This year’s CES was by and large the year of ‘Alexa Everywhere’. The operating system behind Amazon’s popular Echo device has been democratized and integrated into a broad array of technologies and lifestyle devices. While many spent their time debating whether they needed Alexa to be in their refrigerator, in a device with a better speaker, or actually inside a lamp, I spent most of my days at CES contemplating what this will ultimately mean for marketers and brands.
Whether or not you believe voice will become the predominant interface for all devices in the coming years, one thing all marketers should be preparing for is the age of Marketing to Machines. (For the record, my view is that the use of voice will largely stay in the home: it’s more private, and our smartphone is often not on our person while at home, as they tend to be when we’re on the go).
Right now, Alexa takes orders from humans. She can control connected devices in the home, answer questions and order product from Amazon. But think of her as a puppy – collectively, all humans who own an Echo are teaching Alexa new tricks independently, while brands, media companies and organizations are teaching her new tricks by coding fresh skills for the Alexa operating system. However, before long, the machine learning and AI that powers Alexa’s responses to her human owner will be sophisticated enough to learn that individual’s preferences, and will make data-informed recommendations and (potentially) predictive suggestions, perhaps she will even make automated decisions (with permission).
If what I am proposing becomes a reality – and I believe it will – this creates significant impact on the need to rethink marketing: structuring data for brand relevance, fostering brand preference, brand loyalty, conquesting at point of sale, discovery and more.
B-Commerce. E-commerce meets Bots meets open APIs. Digital assistants like Alexa will use any data that is openly available to search for the most appropriate products and services for their human. This means that brands will need to structure their product information and data in a way that is widely available to open systems in order to make them discoverable and able to be ordered ‘virtually’. Additionally, we need to consider the semantic data we will need to codify our brands and products, in order to allow sophisticated digital assistants to determine if your product would meet the preferences of its human.
The Era of the “Do Engine”. Dag Kitlaus, co-founder of Siri and now Viv.ai, said it best when he noted that AI-powered digital assistants will disrupt the era of the Search Engine and see the dawn of the ‘Do Engine’. A new age of brand utility – radically simplifying interactions with everything. Rather than (Google) search being a primary hub for solutions to any need, people will be ordering and purchasing via an intelligent assistant using just their voice. That assistant will build a personalized preference profile to automate brand preferences for any service or product – from ordering a ride share, sending flowers to my mother, booking a hotel, to replenishing the refrigerator. The retail journey for consumers changed with mobile search, and it will change again.
Brand Preference & Brand Loyalty Locked Together? When Alexa knows exactly the kind of paper towel I like, or shampoo I use, a new challenge arises for brands seeking to conquest. Designing frictionless, end to end experiences will retain loyal customers, and therefore the only opportunity to conquest arises when a consumer tells Alexa “never buy [brand] shampoo again” or further upstream in the consumer journey. Also, consider this: if people are ordering by voice or memory recall rather than visual prompts at a real or virtual shelf, the importance of finding ways to nest your brand in culture and keep it front of mind can’t be overstated. So we need to think beyond just advertising to other ways for people to discover or reconsider brands in the most relevant contexts outside of obvious retail and ‘interruption media’ settings.
From Ads to Adds. As marketers and brands, the interactions we design for this new set of consumer behaviors and new ‘channel’ will look less like ads, and more like life hacks or life adds. Here’s an example: I’m leaving to drop my son off at school, I ask Google Home what the traffic is like. Google Home understands (from my calendar and the traffic) that I’m running late; at the same time, my IoT coffee machine data confirms that I haven’t had time for a coffee this morning. Google Home might suggest a drive-thru Starbucks I can stop at on the way, and may even offer to pre-order my favorite chai latte, all timed to perfection. Programmatic utility marketing will give actual dimension and consumer benefit to that ol’ truism of ‘right person, right message, right time’.
Be Human. In a world where marketing to machines becomes a reality, we diminish the need to convince people that they should buy our product. Theoretically, brands will have the time and incentive to find ways of being more human, more personal and personable, and build relationships and brand experiences that delight. Designing different brand relationships with people will see a shift from transactional and direct response marketing to empathetic and value-based marketing. For my role at Carat, this means planning for a fundamental shift from Channel Planning to Experience and Human-Centered Design.
Perhaps, in some ways, robots, machines, digital assistants and AI will ultimately help us all become more human.