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It seems that everyone’s advice on how to get started in digital marketing these days revolves around one mantra — build an email list as early as possible.

And with email generating an average, highly measurable, return on investment of over 240 percent, it is no wonder that it is the first channel on many a marketer’s hit list.

But how do you gather those email addresses when visitors hit your website? Do you smack them metaphorically in the face with a brash pop-up? While pop-ups are the “email collectors du jour,” the technique — according to my own research — is best served with a side order of guaranteed discounts or a high-quality content offer. Either way, you’re leaving money on the table or spending more than you need to.

Today, Intercom has launched its new website messaging and live chat platform — Acquire — with the intention of changing the way you communicate with visitors, and helping to capture their email (among other things) in a more useful, interactive way.

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Intercom has raised $66 million to date, and has over 7,000 paying customers. Founded by four Irishmen, it is an American company headquartered in San Francisco, but does all product development out of its Dublin, Ireland office. Intercom invited me to its spacious new offices near the Financial District in San Francisco to see Acquire in action.

At the heart of Acquire is a two-way messaging platform that sits quietly in the corner of your website until invoked.

That is a fundamentally different approach to the “broadcast mode” brash pop-up method of gaining contact details, or the passive method of waiting for a visitor to hit the “contact us” button.

“Intercom’s mission is to make Internet business personal,” Jonathan Heron, product manager at Intercom, told me. “We think that two-way communication is critically important to providing a personal experience.”

That’s not a surprising statement from a messaging business, but Heron also understands the wider issue that plagues all websites — the sheer cost of building a good one, and the business of getting a return on that investment.

“Companies spend lots of resources building their website and getting potential customers to visit their site, but all of those resources go to waste if you can’t get your visitors to become customers,” Heron said. “It’s important to offer two-way communication so visitors can easily get their questions answered and start to develop a relationship with the business, to increase the chances of them actually becoming customers.”

Here’s how it works.

Installation is as simple as adding a little JavaScript to your website — a job that takes most companies just a few minutes to perform. Once added, Acquire gets to work, showing a messaging pop-up on the website that allows visitors to communicate with you and your team.

Acquire LP Hero

That pop-up message is one of the nicer designs I’ve seen in website messaging, and it shows the avatars of the last three service agents that used the platform, giving it an instant personal touch.

When clicked, the visitor is prompted to ask a question. The interface now looks like something closer to WhatsApp, Kik, or Facebook Messenger. In fact, Acquire can deal with files, images, videos, and emoji as part of the two-way communication.

After asking a question, the visitor may get an instant response if someone is online to reply immediately. If not, they get an estimate of how long the question may remain unanswered, and an opportunity to leave an email address while they wait.

In comparison to the stark pop-ups being presented by many, the experience is interactive, engaging, and feels — to me at least — much more useful to the visitor.

If you already have other interactive elements on your website, such as slide-up mini-surveys or “on-bounce” actions, does Acquire play well with them?

“We’ve beta tested Acquire with over 2,000 customers,” Heron said. “That’s 2,000 different websites with various configurations and add-ons to find and correct any potential issues.”

Behind the scenes, Acquire includes a full messaging platform, the ability to assign messages to colleagues (or teams), a private note-taking feature to allow for internal communications, and a full auto-messaging system that is capable of sparking a conversation with a visitor under any number of conditions.

Acquire. Rule builder

That last feature is how Acquire helps to live up to its lead-generation aspirations, reaching out to high-value visitors in order to garner engagement.

For example, you may want to ask someone if they understand the pricing scheme once they’ve been on that page for more than two minutes, or check a visitor’s understanding of your services if they’ve opened more than four educational blog entries.

Most importantly, ongoing conversations across web chat, in-app messages, and email are all stored in a single, cross-session customer record. A visitor’s full web history on your site, all communications with them, and a complete history of events is captured and stored within. In that respect, Acquire offers a level of visitor tracking usually seen in much more expensive marketing automation platforms.

Acquire, like all Intercom solutions, integrates with the likes of Salesforce, Zapier, and Zendesk to ensure all this data is available as part of your full customer view.

Solutions like Acquire, while useful, can add some level of complexity to a website, an issue designers and user experience experts have to deal with regularly. Is there a concern that it might add one problem while solving another?

“You never want to push a message in front of all your website visitors the moment they arrive on your site,” Heron said. “Acquire has simple message targeting, so you can automatically reach out with a proactive message at the right time. The rest of the time, the Intercom Messenger button makes it clear your team are available to talk, but doesn’t get in the way of your site’s content.”

Acquire is available today, and while pricing is based on the number of conversations initiated on your website, it starts at $49 per month.

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