How Marriott Plans To Use Amazon Alexa To Improve The In-Room Experience For Guests

Marriott is set to test out Amazon Alexa in a number of its hotel properties, Toni Stoeckl, global brand leader for lifestyle brands at Marriott, revealed in a panel at Advertising Week. The move is a bid to provide increased personalization and improved in room service for guests.

As voice-activated connected device usage has jumped 130 percent over the past year, brands have begun to explore how the technology can be used to drive engagement and improve customer service — and the hospitality industry is in many ways leading the charge.

Why? As Stoeckl put it, “as a hotel brand, we’re in the experience business. This means [taking advantage of technology that can] connect our consumers to the local experience in the hotel or the neighborhood — as well as removing some of the friction of transaction in hotels.”

The idea is that, as consumers have become increasingly comfortable with the technology, it’s now easier for a guest to ask, “Alexa, what’s a good restaurant nearby?” than to flip through a lengthy guidebook — or call down to the concierge.

Plus, as we wrote earlier this year, Marriott has been particularly aggressive in experimenting with technologies that meet guests’ needs for personalization, including the use of beacons and tablets in rooms to better connect and build loyalty with travelers who stay with them.

“Having Alexa in the room lets you personalize the room experience,” Stoeckl said. “That could be with music, or with other means. It’s also about just having the ability to ask Alexa for more towels rather than having to call down to the front desk.”

But in doing so, the hotel chain is continuing to work with Amazon on ensuring privacy in the hotel environment, since the in-room devices will, of course, serve different guests each visit.

“Of course, your voice is scrambled and there’s no way to connect it back to [the guest] on the backend,” Stoeckl said. The idea is that if a guest in room 304 asks for towels or room service, hotel staff will be notified and it will be sent upstairs — but none of this information is stored to be identifiable. “Working with Amazon [on privacy] is always a top priority.”

Beyond that, it’s still early days for exploring all of the ways that voice-controlled assistants can improve customer service. But one classic technology maxim still holds true, Stoeckl said: “Don’t do anything for the sake of technology. Do it to give your consumers what they want where they’re already interacting and engaging.”

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40 Percent Of Millennials Use Voice-Activated Assistants For Purchase Research

Approximately 40 percent of Millennials turn to voice-activated intelligent assistants like Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri and Google Assistant before making a purchase, according to Salesforce‘s 2017 Connected Shopper report — and a similar percentage say they turn to messaging apps and video chat for their customer service needs.

These findings reinforce what marketers should largely already know: There is no longer a linear consumer path to purchase — and in 2017, more devices are involved in the ultimate decision to buy something online (or in stores) than ever before.

And the research stage of buyer journeys isn’t the only one undergoing a digital revolution: “When buying products online, the No. 2 channel shoppers turn to, second only to traditional websites, is now a retailer’s mobile app. Social
media has also entered the top five channels for online purchasing,” the report states. What’s more, “millennials are more than three times as likely than their baby boomer elders to leverage video chat when making online purchases, and at least twice as likely to use social media, messaging apps, and SMS/text, among other emerging channels [like voice.]”

Marketers Prepare For Messenger, Voice

So, what does this mean for marketers? First, that prioritizing one-to-one communication via the interfaces customers are shifting to — here, namely messenger and voice-based means — is of critical importance.

As we’ve written before, this means that businesses should look to begin readying their underlying data layer for consumption by voice-activated assistants — making sure that they’re up to date on all SEO best practices, ensuring correct and current listings, and utilizing effective visuals — so that they’re discoverable whether searches are made by text, voice, or image.

“Bots, voice assistants, smart homes and other AI-informed communications are top of mind for nearly every retailer today,” said Amit Sharma, CEO of Narvar. “The technology innovation complicates what we already know — that customer communications are never one-size-fit-all.”

Secondly, there is a lot of potential for marketers to build relationships via text-based communication in messaging apps, particularly by using chatbots to answer the most popular consumer queries quickly and seamlessly — so long as they remain transparent about what the bot can do (and not do) as well as making the conversation as straightforward and relevant as possible.

In fact, “85 percent of consumer mobile time is spent in the top five apps,” said Stefanos Loukakos, Head of Messenger at Facebook, during an Advertising Week panel. “That’s why using Facebook messenger [or] Whatsapp can be a great way to [interact] and build business. But every experience has to be valuable — not only for the business, but for the user.”

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Consumers Are Ready To Tell Their Voice-Controlled Devices What They Want For The Holidays

Nearly half (44 percent) of consumers are reportedly ‘somewhat’ or ‘very likely’ to make a product purchase through a voice-controlled device in the next year — and the crunch of the holiday shopping season could mark a decisive turning point in this type of voice commerce, according to research from Walker Sands’ Future Of Retail 2017 Holiday Report.

Shoppers aren’t going to purchase every gift on their list via voice. But as the volume of voice-based searches overall continues to skyrocket, it makes sense that consumer familiarity with the technology — not to mention the relative cognitive ease of voice over tap or swipe — will lead to an increase in consumers looking to avoid store lines by simply saying, “Alexa, order X.”

Voice Assistants Become ‘Essential’

Walker Sands’ research bears out much of what NPR found in its recent examination of the role of voice-activation and consumers’ media usage: Consumers increasingly rely on voice assistants to power the way they discover, interact with — and yes, make purchases from — the world around them.

As we reported last month, 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.

“This is another [means] of search functionality, only this time done through voice,” Pandora’s Keri Degroote told GeoMarketing at the time. “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. [And] 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.”

In other words, the number of customers willing to make a purchase directly through a voice assistant without ever visiting a website is climbing — but one of the most important shifts for marketers is the even greater number of shoppers who will use the devices as what Degroote called a “referral source.”

As we’ve written previously, this means marketers need to think about the many new paths customers are taking to find a product or gift to purchase in the first place; more and more often, this is happening through a voice search or a voice command.

“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 concluded. That includes preparing their underlying data layer for consumption by these intelligent assistants, as well as thinking about the growing role of speech-based ads as part of the “audio renaissance” — this holiday season and beyond.

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Why Audio Is Having A Renaissance

With voice-activated connected device usage having jumped 130 percent over the last year and over 50 percent of Millennials using voice commands at least once a month, voice and audio are having a moment — and marketers should take note.

In a panel at last week’s Innovation Congress execs from Mobiquity, WNYC, and more explained why audio is having such a renaissance.

“By its nature, audio is very engaging,” said Peter Weingard, CMO for WNYC radio. “It leaves a lot of information off of the palette that is otherwise given to you in, say, video. You have to fill in the blanks in your mind to imagine, ‘What is the scene here?’ for example. And the fact that your brain has to engage with that content — [and potentially] speak back to it — makes you much more engaged with it overall. So it’s a very powerful combination.”

As J. Walter Thompson’s Elizabeth Cherian stated at last month’s Cannes Lions event, speaking and listening is the oldest means of conversation; the human mind is inherently designed for this type of interaction — far more than the artificial motion of swiping at a smartphone. So, what can marketers do to engage with this natural behavior through consumers’ connected devices?

Going Hands-Free

The “Alexa, play my music” use case is fairly well established and understood when it comes to voice-activated devices. But panelists encouraged marketers to think farther outside the box when it comes to thinking about Alexa and Google Home skills: It’s crucial to ask the questions, “when might a consumer have their hands busy? When might voice or audio make the most sense to communicate with them?”

For example, Mobiquity launched an Alexa cooking skill for Nestle’s GoodNes brand as part of creating an engaging audio-first experience. Why? Well, it’s a bit difficult to swipe through on a smartphone while up to your elbows in flour.

“If you’re in the kitchen, your hands are busy, and maybe you’re pressed for time,” said Joel Evans, co-founder and VP at Mobiquity. “This made is so users [could actually] interact with it via voice. It takes you through all the different steps; You can ask, ‘Okay. What are my ingredients? What’s next?’

“We ended up creating a visual that aired with it [as well.] So you’ve got two different tracks. When [a user] enables the skill, they put their name and their email address in, and we could send a link — which, when opened on any web browser, becomes a companion digital experience. And the audio track itself actually changes because now it knows that you’ve got a visual guide going along with it. That’s something that’s been very successful for us.”

In other words, audio can be a key to engaging customers as they go about their daily lives in their homes. And what’s more, it can be an even stronger experience when paired with corresponding visuals. As Evans  put it, “we can think audio first — not audio only.”

And marketers, take note: By 2020, 50 percent of search in general will come from images and voice.

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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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How VR And Mobility Are Influencing Ford’s Marketing

When the Ford Motor Company made the leap into Virtual Reality in August 2016, its goals were firm and clear: this was not an experiment. It would not be a one-time ad campaign designed to “generate buzz” and then disappear. And Ford’s VR experience would not be housed on another company’s platform.

Ford, along with its dedicated agency, GTB, partnered with integrated production company Tool of North America, to create what they say is the “auto industry’s first dedicated branded VR app and recurring content series.”

“It wasn’t about selling vehicles,” said Lisa Schoder, Integrated Marketing & Media Lead at Ford, during a panel session with the company’s VR allies at the IAB Mobile Symposium. “This was more about building the brand. This was about telling Ford’s story of innovation in our products and engineering development.”

GTB’s Christian Colasuonno, Ford’s Lisa Schoder, and Tool’s Dustin Callif at the IAB Mobile Symposium

VR: It’s Where The Customers Are Going

The deep dive into VR reflects Ford’s recognition of where potential customers are consuming content. Plus, it reflects the desire to move to a mobile-first strategy,” Schoder said.

“The VR app made sense for us as a way to pursue original storytelling through  in a thoughtful way,” she said. “We avoided thinking of this as a ‘one and done.’ This was about building a new channel for us to distribute content on.”

The first piece of featured VR content during the launch was the story behind the Ford GT’s return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, 50 years after the car’s original victory. The underlying message of the content was to showcase “the power and efficiency in Ford’s EcoBoost engine” as well.

“On top of sharing virtual reality stories about our innovative products, we are also looking to bring mobility issues to the forefront,” Schoder said at the time of the launch. “As we expand our business to be both an auto and a mobility company, we are pursuing emerging opportunities through Ford Smart Mobility.”

From the final installment of the Gymkhana NINE virtual reality and 360-degree video series.

Initial Results Are Strong

The idea for focusing on VR as a branding tool had been “kicking around  the agency for a while,” said Christian Colasuonno, director of Digital Production at GTB.

For example, at another IAB conference last year,  MINI USA’s Lee Nadler showcased that car company’s use of VR as well. The  main goal was not just to share arresting visuals. He wanted to demonstrate that, even though “VR isn’t mass yet,” the ability of immersive, 3D visuals are able to lift brand favorability by 11 percent after generating 4.2 million views.

For Ford, the initial results of its VR efforts were even stronger. The VR experience for Ford’s participation in Gymkhana, the Australian and New Zealand motorsport race, last October drew over 17 million-plus views, as well as drew widespread coverage from media outlets both general and automotive-focused.

During the IAB presentation, Dustin Callif, Tool’s managing partner, noted that Schoder started her career on the engineering side and then moved to marketing.

“The story we’re telling is how that reputation for performance can be stepped up into something larger for the brand,”Callif said before turning to Schoder. “Is [this use of VR and mobile] analogous to the relationship between the auto-enthusiast books and the mainstream advertising were back 20 years ago? Is this an advanced version of that?”

“Maybe,” Schoder responded. “At least in the way we approached it, if we were saying we wanted to deliver stories with the Ford brand onstage, those key moments are in our performance portfolio. And we also knew that when we dug into the audience insights with our performance fanbase, we knew they were largely into tech and identify as early adopters. Now, we’re looking to go beyond performance to see what other stories we can tell to a broader audience.”

Smart Mobility And Connected Cars

Following the panel, we caught up with Schoder and asked her about other emerging channels that can offer both a branding experience as well as drive performance to local dealers.

While the IAB panel discussion was about the role of Ford’s VR app as a branding and content distribution tool, does Schoder see VR as something that can work at the local dealership level to create an omnichannel experience intended to drive sales?

It certainly could be,” Schoder told GeoMarketing. “This particular app was initiated to build brand stories. We’re also looking at VR within the shopping experience. It could provide education about new features, for example, ‘How do you experience the all-new Expedition from the inside-out?’ That is certainly a part of how we might approach the overall use of the VR technology.”

Aside from VR, Ford is also exploring ways of using voice-activated, artificial intelligence-powered digital assistants like Alexa or Siri or Okay Google as part of a wider smart mobility strategy, she noted.

“We want to understand how to work with Amazon on Alexa, so that if someone asks a question about one of our cars, they can have the right answer, the best answer for them,” Schoder said. “We are already working with Amazon on our connected vehicles and see how Alexa fits into what we’re doing and what our customers want. For example, it would be exciting for someone to say, ‘Hey Alexa, start my car.’ The car is a piece of the Internet of Things ecosystem and we want to explore all of it.”

 

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Google And Amazon On The Connected Home: Services Have Staying Power

Voice-activated connected device usage is skyrocketing — but 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.

In a panel discussion at last month’s CONNECTIONS conference in San Francisco, Ben Brown, Google Home & Wifi product lead and Dan Quigley, STO, senior manager for Alexa Smart Home, talked about the future of IA, visual interfaces, and why customer utility — and privacy — is issue number one. Below, excerpts from their conversation.

We’re reaching the tipping point with [intelligent assistants] and the connected home: All of these platforms in the home today. Are we going to see voice activated devices talking to each other in the future? How will this space evolve?

Ben Brown: Yes, I think it’s possible. I do think there’s definitely a desire for it, especially as we are interacting with more and more different voices in our lives.

But 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. 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.

We’ve seen this in mobile phones and with mobile operating systems before: People may want to interact with multiple different devices [from different providers] in their lives, but you tend to build an affinity towards certain things over time. That will probably happen here, with [consumers choosing] Google Home, or Amazon Echo, or Microsoft, et cetera. And then purchasing [other items or smart devices] that connect to them.

Anyway, that’s why we’re all really interested in this right now. We’re all working our tails off to try to make great experiences, because it’s a pretty sticky relationship. I think we’re going to start to see that. Services have staying power.

Dan Quigley: Again, like I said, we’re at day one here in this field of experiences. By focusing on the customer and understanding what they want and listening to them, that’s how we’re going to advance the system. Think about what mobile phones were like when we first got them, and what a transformation that has been: Ten years from now, it’s going to be a very different world. A very different experience, but it is going to be driven by these [connected devices.]

I would love to have Google, Cortana, and Alexa duke it out. Let’s have a wheel-of-fortune style game-type thing. [Laughs.] I think it ultimately is going to come down to the consumer choice. At the end of the day, they’re the ones that are going to make the decision. A lot of it is going to be based on the trust that gets earned by our companies to support them and pay attention to issues that concern them on privacy.

Dan, the Echo Show just launched. Why was it developed, and where do you see the future going in that respect?

Dan: Voice is just one modality. It has crossed the threshold of being a viable modality now — in that it’s viable in day to day interactions — but there are still certain situations where [visual interfaces] are more appropriate. For example, when I go to bed at night, the last thing my wife would like to hear me loudly say, “Alexa turn off the bathroom light.”

What is part of seeing the future in the “crystal ball” here, though, is that you need look at the technologies that are behind the development of the “do what I need, not what I say” attitude.  Adding a screen to Echo or putting a camera in your closet to judge how you look — it [seemed] intuitive, natural. Again, I think it’s a consumer choice.

Ben, what’s your take from the Google perspective?

Ben: I would just say, I think we’re all approaching this in a way of just trying to have authenticity and interaction. I think that in the home specifically, it’s such a private space that everyone is trying to be super thoughtful about kind of the interactions that we bring forward.

When we start to bring in other modalities, it’s got to add a lot of value. I actually really like the way [personal assistants] are positioned because it’s actually very focused on saying, “I’m going to help you with that.” I think that’s a really intelligent way of saying, “no, this is not about being the all-seeing, all-watching eye in the room. This is very much about being able to help you in a specific use case.” And visual interfaces, visual [search] — it’s very much part of that future.

I think that’s the way we just have to approach it, which is as we do things, we just do them super thoughtfully. It adds a lot of value. I agree with you, I think it’s important that we all do that very effectively. And take privacy and security really seriously — because if any one of us messes that up, then it messes it up for everyone.

 

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