Virtual Assistants


The Future of How You’ll Plan Your Life!


Remember the good old days when you used to search for a restaurant, or a holiday, or a taxi or for directions by opening a web browser on your phone, typing in what you’re looking for and sifting through hundreds of results? Well savour those memories because if Silicon Valley has its way this process of looking for information online will all change – and quickly!

The era of the virtual assistant is on the horizon, with all of the major players in the online world pushing their own service. Many people will be familiar with Apple’s Siri, Google Live and Microsoft’s Cortana.  All of these processes use algorithms based on personal data to help you find what you want simply by talking into your phone (remember when people used to use phones for that ... you know… talking into them?)

However, they are more than just a search engine you can talk into, or an easy way to put an appointment into a calendar. They’re smart and they LEARN about you. A prompt at 7am to let you know it’s raining and you should take an umbrella on your walk to work. A reminder that it’s your Mum’s birthday and that the flower shop you used last year is closed now so here’s some other suggestions. On your anniversary they’ll book you a table at your favourite restaurant & order a taxi ready for you when you need to leave & order a present for your significant other to arrive on the day too.  All well within the capabilities of the current systems. Cortana will even tell you a joke if you ask it for one.

Potentially the most interesting assistant though could come from Facebook. Their M service (which stands for Moneypenny apparently) is more than just a clever algorithm. To account for the wide variety of requests that human beings can come up with, Facebook has a human element sitting at the other end of the M server – so if you ask for a bespoke drawing, a poem, a killer chat-up line or even an originally composed song, M will get back to you within a day or two with something to satisfy your needs. Even Mark Zuckerberg himself is attempting to build a personal interactive assistant in his house, a la JARVIS from Iron Man, in order to generate insights that could translate to Facebook’s M service (well that and what else would you expect a tech-gifted billionaire to do in his spare time?)

But what does all this means for the advertising world?

Most importantly – what does it mean for Google? Are we starting to see the first signs of Google’s domination of search slipping? And if Google catches a cold will the rest of the online advertising world be sneezing too?

Google have said their voice search traffic has doubled in the last 12 months. However, competitors such as Facebook – who have 700 million Facebook Messenger users at their fingertips – pose a real threat in taking away search traffic & therefore search-generated advertising revenue. How Google fare in this skirmish could be as important to the media industry as their original domination of search 15 years ago and their acquisition of YouTube 10 years ago.

For brands and advertisers, this could even spell the end of the browser-led website. If someone can buy a product, book a service and arrange transportation simply by talking to their virtual assistant – are they going to bother then checking everything through each brand’s individual website or are they even going to go into a brand’s app when Siri or Cortana will do all that for you?

One brand that has looked to get-in on the voice-activated trend is Dominos – whose assistant Dom has been launched last weekend and is designed to take you through the pizza ordering process. It’s a clear intention to keep people using Domino’s own app rather than outsourcing their pizza choices to Google, Apple, Microsoft or Facebook.

However, if you don’t have the resources for a voice-activated smart app – what then? It all goes back to a simple marketing (make that business) proposition. How do you offer a product/service to your consumer that is better than all your competitors?

If consumer’s start buying experiences in one go rather than in chunks – then partnerships could be the key to success and the key to impressing the virtual assistants (i.e. algorithms) who’ll be in charge of making all the decisions. The taxi company that partners with airlines to ensure a cab is at your door in time to take you to the airport without you even thinking about it will do well (Uber & United), a utilities company that works with an assistant to switch your energy, broadband or cable supplier so you don’t have to sit through the long holding times on the phone (HBO) or an evening of entertainment and food all planned out for you and a cleaner ordered to get rid of the mess afterwards (Netflix & Udi – although the cleaner part is an add-on that I personally would like them to implement too!).

If this takes off, it could mean customers will start reviewing experiences online rather than brands or products – again making social media all the more important to getting a good score on a virtual assistant’s algorithm ranking. 

However, whilst this sounds good for Mark, Sergey et al over in Silicon Valley, will it really take off for the just-getting-by family of 5 in Aberdeen, or the single parent in Glasgow, or the elderly couple in Elgin? That remains to be seen. If it does though, we may need to ask Siri, Google, Cortana et al what to do with all our free time now we aren’t searching for all the best deals ourselves – “OK Google show me a video of a grumpy cat”.



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