The famed economist Vilfredo Pareto defined ‘Law of the Vital Few’ way back in 1896. Today the law is commonly known as the 80-20 principle. Little did he realise that 120 years later, the law would still be applicable to a generation of people with supercomputers in their pockets.

The app usage for almost all smartphone users follows the ‘80-20’ principle. Even for someone as app-dependent as I am, about 20 per cent of apps on my smartphone account for 80 per cent of my smartphone usage. Apps such as taxi-hailing services and hyperlocal grocery are great time-savers, but are used infrequently. The apps I frequent the most, almost on an hourly basis, are the messaging apps.

WhatsApp, the famed SMS-killer, easily claims more attention than most other apps combined. When the app launched, it was an instant sensation in the country.

It has amassed over a billion monthly active users in a little over six years, with a little more than 50 engineers. The cross-platform messaging app has users from all segments, ranging from grandmothers to school kids and business professionals. In comparison, Gmail — Google’s superbly intuitive email solution that launched on April 1, 2004, and might have come across as an April Fool’s prank — took over 11 years to touch the 1-billion mark.

‘App’ening opportunity Despite the massive user-base, WhatsApp remains stubbornly ad-free. Does this mean retailers cannot sell using WhatsApp? Of course not! Brands can still learn, identify and converse on the app to identify opportunities and even sell products. This sure does sound the death knell for e-mail marketing. Apps are an entire genre of commerce we are about to witness.

Today, apps are integrating across each other to provide the customer with what he needs right there in the app without having to leave it. Active and passive bots run on apps to identify context and opportunity from a customer’s behaviour.

Telegram, a beefed up version of WhatsApp, albeit with a far smaller user-base, has already incorporated nifty active bots. Chats come to life in this app with bots such as ‘@gif’ to browse and add gifs within a conversation. Other bots such as @wiki, @bing and @vid allow for users to perform a wide range of searches and actions from within the app itself.

From a brand’s perspective, this might seem trifling. On the other hand, as a user, this simplifies my life enormously. For example, I can quickly pull up a Wikipedia result by typing @wiki and the search term, right within the chat window. Now I no longer need a dedicated app, or be forced to go to my browser and conduct a series of multitasking feats for something as simple as search. The answers I seek are in a single, convenient place.

Sure, these ‘browse and post’ bots might mean little to retailers at first glance, but Telegram even offers you the ability to create your own bot as well. For example, a customer can shop on Myntra with her best friend by simply typing @myntra in her Telegram chat! This is the very beginning of brands engaging in value-added conversations with customers, or what Chris Messina of Uber aptly calls ‘Conversational Commerce.’

Cognitive commerce With bots evolving to more intuitive levels, the next logical step will be cognitive commerce. At this stage, bots will be able to synchronously compute and pre-empt demand across the value chain for individuals. In other words, brands will be able to sell you products you need even before you recognise that need.

Conversational commerce is all about transacting over a chat, which brands seem to have so far missed completely — and this isn’t limited to shopping only. Imagine if I could securely chat with my bank through a bot to identify what my current account balance is. Wouldn’t that be convenient? I could even pay off my bills through chats.

The layers between customers and brands have been eroded by technology. Customers can post about brands and experiences online, which brands are forced to pay heed to. But conversational commerce will take this further by making brands truly available on demand in candid conversations.

The promises are plenty, but the tech is still a work in progress. The entire premise of this kind of commerce is to be able to better understand customers and solicit their feedback. As online shopping gains prominence, it replaces a crucial sore point of offline retail — a brand simply doesn’t know why a customer is not buying a particular product. By opening an avenue for ‘conversations’, these inputs can be funnelled right back into making critical business decisions.

Education for such offerings is going to be important, but for any new idea to bear fruit, it will require that exercise. Social media platforms are weak examples of conversational commerce, but there is ample room for disruption in this nascent space. From chatbots to artificial intelligence to voice recognition, incorporating tech into the fabric of commerce is going to be a massive play in the coming years.

Vasuta Agarwal is Vice President and GM - India at InMobi