Assessing the State of Rich Communications Services Today: Will It Rise as a Serious Channel?

The world of mobile messaging is still buzzing about the potential that rich communications services (RCS) will bring to this ecosystem.

Additionally, businesses and brands that have already invested in messaging channels to reach their consumers are also anticipating the benefits that RCS will bring. But there are some realities versus hype about RCS in its current state, today.

First off, I won’t be attacking RCS as a channel, as I believe it still has a very high potential to provide needed changes to how we — meaning those of us providing messaging solutions — provide messaging capabilities to our enterprise and brand customers. Secondly, this current iteration of RCS — based on the GSMA standard called Universal Profile — is only just now getting started over the last two plus years and it continues to gain momentum as a messaging channel. Finally, it’s the promise that RCS, especially “business RCS messaging” brings to the consumer engagement world, that could be a game changer.

Mobile messaging today is not all SMS anymore. There are a variety of messaging channels – many of them very regional – that consumers are using. For the majority, these non-SMS messaging channels are strictly P2P and based on various social networking platforms. We typically call them social/chat apps. For example, WhatsApp and is 1.5 billion subscribers have all but taken over the person to person messaging in many markets: parts of the EU, India, and Latin America. WeChat is heavily used in China, Line in Japan and so forth. There are also strong communities for Telegram, Viber, Line, Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, Kik, and many others. The point here is that social/chat apps are a fact of life that marketers can’t ignore. But there is one major problem. As we look at these various social/chat apps, they are fragmented. Not everyone has them or uses them and many times, such as with WhatsApp as of this writing, they are not suitable for notifications and alerts.

Notwithstanding WhatsApp’s current “beta” state for business messaging with a handful of providers, enterprises and brands were basically just relegated to interacting with consumers in a P2P style via WhatsApp’s Business app. There is not the API support of alerts, notifications, or conversational engagement that businesses can leverage. Of course, that fact may be starting to change, but we’ll see.

Conversational engagement: Now there’s an interesting term and one that is gaining in popularity over the last 18 months or so. This means that the consur is interacting through the messaging app or channel with a brand or enterprise in a conversational manner. Many times, this may be a live human, but in many cases, they are conversing with an automated bot (or chatbot). Bots range from very simple to sophisticated, powered by AI engines and machine learning to handle various types of input. Most are very purpose-driven, and most are built around the various social/chat apps. Facebook Messenger, for one, has an environment that has been conducive to bot interaction, although things like bot discovery, and truly useful bots have been a challenge.

Coming back to RCS, it is the concept of conversational engagement that really sets the tone for RCS, coupled with its secure, rich media and best of all, it’s operational on default messaging clients on most Android devices. Furthermore, if implemented correctly, the messages can fallback to SMS, if the end-user’s device (or operator) does not support RCS. And yes, most bots can work on SMS almost as well as they can on RCS.

SMS messages from businesses have over a 90% open rate. Can RCS offer similar allure and benefits?

We’ve all heard that SMS messages from businesses have over a 90 percent open rate, according to the research firm Mobilesquared. That’s an amazing statistic that is key to the current and predicted growth of business — or A2P: Application to Person, as it’s called within the industry — SMS and frankly, is a major component of the allure of SMS engagement. But can RCS offer similar allure and benefits?

Mobilesquared once again has noted in their July 2018 blog post that “nearly 50 percent of mobile users would be active RCS users, i.e. they would engage and interact with a brand. This figure smashes interaction levels on other channels, and RCS is only getting started.” So, what does RCS do that other social/chat apps don’t do?

RCS — specifically A2P RCS — can provide a very practical alternative to the requirement and expense of deploying a mobile app. Mobile apps are quite expensive to design and build and furthermore, there is the ongoing problem of user retention and user abandonment — if you can get the user to download the app in the first place. According to a Localytics blog post, 21 percent of users now abandon an app after one use. Furthermore, the percentage of users who launch an app more than 11 times — e.g. app retention — is only 38 percent. Those statistics don’t seem that impressive to me.

If the functionality of the app can be embodied within an intelligent, RCS conversation, with fallbacks to SMS, and even other social/chat apps, where applicable, there is no need to maintain an app. The functionality, the richness, security, and the engagement are available to the user through their default messaging client on their device. That, to me, is part of the huge promise that RCS can bring to the new world of mobile consumer engagement. I would much rather have several brand/enterprise-specific entries in my messaging client than individual apps for each one – especially if they are ones that I only need from time to time. With RCS, I can remain anonymous if I want and interact with a bot to provide rich content, answer questions, even make purchases.

So, what about RCS vs. a mobile web site? That is certainly a compelling question, but one that we should examine. A mobile web site can certainly provide brand visibility and audience reach and are cost effective. They can certainly take advantage of SEO which can enhance their overall brand visibility. Mobile optimized sites — especially those with responsive design — can work on many different displays; can support multiple types of rich media and content and support location-based mapping. In fact, I would argue that the best solution is a combination of a mobile website for brand visibility plus an RCS engagement for further interaction with features such as click to call, live chat; direct notifications, and leveraging device features such as the camera or GPS, provide a compelling list of features – all from the device’s default messaging client.

The reality of RCS functionality and desirability depends on the business objectives and use cases. The case for RCS is strong in most of these. In fact, think about what is being done with SMS today and then reimage what could be done with RCS and how this channel could be improved. Think about how incorporating conversational interaction could further engage and benefit the user.

Here’s a simple example: SMS delivery of two-factor authentication codes. This is a popular method of delivering verification codes to something a person possesses: a mobile phone. The user simply provides the code, delivered in the SMS message into an app or website as a part of two-step verification. The scheme is the most widely used method of two-step (or two-factor) authentication; however, there have been some security issues with this methodology of late. With RCS, a rich message could be securely — fully encrypted, end-to-end — sent to the user’s device with a request to validate a login or transaction with a simple Allow or Deny option. Further validation could be done through the RCS session, which would overcome many, if not all the security holes of the SMS methods, including even SIM-swaps.

RCS has the potential to change the way the consumers interact with brands in the coming years. While virtually of the many messaging service providers offer solutions around SMS, a smaller subset offers true multi-channel solutions that include social/chat apps along with SMS. What is compelling is that a significant number of these messaging service providers are now talking about RCS, with many showing demos, and new solutions for business. Brands are getting on board as well.

While the number of operators supporting A2P RCS may not be what we would like it to be today, I think that in the next 12-24 months, we’ll see a new wave of mobile operator support, along with some real enterprise and brand launches. There’s still a lot of work to do and quite a few unknowns, but it still looks as if business, e.g. A2P, RCS is poised to become a significant channel for consumers to utilize to interact with businesses.

Bill Dudley is group director, mobile evangelist and strategist, Industry and Line-of-Business Products, SAP Digital Interconnect. Follow him on Twitter: @wdudley2009.