Age Of Connected Intelligence: Will People Pay For Fin’s Voice-Activated Assistant?

While artificial intelligence-based, voice-activated digital assistants are rapidly becoming mainstream, it’s safe to say that the respective comprehension of Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Samsung’s Bixby are still in the learning stages.

For the past two years, tech startup Fin has been working on an operating system that will power an interactive, machine learning-based assistant of the same name that promises to “dramatically outperform” the current leading Connected Intelligence-based virtual assistants as well as “full-time help.”

Putting A Price On Virtual Assistance

Last month, Fin, which was started by Sam Lessin, formerly of Facebook file-sharing acquisition Drop.io, and Venmo co-founder Andrew Kortina, began sending out emails touting its combination of human intelligence and AI, noting that it “remembers all of your personal context and interacts over app, email, web, sms, and phone 24×7.”

One big difference: to access Fin, you have to be a paid subscriber.

The current offer being presented to Fin users starts with the first 2 hours of service each month for $120 per month, with any additional time for $1.00 per minute. (Fuller pricing details can viewed here.)

Is Fin Viable?

While Fin’s Lessin declined to comment for this article, saying he and the company are “pretty heads down at the moment,” we reached out to two thought leaders to get their initial impressions about what sort of impact — if any — the proposition of a subscription-based, highly personalized virtual assistant might have.

“Color me skeptical for the moment,” says Local SEO Guide’s Andrew Shotland. “If it’s 10x better than GoogleNow, Siri, Alexa, there’s something there, but this seems like a very high hurdle. It’s tough enough to get the experience to work for free services. In order to get someone to pay for a digital assistant service is accuracy and utility would likely need to be very high.

“I could see some B2B use cases where there are very specific common queries,” Shotland adds, “but that starts to sound like an Alexa recipe so why not do it through that system? “Then again, perhaps Fin has figured out how to overcome some very specific challenges with these systems. And if that’s the case, it will probably get scooped up by a bigger player much like how Samsung scooped up Viv and turned it into Bixby.”

Duane Forrester, VP of Industry Insights at Yext (full disclosure: Yext is GeoMarketing’s parent company. More details on that relationship here) is a bit less skeptical than Shotland, but also senses some significant limitations to Fin’s practicality as a business.

“I love the idea,” Forrester says. “Though the execution had better knock my socks off for that kind of monthly fee. I mean, that’s close to what house cleaners cost, and that’s a value I see — and believe in. For this service to warrant those kinds of costs, it needs to stand not just head and shoulder above our current free offerings, but a whole body above.”

A Superior Assistant

In terms of the specific implications for local businesses, the rise of voice-activated assistants have coincided with the increased importance of location management in SEO strategy — namely, that making sure that business location information is correct across platforms is key to ranking in Google’s “three-pack” of top mapped results, as is using optimal keywords.

Addressing the particulars of voice search is important in the same vein, especially considering that 76 percent of “near me” searches result in a business visit within a day. In fact, last week, we reported that search volume for local places continues to grow — but explicitly stated “near me” requests are on the decline, since consumers now simply expect results that reflect their proximity.

For example, one of the features uses of Fin showcased on its site includes queries like “Please remember Cotogna as a place I can get dinner after 10pm,” or “”Hey Fin, can you identify the plant in this photo, find me a local nursery that sells them. If it is less than $300 buy it for me and have it sent to my house.”

In other words, Fin is betting that people will naturally expect their devices to help them make plans based on where they are and what’s on their calendar.

“It does make me wonder what research they have on consumer behavior that leads them to think current consumers (and more importantly, those coming up behind them) are willing to pay that much for a service we all essentially get for free today,” Forrester adds.

Within the wider context of the Connected Intelligence space of Internet of Things devices and AI, voice-activated connected device usage is skyrocketing. So the timing for an even more aspirational, luxury product like Fin appears right. But as GeoMarketing‘s Lauryn Chamberlain recently noted, voice is just one modality in the world of Connected Intelligence, with image recognition and search beginning to play a vital role as well with the introduction of Amazon’s Echo Show.

“Everything about how voice-activated assistants [talk to users or to each other] is going to be centered around: It’s got to be user-friendly, and it’s got to be an experience that can truly benefit the user,” Ben Brown, Google Home & Wifi product lead, said at the June 2017 Connections conference. “It can’t just be because an internet service provider feels the opportunity to aggregate. That doesn’t necessarily offer value unless it actually is something that someone really wants to have.”

The way Brown sees the evolution of virtual assistants is that it will follow the path we’ve seen with mobile phones and with mobile operating systems before: People may want to interact with multiple different devices [from different providers] in their lives. At the same time, people tend to build an affinity towards certain devices over time.

In that case, a platform like Fin could benefit from the growth of a Google Home, Amazon Echo, Apple Homepod, Microsoft Cortana, or Samsung Bixby, as they seek to augment one AI assistant with others.

“If I had to make a call on this, I’d say it’s a cool idea, the superior assistant, but this doesn’t feel like the path forward,” Forrester concludes. “Even a company like Samsung, with huge resources applied to the problem of building a good digital assistant has struggled with their launch of Bixby in English-language markets. Unless I’m missing something obvious and untapped, I’m not seeing what problem is being solved to such a degree as to merit the cost. And I’m hung up on the cost! In a world where people won’t pay $20 for an app — once! — how does a recurring $120/month, random-use item survive?”

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How Voice-Activation Is Becoming The New ‘Touch’

The adoption rate of smart speakers with voice assistants grew 140 percent from 2015 to 2016, according to a survey from music streaming service Pandora and Edison Research.

In particular, Pandora usage on these devices grew by a 282 percent year-over-year.

Wit that growth in mind, Pandora sought to get a sense of how the rise of devices such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, and Microsoft’s Cortana is opening up new opportunities for marketers to reach multiple household members in contextually relevant ways they couldn’t before.

The research bears out much of what NPR found in its recent examination of the role of voice-activation and consumers’ media usage. Roughly 65 percent of people who own an Amazon Echo or Google Home can’t imagine to going back to the days before they had a smart speaker, and 42 percent of that group say the voice-activated devices have quickly become “essential” to their lives, NPR’s research said.

Among the obvious points both NPR and Pandora’s separate studies found: listening to music was the initial reason people sought these devices for. But the use cases of have quickly mushroomed.

With Apple emphasizing entertainment as part of its marketing behind its Siri-powered smart speaker, Homepod — which is set to be released in December — the next phase of audio and voice activation may be only just emerging. But it is emerging at a rapid rate.

From Touch To Talking

As Keri Degroote, vice president of research and analytics at Pandora, notes,  it is critical for brands to align their strategies accordingly.

“Voice-activated-everything is spreading like wildfire,”Degroote says. “From what we’ve seen, yes Smart Speakers have just surpassed any fad or experimental phase. The demographics of users (particularly the high proportion of 55+) suggest that this is no longer early adopters, but has hit the mass market. And the frequency with which these devices are used amongst consumers show the true value of bringing them into their homes.”

There is still room to grow in terms of users, functionality and integration – look back on the iPhone’s launch a little over 10 years ago, she adds.

“What brand can you name that doesn’t have a presence on the app store these days?” Degroote says. “And how many brands wish they were on the top of app-store charts in the early days to secure that prime home-screen positioning? It is important brands don’t play catch up in two- or three years’ time and find themselves in the same position.”

Still, Larry Rosin, president of Edison Research, notes that the adoption curve may be different from some of the other technologies and platforms that consumers have popularized since the iPhone emerged.

For example, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, as well as fitness trackers and wearables, have tended to be driven first by younger tech aficionados. The rise of voice-activation has been driven by people who are older and more affluent.

“This is not just a ‘young people’s technology’ like video gaming, for example. It’s much broader in terms of its appeal. So the adoption curve is going to be a bit different than with previous technologies. To start, connected home devices are not the cheapest products. But it depends on how you consider them: if you think of them as a computer, they’re generally not that expensive. If you think of them as a novelty, then you might consider them a bit pricey. For people who can afford these devices, voice-activated devices are quite practical.”

Here are some of the topline findings of Pandora’s study, which was based on interviews with 444 U.S. adults who own a voice-activated smart speaker: Amazon Echo, Dot, Tap, or Google Home:

  • Voice-enabled home devices are creating a rise in audio consumption and music. On a weekly basis, 69 percent of people are regularly tuning into audio content on their voice-enabled smart speakers with 58 percent tuning into music for an average of 4 hours and 34 minutes per week.
  • We now search, make inquiries and buy with our voices. 46 percent of people are checking the weather, 42 percent get a joke, “Easter egg” or converse, and 40 percent are asking general questions on where to find a store or how to cook a particular recipe. 29 percent plan to make purchases with top items being technology, household goods and beauty products.
  • Adoption is beyond fast. While it took many years for there to be multiple TVs in the home, 1 out of 3 people already have 2 or more voice-enabled devices across different rooms in their home.
  • These devices are not just for the young and tech-savvy. 40 percent of these device owners are between the ages of 35-54 with younger Gen Z and Millennials, 18-34 (35 percent) coming in second (35 percent). 
  • Voice-activated devices are also social. 77 percent of people are listening to music on these devices with friends and family: creating new ways for advertisers to engage multiple members of the household at home.

What Does Voice Mean For Marketers?

When looking at the the most popular usage patterns Pandora’s study notes, it’s worth considering whether voice-activation is for all marketers — or just some who can meet a direct question-and-answer response that depends on a certain immediate need.

Can voice-activated assistants have greater impact on the purchase a consumer packaged goods product, as opposed to, say, buy a car or real estate?

“From a short-term perspective, yes it appears that brands that serve immediate needs (like CPG products) are best positioned to capitalize on Smart Speakers,” says Degroote. “This is another way of search functionality, only this time done through voice. Users are already turning to smart speakers and voice assistants to talk, search, entertain, shop, etc in moments where they may have used a screen in the past.

“However, data from a follow up study on the Pandora Soundboard suggests that Voice Assistants are going to be key referral sources for a whole range of consumer needs,” she adds.

Around 60 percent said that they’ll use Smart Speakers to find stores and business locations, suggest entertainment content like TV shows and movies, and make restaurant recommendations in the future.

“We can easily see this evolving to Voice Assistants being the first ‘port-of-call’ on how to maximize tax deductions, or develop a training routine or physiotherapy exercises –a perfect opportunity for more service-based industries to deliver their messaging and offer their services to consumers,” Degroote says.

Advertising And The Company Of Others

As Pandora’s research suggests, the use of voice may have a more social aspect to it as opposed to the smartphone, which has come to represent the most personal of “personal computing.”

Does that mean the advertising we’re used to seeing on mobile and social channels will need to reflect that the voice-activation experience is not necessarily “solo.” What impact is that social aspect likely to have — or should have — on marketing strategies aimed at leveraging smart speakers?

“Brands need to be aware of messaging to consumers on Smart Speakers, or any Connected Home device for that matter (Smart TVs, Fridges, Games Consoles),” Degroote says. “On Pandora, the majority of our listening is on mobile which usually dictates a one-to-one creative approach.”

If a listener is in their car listening via their Connected Dash, the situation changes — they could be with their children or by themselves, which may change the way a brand wants to communicate with them and “show them they know them,” Degroote notes.

“We estimate that over 50 percent of listening via Connected Home devices is done in the company of others, which gives brands the opportunity to reach many listeners at once during a number of moments and occasions,” she adds. “Being able to serve a contextual message to a father playing with his kids on the weekend, or a couple hosting a dinner party for their old college friends on Saturday night provides marketers a great opportunity to reach consumers at key moments that create relevance for their products.”

For Edison’s Rosin, who notes he’s something of an outlier among digital assistant owners: he has one voice-activated device in his kitchen and one in his bedroom. Most people tend to have them in their living room. And that will have a significant affect in the experience that people expect from the media and ads they receive from these devices.

“There is plenty of evidence that most people are using these devices while they’re together, as opposed to being alone,” Rosin says. “Audio has been hot for awhile, and the combination of audio and shared interactivity, suggests that voice and listening is only going to become more central in the way people use computers.”

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Will Voice-Activated Assistants Change Search Advertising?

With sales of voice-activated devices rising rapidly, marketers and platform companies face a big question: what will Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, and Microsoft’s Cortana mean for the search advertising?

In a panel moderated by The Drum’s Lisa Lacy, the question of Connected Intelligence-powered assistants and agents’ impact on SEO ads was put to a panel of executives who think about this daily: Purna Virji, Senior Bing Ads PPC Training Manager, Microsoft; Mike Grehan, CMO of Acronym and CEO SEMPO; Larry Kim, founder of Wordstream; Christina Connor, Global Product Lead, DoubleClick Search; and Duane Forrester, VP of industry insights at Yext (Full disclosure: Yext is GeoMarketing’s parent company. More details on that relationship here).

Distinctions Between Assistants And Agents

Understanding how people are using voice-activation is the first step, noted, Grehan, who cited a study that found 60 percent of voice queries are from people seeking a service, not search,

“When you look at the patterns that you go through, voice is about recommending and suggesting, and then you have discovery, and then you have all those keywords that are not being used to find something on the web,” Grehan said, at the panel event, The Drum Search Awards USA, which was hosted at the Yext offices in NYC.

Another point of distinction: understanding the differences between “agents” and “assistants.”

“Bill Gates did a paper where he talked about the difference between personal assistants and personal agents,” said Yext’s Forrester. “We’re all used to personal assistants, where you ask Cortana, ‘Get me an Uber’ and it opens the app and with one click, you’re ready to go. That’s versus the agent, which is actually empowered to take actions on your behalf. That fits in the world that Mike’s talking about, where it knows my affinity programs.”

Businesses are going to have to develop systems and skills they want to be a part of the “virtual conversation.”

“The way to participate is for a business to develop a ‘skill,’” said Bing Ads’s Virji. “To use the travel example, if Expedia had a skill that it creates for Cortana, I could talk to Cortana to book me a flight. I could say, ‘I’m going to Boston next week, can you get me a hotel?’ Expedia would know that the last time I stayed at a Hilton and ask me if I want to stay there again and if it wants to use the same credit card. Because Cortana is my agent, it can do all that activity in less than 60 seconds.”

The Future Of Advertising

A report from Forrester this past spring warned that it was high time for CMOs to face the facts that digital advertising has not worked when it comes to engaging consumers and that the emerging role of voice-activated digital assistants and the connected intelligence that powers the devices by Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft will lead to only further breakdown of traditional marketing models.

The report, The End Of Advertising As We Know It? by Forrester analysts James McQuivey and Keith Johnston, posits a “great unraveling” of advertising that’s coming with the new models taking as much as $2.9 billion away from display advertising in the next year.

Lacy put the question directly to Google DoubleClick’s Connor: Can search advertising even exist in this voice realm?

“The answer is ‘not yet.’ We’re still trying to figure out what voice search is like, what’s a good experience versus a bad experience, what kind of questions people are asking, and how that conversation evolves over time,” Connor responded.

Bing Ads’ Purna Virji and DoubleClick’s Christina Connor

“Until we get to the point where we understand how people engage with voice search for the long term,” Connor added. “Then, we’ll be able to take steps in terms of commercializing it. Until the art of voice search has been figured out, we won’t be able to fully commercialize it.”

Wordstream’s Kim interjected that this challenge is not exclusive to pay-per-click advertising.

“If what you’re saying that a voice is going to read out a direct answer to a person’s query, then that obliterates both paid and organic search. What you’re saying is that I’m just going to get one answer, instead of 10,” Kim said.

AsVirji cautioned, it’s impossible to predict what format voice-centric advertising will take. Kim was dubious that the marketing models would quickly disappear.

“I would imagine that Google would not want to destroy a $70 billion revenue stream,” Kim said. “So I would think there could be a ‘voice ad’ before the ‘voice answer.’ Would they want to list out 10 organic answers? Probably not. ‘We want to annoy our users by speaking three answers.’ I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Connor then suggested that the current cross-channel/multi-channel approach would naturally incorporate voice-activation and Connected Intelligence.

“We’re so used to thinking in single channel formats,” Connor said. “We’re talking about voice-to-voice right now. However, there’s also a conversation happening about cross-channel, cross-screen, the Internet of Things. What if you ask your Google Home a question and the response comes up on one of your screens? There are infinite possibilities for commercialization. You might ask a question and your Google Maps app pops up. Who knows where we’re going to be in two- to five years?”

Consumers Want Many Answers, Not Just One

For Kim, there’s still more doubt about marketers having to make any drastic changes when it comes to voice-activation.

“This is the Kool-Aid that I hear: you have to optimize for a gajillion long-tail queries for voice SEO,” Kim said. “Well, no, all these algorithms can infer the intent. So you don’t have to create a billion more keywords for every query.”

In Connor’s view, which emphasizes the notion as voice-to-voice operating within a range of connected marketing channels, when it comes to someone seeking a quick answer, voice will make traditional interruptive forms of advertising difficult, if not impossible.

But marketers can continue to count on the fact that consumers aren’t always going to want a single answer. They’ll always want choices.

“When you’re in the discovery phase — ‘show me my options for the best Thai restaurants within a three-block radius’ – I don’t just want one answer,” Connor said. :I want to be able to see all of them. I want see all the various price options for a hotel in Miami. You want to be able to visualize it as well.”

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BIA/Kelsey: Mobile Search Is Cannibalizing Desktop

The dominance of mobile and social is having a demonstrative impact on search, particularly at the local level, BIA/Kelsey’s latest local media marketplace forecast finds.

Local search on desktop devices will grow at a 5.7 percent CAGR. As more search activity takes place on mobile devices, mobile is cannibalizing search dollars from desktop.

As the use of Connected Intelligence via voice-activated assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Okay Google, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana continue to make the move into the mainstream, local search is only going to undergo greater upheaval. The changes wrought by mobile versus desktop will be mirrored by the shift from screen to speaking.

That said, the full impact of voice is still just gathering.

At the present, BIA/Kelsey’s report finds trends of past years fully ingrained in marketers’ spending patterns, as online/digital is projected to grow at 13.5 percent, from $44.2 billion in 2016 to $50.2 billion in 2017.

In comparison, traditional print and broadcast will combine for a decrease of 2.4 percent, falling from $101.1 billion in 2016 to $98.6 billion in 2017.

Overall, total local ad dollars in the U.S. to reach $148.8 billion in 2017, up from $145.2 billion this year, representing a growth rate of 2.4 percent.

“A range of factors will drive local ad revenues higher in 2017 and through the end of the next year,” said Mark Fratrik, SVP and chief economist at BIA/Kelsey. “An improving U.S. economy, increased spending by national brands in local media channels, extraordinary growth in mobile and social advertising, and the continued expansion and selection of online/digital advertising platforms. In fact, we are predicting that online/digital local ad share will exceed the share of print media by 2018.”

Online/digital revenues are generated by online companies that sell locally targeted advertising that includes display, search and classified/vertical advertising. The advertisements are sold by local pure-play online companies, national online companies offering geo-targeted advertising, and local traditional media groups’ online/digital efforts.

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About 14 Percent Of iPhone Owners Plan To Buy Apple Homepod

While it may seem that Amazon Alexa and Okay Google are already firmly established in the voice-activated Connected Home landscape, Apple’s forthcoming entry into that space with Homepod may seem like an uphill battle, but a Raymond James analysis suggests that you can never underestimate the iPhone maker’s devoted customer base.

Raymond James survey of 500 consumers found that 14 percent of iPhone owners are interested in buying Apple’s smart speaker product, Homepod, which, debuted last month at WWDC forum.

To put that number in perspective, Raymond James considered the anticipation for the Apple Watch, which has has had a mixed consumer reception in the marketplace.

Three years ago, when the Apple Watch was first announced, iPhone owners’ purchase intention of that product was only 6 percent.

Homepod’s positioning starts with entertainment, but it doesn’t end there.

“If we combine with those that intend to own a Beats wireless speaker, [Homepod ownership intent] exceeds the ownership interest in both speech enabled speaker leader Amazon, and Bluetooth speaker leader, Bose,” Raymond James analysts Tavis McCourt and Mike Koban write. “Initial interest in HomePod seems better than the tepid media reaction would suggest.”

In terms of how the voice-activated assistant space is shaping up, Parks Associates has noted that adoption of digital voice-activated assistants more than doubled in Q1 as 76 percent of consumers having used spoken commands to their connected device. As such, the timing could hardly be better for Apple’s entry into the space currently commanded by Amazon and Google.

According to Forrester, 33 percent of U.S. online adults say they use intelligent agents like Google Now or Cortana, Forrester notes.

In its outlook for the connected intelligence market in 2017, eMarketer projects that 35.6 million Americans will use a voice-activated assistant device at least once a month for sudden rise of 128.9 percent over last year.

Elsewhere, the native digital assistant installed base is set to exceed 7.5 billion active devices by 2021, which is more than the world population, according to a report by British consultancy Ovum.

At the moment, eMarketer has Amazon’s Echo device with a vast lead amounting to a 70.6 percent share of users in that space. Google Home, which only launched last October, will have to catch up as it has just 23.8 percent of the market.

While the role of Amazon and Google in the Connected Intelligence is largely about dominating the paths to online/offline commerce, Apple appears to be taking a slightly different path.

With Homepod, which is powered by Apple’s pioneering connected intelligence voice-assistant Siri, the company is placing emphasizing the new device as an entertainment hub first, and a Connected Home utility second.

As such, as many consumers still are unsure of how best to use Alexa or Okay Google to initiate a transaction or find a local business, Homepod users may also come at those skills more naturally, having been trained to use voice-activation for fun first. That mirrors the initial use of the iPhone, which then saw its use cases expand over the past decade, changing the way all consumers and businesses interact.

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Can Samsung Digital Assistant Bixby Find Its Voice?

Samsung’s voice-activated mobile assistant, Bixby, is the newest kid on the Connected Intelligence agent block — so new, the Galaxy S8 feature isn’t yet available in the U.S. (or in an English language version, for that matter).

But, with the relatively established brands of the voice-activated assistant landscape like Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana, and Apple’s Siri already vying to the be artificial intelligence concierge through consumer’s smart home speaker systems, Samsung clearly feels it can’t afford to wait any longer.

In a sense, Samsung’s plan is far from a sudden game of catch-up. After all, the company has been at the forefront of making the “smart refrigerator” a mainstream appliance that updates the kitchen as the connected home’s hub.

Still, the company’s other efforts in voice-activated digital assistants have been plagued by delays. Samsung’s smart speaker project, dubbed “Vega,” has actually been in the works for a year, according to a WSJ piece, citing unidentified sources.

Samsung initially hoped to have Bixby’s English-language features ready last Spring, when the S8 was released. The current target for that mobile assistant enhancement is by the end of July, a Samsung rep tells the WSJ. (Note: at least one reader tells us that his Galaxy S8 with Bixby understands his English-word voice commands.)

The Outlook For Voice-Activation

As Samsung looks to its smart speaker for the home, it has clear challenges and advantages.

Parks Associates has noted that adoption of digital voice-activated assistants more than doubled in Q1 as 76 percent of consumers having used spoken commands to their connected device, the timing could hardly be better for Apple’s entry into the space currently commanded by Amazon and Google.

According to Forrester, 33 percent of U.S. online adults say they use intelligent agents like Google Now or Cortana, Forrester notes.

In its outlook for the connected intelligence market in 2017, eMarketer projects that 35.6 million Americans will use a voice-activated assistant device at least once a month for sudden rise of 128.9 percent over last year.

Elsewhere, the native digital assistant installed base is set to exceed 7.5 billion active devices by 2021, which is more than the world population, according to a report by British consultancy Ovum.

At the moment, eMarketer has Amazon’s Echo device with a vast lead amounting to a 70.6 percent share of users in that space. Google Home, which only launched last October, will have to catch up as it has just 23.8 percent of the market.

Meanwhile, Apple and Siri remain wild cards in the space, as its Homepod smart speakers won’t be shipped until December.

So with all that in mind, Samsung certainly has time to catch-up to the current entrants in the race for the connected home. But if its Bixby features wind up with more delays, Samsung, which has had to endure a year of separate controversies, could have a tougher time having its voice-activation being heard by the marketplace.

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Alexa Poised To Play A Bigger Role This Amazon Prime Day

The third annual Prime Day is set on Tuesday, July 11, with the e-commerce giant promising “hundreds of thousands of deals exclusively for Prime members” with 30 hours of deal shopping starting night before – and new deals as often as every five minutes.

And like last year, many of those deals will be aimed at Amazon Echo owners through the device’s voice-activated digital assistant, Alexa.

In a press release, Amazon singles out “voice shopping”  more “Alexa-exclusive deals” for members with an Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, Echo Show, Amazon Tap, compatible Fire TV or Fire tablet.

“Amazon is exclusively targeting its consumers who have an Alexa-enabled device, offering early-bird access to their Prime Day deals,” notes Dina Abdelrazik, Analyst, Parks Associates. “This will mark the second year that Amazon pushes ‘voice shopping’ with Alexa-exclusive deals.”

According to Parks Associates data, 17 percent of Amazon Echo owners use the device to shop for goods and services. We expect Amazon’s newest Echo Show iteration, which features a screen, to increase voice-supported shopping further.

One other change in the way Alexa homes will be able to shop includes the first buyers of the video/voice device, the Echo Show.

Pre-orders for the $299 Echo Show began last month with, promising consumers “everything you love about” its voice-activated assistant, Alexa, along with the ability to watch video flash briefings and YouTube, see music lyrics, security cameras, photos, weather forecasts, to-do and shopping lists, and more.

While the Echo Show has been a top-selling electronics device on Amazon (naturally) for the past month, the numbers of those shoppers will not have a perceptible impact in terms of actual sales numbers on Prime Day.

However, the use of the Echo Show, and Alexa generally, will certainly influence the shape how the mix of voice- and visual shopping grows.

As Google and Microsoft’s Bing expand the power of visual search as yet another way consumers can find and shop for products, the complementary aspects of voice and visual queries to generate specific responses, as opposed to a list of hypertext links, will force retailers of all stripes to further reconsider their omnichannel marketing strategies.

“With a screen, Echo Show users can visually see what items they place in a cart and make choices based on the displayed selection of goods,”Abdelrazik adds. “Amazon’s other Alexa devices lack that ability – a limitation that has hindered some consumers from voice shopping on devices like the Echo.”

 Prime Mystery

Just how big Prime Day really is remains a well-kept secret, notes Deborah Weinswig, managing director of Fung Global Retail & Technology, in a blog post.

Last year, estimates of the day’s sales ranged as high as $2.5 billion, Weinswig says, citing figures from Internet Retailer.

“Amazon reported that orders increased by 60 percent worldwide and by 50 percent in the US on Prime Day,” Weinswig writes. “Even in 2015, Amazon commented that its Prime Day sales exceeded its Black Friday sales in 2014.”

In a comparison of contrived shopping holidays, Prime Day is way below China e-commerce hegemon Alibaba’s Singles’ Day, which saw $17.8 billion worth of gross merchandise volume last year.

“The shopping holiday serves several purposes,” Weinswig says. “First, it offers exclusive deals for Prime members, rewarding them for their membership. Second, it drives Prime membership, as nonmembers are offered free trial memberships.

“Amazon figured out long ago that Prime memberships represent a virtuous circle for the company: signing up Prime members and providing them with exclusive benefits encourages them to renew their membership the next year and encourages others to sign up for the program who will then renew their own membership,” Weinswig says.

The relative success of Prime membership shopping programs could mean that a saturation point is fast approaching. There were 80 million Prime members in the US in March 2017, twice as many as two years earlier, according to Weinswig. That represent 64 percent of US households.

As rivals like Walmart expand its own responses to Amazon’s e-tail dominance, Amazon’s ability to reduce fees and offering more deals and still make the program worthwhile has to hit a wall at some point in the near future.

So as rival retailers at all levels gird themselves for Amazon Prime Day’s onslaught, the time is right to fine-time their own responses and personalized marketing tools.

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U.S. Consumers Use Voice-Activated Tech More Than The Rest Of The World

When it comes to the growth of voice-activation for everything from search to restaurant reservations, U.S. consumers have been more enthusiastic adopters compared to their counterparts in other countries.

About half of U.S. participants (49 percent) in a survey among WPP Group agencies (via eMarketer) said they use their voice assistants on a weekly basis, compared with 31 percent of global respondents.

The disconnect between U.S. users and the rest of the world appears to rest on the differing levels of satisfaction with the experience of voice-activation.

The survey, conducted by J. Walter Thompson and its research arm, The Innovation Group, along with Mindshare Futures, 18 percent of international participants said they had used voice-activation  just once or twice, versus with 10 percent in the U.S.

The varying amount of usage between the U.S. and the rest of the globe may have to do with the varying amounts of “intelligence” between the main voice-activated assistants themselves.

While Apple has made long-awaited improvements in Siri, the current battle for the connected home is between Amazon and Google, as Apple’s Homepod smart speakers won’t be shipped until December.

In looking at the range of intelligence between the two dominant voice-activated platforms, a 360i study found that Google Home is six times “more effective” than Alexa.

“We can already see a consumer appetite for voice assistants to be able to understand them more fully — 60 percent of smartphone users agree that ‘if voice assistants could understand me properly and speak back to me as well as a human can, I’d use them all the time,” the WPP agencies say in their voice-activation report.

“People want the assistant to know their every preference and deliver an experience that caters to their every whim. As one of our respondents put it, ‘I’d like voice technology to understand me on the level that humans understand each other.’ Around a third (32 percent) of smartphone users are excited about a future where ‘my voice assistant will anticipate what I need and take actions or make suggestions.’”

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Amazon Alexa And OpenTable Will Show You To Your Table Now

Just as the pre-orders of the Amazon Echo Show have arrived at consumers’ homes, OpenTable has added a new Alexa skill within that screen version of the voice-activated Connected Intelligence device so users can get a look at the restaurant reservations they make.

Pre-orders for the $299 Echo Show began last month with, promising consumers “everything you love about” its voice-activated assistant, Alexa, along with the ability to watch video flash briefings and YouTube, see music lyrics, security cameras, photos, weather forecasts, to-do and shopping lists, and more.

Tell And Show

The influence of voice-activation and connected intelligence is already threatening to up-end traditional advertising and even calls into question the value of a website, as Birchbox CEO Katia Beauchamp has opined.

The rapid rise of Connected Intelligence and the digital voice assistants that provide direct answers to users’ search queries and requests also calls into the question how people will use the apps.

Instead of pressing buttons on a virtual box on a smartphone, apps will be ever-present in the background of users’ lives, ready act when a service is called upon or even anticipating what a consumer wants before they even ask for it.

Connected Reservations

That’s the world Priceline-owned OpenTable, which seats more than 22 million diners per month via online bookings across more than 42,000 restaurants, is preparing for.

“We’re thrilled to provide diners with an updated Alexa skill for the Echo Show to help diners book reservations at thousands of restaurants across the U.S.,” said Catherine Porter, OpenTable’s SVP of Strategy and Business Development. “With OpenTable’s Alexa skill, booking a restaurant reservation is as easy as saying ‘Alexa, ask OpenTable to make me a reservation’ at your favorite restaurant and you’ll be set.”

Considering that OpenTable’s parent, Priceline, is interested in ensuring that consumers book their travel plans with then, it’s also likely that the Alexa skills generated today will help boost usage for both entities.

As an example of how OpenTable might be able to connect Priceline to its users, the reservation platform is currently running a campaign showing how its users will “fly for food.”

According to the survey, two-thirds (66 percent) of Americans would select a travel destination based solely on its culinary offerings, while more than half (52 percent) have already traveled to the country of origin of their favorite cuisine.

“Americans are redefining their travel bucket lists not by where they want to go, but by what they want to eat,” said Caroline Potter,OpenTable’s chief dining officer. “While traveling, they’re also not afraid to experiment with local cuisine, and make more adventurous dining decisions.”

With that in mind, don’t be surprised if, someday soon, Alexa is asked to book a table and flight to a culinary hotspot at the very same time.

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How Amazon’s $13.7 Billion Whole Foods Acquisition Will Alter The Grocery Space – And Each Other

After shaking up the retail space for the past two decades, Amazon’s $13.7 billion purchase of Whole Foods represents the e-commerce giant’s latest and biggest move to dominate the grocery space.

Over the year, Amazon has shifted significant resources designed to challenge major retailers like Walmart and Target on the grocery front.

This week, Amazon Dash, the three-year-old device for immediate delivery of consumer packaged goods, has revamped its Amazon Dash Wand barcode scanner with the voice-activated digital assistant Alexa built into the device, Techcrunch reported.

December saw the opening of the prototype brick-and-mortar grocery store, Amazon Go, in Seattle. The Amazon Go concept allows customers to avoid the checkout line by simply walking in and leaving — as long as they have an Amazon Prime account that tallies the purchases automatically.

Amazon’s Challenge

“With physical store purchases still accounting for nearly 90 percent of all retail transactions even after a decade of e-commerce growth, Amazon realizes that continuing large-scale growth over the next 10 years as a company will require capturing a big slice of the physical store purchasing market — so as long as Amazon can make do with higher margins and less overhead than traditional retail stores,” Aisle411 CEO Nathan Pettyjohn wrote in GeoMarketing at the time of Amazon Go’s launch.

The purchase of Whole Foods, shows how Amazon plans to capture the the grocery space, leaving traditional markets scrambling more than ever to attempt to match its services and prices.

“The biggest challenge for Amazon now is that they offer so much choice,” says David Berkowitz, Chief Strategy Officer at marketing tech firm Sysomos. “For instance, there’s regular shipping, Prime, Prime Now, Prime Pantry, and Amazon Fresh. The same box of Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies costs $21 via regular shipping and $15.59 via Prime Pantry; these kinds of price differences are common. As Amazon grows more complex, it will need to find ways to become more streamlined, straightforward, and simple.”

In a conversation with GeoMarketing, Berkowitz related a discussion about Amazon with his parents last weekend. He tried explaining the differences among Prime Pantry, Fresh, and regular Prime. By the time he was done, “I had confused myself and essentially convinced them to stick with going to Costco.” (As a bonus, at Costco, you get the $1.50 massive hot dogs, he notes.)

“That there are now so many ways to order these products — website, mobile site/app, Amazon Smile (web/mobile), Dash, various Alexa-powered devices — adds to the convenience for customers — but only makes it more confusing,” Berkowitz says.

“Amazon will need to proactively address this,” he says. “Instead of making me compare how many packs of cookies are in each box and how many ounces are in each cookie, just show me that this same product is available a few different ways and has a few different costs.”

The Impact On Rival Grocers

Even as this deal has Whole Foods continuing to operate its 431 locations under its 37-year-old brand name, the combination of Amazon’s technology will be felt by consumers and rival grocers quickly. (As the Washington Post reports, investors in Walmart, Costco, Kroger, and Target felt the impact immediately, as shares in those companies fell as much as 13 percent with an hour of the acquisition’s news.)

But even smaller grocers, who have been buffeted by on-demand delivery from the likes of Fresh Direct and Instacart, will need to need to rapidly sharpen their own online/offline strategies.

“The Amazon deal demonstrates the need for grocery retailers to move faster in their digital efforts,” says Jeremy Neren, CEO of GrocerKey, a Madison, WI-based provider of e-commerce and tech services for local grocers and chains. “There was already pressure to do so, given the rise in consumer demand and pressure being put on by Amazon, that pressure only increases with Amazon now having a nationwide brick-and-mortar presence to add to it’s arsenal of digital tools to reach consumers and bring them into their overall ecosystem.”

Rival chains and independents should be thinking about finding partners that not only help them implement cutting edge technology, but also help them think about how to operate in a new environment such as e-commerce, Neren adds.

Furthermore, Amazon’s dominance of the voice-activated, Connected Intelligence space with the Echo’s Alexa. As these devices go mainstream, Alexa will certainly provide a direct line to grocery purchases to Whole Foods, placing even more pressure on rival grocers to also find a way ensure Alexa connects them to customers as well.

“It requires an entirely different operational approach than they are accustomed to operating in to serve their customers in-store,” Neren says. “It’s also important to consider that strengthening your digital presence does not simply mean e-commerce, it means providing more touch points to reach consumers — e-commerce is a component of that, but you must also consider how to augment the in-store experience via digital touch points such as value added native mobile apps.”

Can Amazon Bring Efficiency – And Lower Prices – To Whole Foods?

Whole Foods Market first opened in 1980 in Austin. That was two years after its founders started a vegetarian grocery called SaferWay (a play on the general supermarket chain Safeway).

It wasn’t until the 1990s, when the idea of buying organic food caught on outside of bohemian enclaves and the company capitalized on the embrace upscale consumers were making towards buying products that were at least perceived as being eco-friendly and natural.

But after a spate of aggressive store openings and acquisitions, Whole Foods began to be a victim of two separate perceptions: one, that it was too high-priced for lower-income and mainstream grocery shoppers, and two, that it was failing to keep up technologically with its core upscale consumers’ desire for more on-demand and omnichannel shopping choices.

To address some of those issues, in 2015 the introduction of “365 By Whole Foods Market” represented an attempt to attract millennials with a combination of lower prices and app-based, in-store shopping services and loyalty discounts. But with only four outlets at this point, Whole Foods has clearly had trouble scaling that idea.

Bryan Eisenberg, co-founder of B2C marketing consultancy BuyerLegends and co-author of  Be Like Amazon: Even A Lemonade Stand Can Do It, expects the acquisition to solve Amazon’s and Whole Foods’ respective problems in the current grocery space.

“Amazon has been trying to scale its grocery business for years; it’s where so much of our retail spend is,”Eisenberg said. “Part of the problem for Amazon in that space is that to sell groceries, obviously, you need a local footprint.

“The challenge is that Whole Foods has struggled the last few years,” he added. They’re not a technology company. They’re not good at efficiency. But from a brand perspective, they’re still strong, though people do feel they’re overpriced. Amazon will be able to give those stores the technology boost that they desperately need, Eisenberg said. We have 365 By Whole Foods store near us in Austin. But they haven’t pushed that concept far enough.”

The Endless Amazon Loop

The release of the Dash Wand with Alexa, along with announcement that the Prime members who add funds from a bank account to an online gift card will get 2 percent cash back on any Amazon purchase in the form of rewards/points, which can then be used to purchase of more products sold through Amazon.

That ability to entice shoppers to stay within the Amazon shopping system, which includes streaming video and music, is based on the bottom line idea of efficiency, immediate sales fulfillment, and lower prices than any other shop.

“The merger of the two brands will be great in consumers’ mindsets,” Eisenberg said. “Whole Foods does command some brand loyalty – though many people gripe about it being Whole Paycheck – by bringing Amazon to that, the prices have gotten more competitive, but they haven’t been able to shake the idea that they’re an over-priced supermarket. Amazon was able to keep that great ‘people culture’ at Zappos. I think they’ll do the same with Whole Foods, improving the perception of both the culture and the price points.”

From books to electronics to CPG to groceries, the Amazon brand has always been  to allow a user to log-in to its site and apps and get personalized recommendations based on previous purchases. Suggestions are based on what the user searches, and what similarly profiled consumers bought when searching for those products.

“The number one thing you’ll see implemented ASAP: checking out at the register with Amazon Pay,” Eisenberg says. “That’s important because the problem with Whole Foods is that they don’t know if someone walking in is the most valuable customer or the least valuable customer. That’s the same problem Walmart’s had.

“Now, they’ll let people log into their Amazon accounts and they’ll be enabling the ‘endless shelf’ pretty quickly,” Eisenberg says. “Being able to check out and get the data on their customers will have an enormous impact on both companies.”

To realize the potential advantages of owning Whole Foods, Amazon needs to make buying groceries as easy as buying books,” says Berkowitz.

“I get that there are options with Hardcover, Paperback, Kindle, and Audible, so Amazon shows me pricing options, and delivery options too,” Berkowitz says. “Digital options arrive immediately, while physical options have their own delivery times and costs. Amazon now has to do for Famous Amos cookies what it does for John Grisham novels.”

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