchronous messaging, which, for customer support, is relatively new.

What is live chat?

Live chat is the oldest use case for conversational support. Typically, live chat occurs on the web or in a company’s mobile app and is not usually housed in instant messaging channels. Because live chat is session based and synchronous, when the one-to-one conversation between the agent and the customer has finished, the conversational history generally disappears once the ticket is resolved.

Synchronous messaging is the two-way mode of communication that characterises live chat. It’s limited to real time in the same way a telephone call is. It requires most of your attention, and sessions have a defined beginning and end.

Meanwhile, asynchronous means being able to stop and start conversations when convenient. That means conversations can occur in real time if necessary, but more often than not, the user can concentrate on other things. Most conversations we have with our family and friends are asynchronous. Imagine treating a conversation on WhatsApp or Messenger the same way you would a phone call or even a live chat session, unable to experience any sort of interruption or multitask. That would be a nightmare—but it’s how we treat customers when live chat is the only option.

What is messaging?

Messaging typically refers to asynchronous conversations conducted on social channels, such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat and Instagram. While messaging can include support, it can also be expanded into the realms of commerce and marketing. Support in messaging is not session based. It’s asynchronous and convenient, because the customer decides when it’s convenient to reply. If the support case were any more urgent, they’d move on to a different, more immediate channel.

Social messaging refers to conversations carried out over third-party messaging apps and platforms, such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat and even Instagram or Twitter DMs. These are appealing channels for businesses because most of the world already uses them, creating ample opportunities to connect to customers.

Businesses using Apple Business Chat on iMessage, Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp’s Business API are able to connect with customers from verified business profiles. A complete asynchronous messaging solution means businesses can send out surveys, notifications and updates to customers and expect a response. The oft-repeated stat that SMS messages have a 98% open rate is less appealing when the channel is used to send impersonal, spammy, and hard-to-attribute marketing messages to unsuspecting customers.

Embedded messaging refers to modern messaging experiences embedded in an app or web property. This might be a mobile software development kit (SDK) that allows customers to interact with support. Four Seasons’ app uses an integrated SDK so its guests can speak to the concierge.

Messaging platforms like Sunshine Conversations bridge native, in-app messaging and social messaging channels, so that customers can pick up the conversation from anywhere without being forced to repeat themselves. This allows the agent to have the full context of the conversation as part of a unified customer profile, while the customer is able to respond when and where is most convenient.

When do you use live chat?

When there’s no other option, but you really don’t want to call. Many businesses have adopted live chat on their websites. Live chat was developed as an alternative to the telephone call, although many features of live chat, such as queues and sessions, replicate the call-centre experience. If a user does not want to talk on the phone, live chat is totally viable. But when live chat clients lack the messaging features we have become used to, it makes the exchange feel less human.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article about the changing nature of phone calls (which dipped heavily into the features of popular messaging apps, like audio messages and video calls), Katherine Bindley wrote, “Multiple people I interviewed said when the phone rings unexpectedly, they assume someone has died.”

Mike Gozzo, VP of Product, Conversations at Zendesk Sunshine Conversations, expressed a similar revulsion to uninvited calls. “The way I like to think about it is how annoyed I am when somebody calls me," he said. “I haven’t consented to this call, and it’s occupying 100% of my attention span.”

Live chat poses a similar problem. Because the conversation is session-based, once the user closes the app or loses the connection, it’s all over. When waiting in a queue for an available agent, or when response times leave much to be desired, it’s easy to get bored. When the conversation resumes, the customer has the onerous task of repeating themselves.

When do you use messaging?

Brands that have modern messaging support strategies have the upper hand when it comes to more personalised human engagement. Because a conversation exists in a third-party channel, the entire conversation history is visible—and for modern communication software, it should be visible to the support agent, too. That extends to messaging on a brand’s web properties as well, with asynchronous and cross-channel web messengers taking the place of live chat widgets. The conversation can start anywhere, carry across channels, and resume at any time.

Beyond support, messaging is also making headway in commerce, finance, healthcare, and education, and figures across those industries are leveraging channels people are already using. Conversations on social messaging channels can help brands establish relationships with their customers. Numerous travel and hospitality brands are using messaging during the booking process as well as to create conversational concierge services which address queries and requests from in-stay hotel guests. Retailers are offering personalised recommendations through messaging app-based personal shoppers, who build relationships with clients as they shop. Even banks are using chatbots to dole out sassy financial advice to millennials, reaching out proactively to highlight spending activity. These conversations allow brands to express themselves in an approachable, humanlike way—and consumers are getting used to the personalisation and convenience.

What does it mean for businesses?

Messaging makes it easy to offer personalised, convenient support at scale, while exploring the rich capabilities of channels to create unique conversational experiences. Modern messaging software for businesses also supports integrations for analytics, chatbots and payments. And crucially, businesses can now retain these conversations with their full context in order to inform future customer interactions.

When customers message outside available support hours, automation or chatbots can keep them informed about when an agent is most likely to reply or even guide them to relevant self-service content. Because users expect different response times, agents can carry out more conversations simultaneously. Rather than focusing on staffing a 24/7 contact centre, businesses can focus on the more detailed aspects of conversations that make for great customer experiences.

Of course, messaging should not be the end of the road for customer experience. What is truly important for businesses is to make themselves available where their customers are, on every channel. The promise of an omnichannel support strategy is that choice, convenience and accessibility provide the best customer experience—whether that means self-service, phoning, email, live chat or messaging.

Learn more about asynchronous messaging here.

6 steps to deploying chat on your website

This comprehensive guide will provide the necessary resources for successfully implementing and deploying chat.

6 steps to deploying chat on your website

This comprehensive guide will provide the necessary resources for successfully implementing and deploying chat.

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