1-800-Flowers CEO Chris McCann At NRF: Voice Is The UI Of The Future

There is a “fifth way of change” in technology that is transforming retail discovery and shopping, Chris McCann, president and CEO of 1-800-Flowers, told the audience at the NRF Big Show this week.

The change he referred to is the role of Connected Intelligence and voice activation and digital assistants like Alexa, Siri, and Okay Google in spurring what he calls “conversational marketing,” And for 1-800-Flowers, it represents coming full circle.

In terms of outlining the path to voice search and conversational marketing, McCann pointed to three periods that have spanned 1-800-Flowers’ retail existence since it opened its first outlet in 1976: first there was the retail store, followed by the use of telephone delivery to bypass walking into a brick-and-mortar location.

The third wave was the web, and McCann touted 1-800-Flowers as opening one of the first e-commerce features on AOL in the 1990s.

The fourth wave of retail change is represented by the impact of mobile and social media and 1-800-Flowers reacted to that by being one of the first brands to launch artificial intelligence-powered bots on Facebook Messenger that allowed customers to transact through that heavily mobile social channel.

“As we all know, the customer is always in charge,” McCann said from the podium. “And it’s the customers who are leading us into these new technologies. It’s not us looking at the technology and saying, ‘We need to get involved in it.’”

1-800-Flowers’ AI-powered concierge.

Retail Tech’s Tipping Point

1-800-Flowers could also lay claim to be one of the first store brands to launch a voice-based application on Amazon’s Alexa platform. The idea was to get involved early and learn right along with its customers, McCann said, noting that company was fortunate that Amazon chose to feature 1-800-Flowers in one of its commercials promoting the Echo and Alexa.

“I think we’re at a tipping point, as technology companies like IBM, Google, Apple, and others that are developing these capabilities at ground breaking speeds,” McCann said. “And so it’s wise, based on the culture of our company. Why, back in 2016, we saw this world emerging and though it’s time to get involved as early as we possibly can.

“When we launched our bot, we were one of the first companies who were launching fully transactional bots in Facebook Messenger platform,” he said. “And why did we do that? Because they have over a billion active Messenger users. That’s where the consumer is choosing to spend time. They’re not necessarily coming to our website. They want to transact with us in Messenger. And we were fortunate that Mark Zuckerberg featured us in his F8 Conference that year, when they really announced Facebook’s personalized time bots.”

Two weeks after that, 1-800-Flowers debuted its own AI-powered concierge built on IBM’s Watson capabilities called “GWYN” (“Great acronym,” McCann said, saying it stands for “Gifts When You Need.”) Alexa is there to help with the top of the customer experience, such as helping to choosing the right product, for the right customer, for the right occasion, for the right time.”

Speeding Tickets Are Better Than Parking Tickets

In explaining 1-800-Flowers’ approach and philosophy about new technologies, McCann emphasized that mistakes do happen, but that it’s better to fail fast rather than move cautiously, since other brands will surpass you.

“We’re feeling the pressure to go even faster and faster, because I think mass adoption of these conversational commerce technologies is happening at a speed much faster than anything else we saw,” he said. “We think that mass adoption of these capabilities is happening in a span of about 18 months, so to stay in sync with our consumers we urge the people in our company, all of our team members, to get speeding tickets, not parking tickets.”

And so, with voice activation, 1-800-Flowers is back to where it started with taking telephone orders. “It all comes back to voice.”

“Our company a couple of years from now will look radically different than it does today, on how we interact and how we engage with our customers,” McCann said. “We’re leveraging AI technologies to deliver more personalized customer experience.

“We’re continuing to move the needle forward there. Voice is the UI of the future. You see studies now that show that Google’s voice recognition is at 95 percent or better on a better recognition rate. And with those technologies behind our marketing, we believe we’re in the midst of another transformation of our company.”

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How Mall of America Is Using Chatbots And Robots To Connect With Holiday Shoppers

Mall of America has expanded its use of location-based chatbots by adding Softbank’s robot, Pepper, to engage with consumers and provide faster customer service to busy shoppers this holiday season.

The chatbot will live on MoA’s website, its mobile app, and Facebook page, and as an Amazon Alexa skill.  While MoA made use of chatbots last holiday season, that program only connected to its Facebook Messenger presence.

By making this expansion, which includes using chatbots, which were developed by tech partner Satisfi Labs, to power the “humanoid” robot Pepper, MoA is recognizing the mainstreaming of Connected Intelligence and artificial intelligence as a foundation for one-to-one marketing and omnichannel strategies.

A Retail First For Chatbots

MoA claims that the chatbot is the first of its kind for shopping malls. It is Satisfi Lab’s first fully-integrated retail location bot that uses multiple data feeds, over different customer touch-points, to answer customer’s questions in natural language, within seconds in real time.

For example, the bot can answer complex questions around gifting, food recommendations, and attractions and holiday events happening in America’s largest mall, based on a user’s specific location, says Sarah Townes, MoA’s VP of Marketing.

“This expands how we used chatbots last year. We developed more of a seasonal chatbot that provided holiday gift recommendations, holiday itineraries, depending on the type of visit that you were planning to make here, or whether you were a local Mall of America patron, or even someone coming from an international market,” Townes tells GeoMarketing.

“This chatbot is loaded with much more evergreen content that is timely. It actually is connected to a number of APIs that we’ve recently created around events, tenants, and deals,” Townes adds. “It can answer more real time questions, or specific questions relevant to a day or week events or things that are happening at the mall. Last year’s chatbot was very specific to Facebook Messenger. This one is going to be rolling out across our digital ecosystem very soon. It will be available on our website, our app, and then through Pepper as well.”

Black Friday at the Mall of America.

Adding More Pepper

Softbank’s Pepper has been a popular marketing tool for brands seeking to showcase their own AI expansion over the past two years. As we reported in May 2016, Pizza Hut Asia became be the first commerce partner to test Pepper, which is aimed at bringing greater intelligence to machines in order to create a more seamless and intuitive user experience in stores.

“For the most part, Pepper will be answering general questions about the mall, holiday hours, how to get to a specific location, maybe what events are happening at Mall of America during the holiday season,” Townes says. “In addition, she’s able to answer some specific questions about her, how tall she is, where is she manufactured, does she have human feelings, so she has some fun intelligence that is built into her as well.”

The MoA has also added some content on Pepper. There’s a “tell me a story” feature, which identifies specific holiday gifts from across MoA’s 520 retail tenants by category and is aligned with the mall’s online gift guide.

There will be three “Peppers” strategically places around the 5.6 million square foot mall, Townes says.

“The Peppers are placed depending on what events we have happening on a daily basis,” Townes says. “In general, she has spent most of her time around Santa, around some of our mall entrances, around a central parkway or thoroughfare in the mall where she can interact with as many guests as possible.

“For the most part, we do try to deploy the Peppers around the same area all 3 at once, versus having them all over the mall, simply because when she’s out and about, people cannot get enough of her,” Townes continues. “We want to make sure that people aren’t having to wait in line and they can have a nice interaction with her. By having three not lined up one after another, but in the same general vicinity, helps sort of mitigate any of the crowding, or challenges in the experience.”

Softbank’s Pepper

Finding MoA’s Voice Strategy

Pepper and the chatbot program will be at the MoA through its Super Bowl LII promotions. As Townes notes, even after the holiday season promotion, the effort will influence its broader focus on developing its voice-activation strategy via Amazon’s Alexa and other virtual assistants.

As a representative from Softbank notes, it’s all about meeting consumers’ demand for greater personalization.

“Shoppers will now have MoA on any platform they interact with the most, no matter where they are,” Softbank’s rep says. “At home, they can ask Alexa about their upcoming visit, or talk to the bot on the website and Facebook Messenger. If they are already at the mall, shoppers can easily download the enhanced MoA app that can direct customers to the thousands of destinations at the mall based on their current location.

“Every platform delivers the same quality bot experience and knowledge,” the rep adds. “The primary purpose of the bot is to simplify the process of looking through the myriad of options at the mall for the user. To avoid overwhelming the user, the bot provides a personalized shopping experience, but it can still connect shoppers with human concierges thereby augmenting the entire customer service department. This bot program together with the presence of Pepper at the mall definitely positions MoA as an innovation hub of new ideas in retail.”

Rounding out MoA’s voice and chatbot focus its new wayfinding tools within its app, which were launched in October.

“We have a new wayfinding feature in our app that offers guests a turn-by-turn experience,” Townes says. “We have provided even more parking and transportation solutions. We’ve recently started testing a parking by reservation service called My Park, which is an app enabled parking by reservation organization. Once you’re here, you’re able to download the app or use your app to help guide your experience. The goal of all of these new tools is designed simply to make it easier and more pleasurable to come to the Mall of America.”

Meanwhile, Softbank believes that MoA’s use of chatbots and Connected Intelligence will spur other retailers and malls to tap into those technologies as well.

“MoA’s push for a more customer-facing AI definitely paves the way for other malls to use these tools in their guest service and marketing strategies. By creating a useful, fun and easy to use bot program, MoA and Satisfi Labs have allowed other malls to see that quality service can scale no matter how large your property or customer base is,” Softbank’s rep tells GeoMarketing. “Additionally, having more users interact with new technology such as the bot and Pepper allow for more improvements of the tech and greater adoption across industry.”

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Voice Search Changes Everything: For Marketers, ‘Context Is Queen’ In Today’s Voice-First World

Use of voice-enabled speakers is projected to grow by 130 percent in the next year — and an estimate 50 percent of all searches will be completed via either speech or image search by 2020.

In other words, voice as a primary search interface is here. But according to Yext VP of Industry Insights Duane Forrester, too many marketers are still at square one when it comes to thinking about a voice-first strategy.

For that reason, Forrester just released an e-book titled How Voice Search Changes Everything [registration required] aimed at helping businesses understand how this technology is changing the consumer experience — and the critical steps they can take to communicate with customers and become discoverable in a voice-first world.

GeoMarketing: We’ve seen a substantial rise in the volume of voice searches over the past year — and even the past few months. Why is this trend so important for marketers? And what was the impetuous behind writing this book now? 

Well, as a self-described early adopter of technology like this, I’ve seen this “moment” a number of times: the point where we’ve found ourselves at the tipping point of general mainstream adoption of a product. Smartphones are an ideal example of that — everybody can remember and understand that adoption curve.

With our smartphones today, we now have the ability to stream music, stream video, interact in a live environment, edit documents, everything. Yet throughout all of that evolution from the [comparatively simple] smartphone of over a decade ago, the interface has remained pretty much the same. It’s always been about touching, tapping, or typing on a screen.

Of course, humans being humans, we would prefer something that is easier for us. Enter voice search. It’s been the Holy Grail for a long time; it actually started [quite a while ago] with military applications, and then it evolved over time — similar to how GPS began as a military technology and now it’s standard for everyone.

Anyway, that’s where we find ourselves today with this technology: With the major companies — Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Amazon — investing at unprecedented levels in the voice search arena, it has progressed to the point where functional voice search is a reality. And what’s more, most people become adopters of the technology once they’ve tried it. As soon as they try it, they see how useful it is and how easy it is.

That is what brought me to thinking about this e-book. I interact with dozens of companies in any given week, but in having these conversations [with them] around voice search, in most instances, the conversations are not, “Here’s what we are doing to activate that voice search.” The conversation is more, “uh, yeah, that’s something we should really look into.”

A lot of businesses are still at the very [early stages] of trying to understand what is voice activation and search, how does it work, and how do I play in that field. There just became a natural conversation upon which to build this piece of content and put it out there.

Michelle Robbins at Search Engine Land wrote about your stance on the shift from a “content is king” to “context is queen” world. What do search marketers need to know about the importance of context in today’s marketing landscape?

For about the last four to five years, there has been a really big push in the SEO world around content. Prior to that, you did have a subset of SEOs who were always stressing this — but then, eventually, the search engines actually came out with a statement, “Content matters because that what people are looking for.”

But working in this industry for a long time, I was fortunate enough to be able to understand that content is a sign post on the road. The road is still going somewhere; we’re not there yet. What I mean is, if [a brand basically says], “Hey, I’m going to stand next to this sign. It says, ‘content.’ I feel like I’ve reached the destination,” and they don’t explore where the road continues to go ahead of them, they’re missing an opportunity. That other opportunity is context.

We’ve seen that shift starting to happen, but the adoption of mobile and the advent of voice search have really forced context into the spotlight. It’s so incredibly important. If I’m sitting at home, and I ask my device for information about a restaurant in downtown LA, I’m doing research. That’s very clearly what I’m doing; I’m 50 miles away from the location. I’m not likely to walk in there. There’s nothing immediate about my voice query related to that restaurant. That’s the context of me in my home.

This notion of context, then, flips over completely when my device can tell that I am in my automobile, and I’m driving in the direction of the location, and I ask about it. Now, it understands, “Oh, do you want directions to that location from where you are? This is the best route. I can make reservations for you.” All of these things now have a different context, compared to when I’m sitting in my living room.

We can see, in the very near future, a deepening of this context idea, where the systems will be able to understand things about me — like if I go to Starbucks in the morning five days a week. Then, on Saturday morning, I’m out running errands, and the system will see that I’m running errands because it’s all in my calendar. During all of that, it can actually bring forward the notion that, “Hey, you know what? You haven’t been to Starbucks today. Maybe you want to go to Starbucks.” It can ask me if I want to open the app, pre-order something, and so on.

This is the next kind of generation of contextual alignment. And this is really hard, because it’s not as simple as keyword research in the world of voice search. We’re talking about incredibly long-tail queries. Almost all of them are unique instances; how I would ask for something versus how you would ask for something may be substantially different — even if we are technically asking for the same concrete thing. That is not an easy thing for computers to crack, but that’s the point that we’re at today.

How can brands start thinking about positioning themselves such that an intelligent assistant or voice assistant might recommend them as the best option to users making voice queries?

For example, is it about framing their content such that it’s written in a way that actually answers users’ questions? Is it just making sure that all their business information is really consistent? What are the tips that we can extract here?

Yes and yes — it’s all of that and so much more.

Here’s the reality: You have to think about the customer’s journey. That is the foundation for all of this, right? This is a relatively straightforward thing to do: I mean, all of us are consumers ourselves. So take a look at your own actions during a customer journey. Whether you’re going to get groceries, or you’re going to buy a new Xbox, take a look at the discreet steps you go through as an individual.

To purchase an object, for example, there may be four or five distinct steps that you take. So now you know as a search marketer that there are at least four or five stages this person has to go through. So, then, how do you position your business? How do you create content that actually intercepts those people at each one of those points in that conversation — because you don’t know exactly when you’re going to show up in a search, but you do know that at some point, the person is going to ask for the help or directions, right?

Voice search is very much about “ask a question, get an answer.” It’s not just about, “Let’s go do some keyword research and focus on keywords now.” This has expanded into the concept of topics: If I am purchasing a new Xbox, what else might I be purchasing? I might be purchasing HDMI cable. I might be purchasing an extra controller. I may want games. I’m probably going to want a subscription online. So there are at least four other discreet elements there that are directly related to the purchase someone is making that, as a marketer, I need to be talking about [in my content.]

It’s very important to understand that there are discreet questions, and you need to have answers for them. There does come a point, though, where it gets to be too much. But that’s up to the marketer to determine. Right now, we don’t have reliable tools and systems out there that give us all of this conversational data broken out — that is still difficult to come by.

But you have to adopt that long-tail, conversational phrase approach to targeting what to produce content around. You do need to build the detailed answers. You have to think about this in terms of the common and uncommon questions that are related to your product and services. Let’s use an example: If a person buys a “red widget,” inevitably, they’re going to need a widget polishing cloth, and you sell a widget polishing cloth. Well, that means you have to talk about red widgets. That’s an easy win for you.

Along with that, two other points: Make sure you clean up your own house. That means making sure your website is completely crawlable, it’s fully indexable, that everything is there and logically laid out. Manage your internal link structure properly. If you make it difficult for people to find content that’s related to something you do, or you have broken links, the engines won’t send people to that poor site. They will shift to something else they feel is a better user experience. So secondly, that means making sure of [simple] things like that you are mobile friendly and responsive. In fact, if you are not mobile friendly today, you’re just fighting a losing battle at this point.

That’s just table stakes today. 

Yes. Actually, I’m going to take it even a level lower than table stakes: Think of the little sign on the front door of a restaurant that says, “No shoes, no shirt, no service.” If you’re showing up and you’re not mobile friendly, you’ve got no shoes. You’re not even getting into the building to play the game of poker at that point — period.

Read How Voice Search Changes Everything here.

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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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