How Panera Bread Is Turning ‘Fast Casual’ Into ‘Rapid Casual’

In deciding how and what technologies to adopt, fast casual dining chain Panera Bread has sought to manage the “identity issue” that it and all other marketers face: how to put tech in service to the main business and not the other way around.

Panera Bread President and CEO Blaine Hurst sought to provide a glimpse into the brand’s collective thinking about tech adoption during Apple VP Jennifer Bailey’s presentation at the NRF Big Show this week.

In setting up Panera’s premise, Hurst noted that over 70 percent of the brand’s customers who visit its 2,000-plus locations are using Apple devices. So it made sense to become an Apple Pay launch partner three years ago, just as the rise of voice activation made sense for Panera to begin accepting orders from Google Assistant last fall.

That requires a certain familiarity with the tech that’s available and even a bit of clairvoyance when it comes to where to put resources in order to adopt new digital platforms for a brand like Panera. At the same time, Hurst is clear about striving to maintain the balance and focus on the business and not just on the newest tech.

He sought to draw a distinction between Panera’s approach and more tech-centric retail startups like Wayfair, where the tech is such an essential part of its DNA, as explained by Ed Macri, Chief Product & Marketing Officer at Wayfair, who took the NRF stage just before Hurst.

“I heard a lot of people talk about restaurants companies, and they say, ‘Well that’s a tech company that actually does serve pizza,’ Or, ‘That’s a tech company that happens to serve sandwiches,’” Hurst said. “Is that what Panera is? I don’t think so. Unlike my esteemed colleague from Wayfair, how many of you come to Panera just to pay with Apple Pay? Probably not. It’s the food. It’s the experience. It’s that total integrated experience that makes the difference. However, I can guarantee you if the tech fails on you, you won’t hang around long. You won’t use it. It won’t be as convenient.”

Desire-To-Friction Ratio

Panera’s mission, then, involves adapting to the new guest experience using that technology. Citing a phrase used by current Panera Chairman and previous CEO Ron Shaich, Hurst pointed to “the desire-to-friction ratio.” That equation recognizes how good the food is, the design of the restaurants both from a cosmetic perspective as well as from an efficiency view, such as whether wait times were managed well.

“So technology was the breakthrough for us,” Hurst said. “We had great desire, but we discovered we had a lot of friction. The overall experience sucked. Great food, lots of friction. Technology was the opportunity for us to transform that so that we had lots of desire and a whole lot less friction.”

How has that realization worked out for Panera?

Hurst offered a set of numbers that suggest its success since launching the Panera 2.0 tech solutions program in 2014: “We’re $5.3 billion  restaurant company in the United States. We’re the eighth largest restaurant company in the U.S. We now process more than 1.3 million orders a week using our digital platform. We did last year, we did just north of $1.25 billion dollars in digital sale, and yet, we just launched three years ago. That represents now nearly 30 percent of our total sales.”

Loyalty Matters And Mobile

A large part of those digital sales a tied to Panera’s loyalty program, which has roughly 30 million members.

“It represents the largest restaurant loyalty program that I am aware of today,” Hurst said. “And over half of our transactions are logged using a digital identifier, using their loyalty ID. If that order is placed digitally, we see a 75 percent of those orders placed on mobile apps, particularly mobile, on mobile apps include the loyalty ID. That’s huge for us. If you think about the amount of data that we could mine from that.”

Loyalty/rewards has been viewed as a key value of brands seeking to compete with all the various on-demand choices consumers have access to via apps. In an interview we did last year with Bloomin’ Brands Chief Brand Officer Chris Brandt, the executive specifically cited delivery apps as containing the primary challenge his company needed to meet.

To match loyalty with efficiency, Panera’s Rapid Pick-up featuring was one of the key programs to emerge from the company’s 2014 tech upgrade. While “order online, pick up in store” is one of the table stakes concepts of omnichannel marketing, it wasn’t always an obvious tool.

But in a relatively short amount of time, Rapid Pick-up now accounts for more than 10 percent of our sales at Panera, Hurst said. And a majority of that, obviously, is mobile. And rather than strictly being an “on-the-go” offering, Rapid Pick-up is changing the nature of in-store ordering as well.

“You can order also directly from the table [using Rapid Pick-up],” Hurst said. “This is a crazy idea, that you can just walk in, sit down, using your mobile device, place an order, and we bring you your food. How simple is that? Talk about changing that guest experience.”

Apple’s Influence

Hurst credited Apple’s own approach to customer experience as having a distinct impact on how Panera views its own outlets. Panera is currently working with a digital team in New York to incorporate in-store kiosks in a store design format.

“We’ve got a very clean design because that speaks to who we are, that’s an integrated voice, with the voice of who we eat our food as it should be,” Hurst said. “It’s clean, no artificial ingredients, et cetera. We know that this clean design, where food is a hero, a more intuitive, realtime adaptive, context-sensitive, user experience, has phenomenal upside for us.”


One of Panera’s newest cafes is in Downers Grove, Illinois, and Hurst offered it as an example of what it will be soon rolling out across the country. But he again emphasized that balance between maintaining a clear brand identify and adopting new ways of getting customers what they want.

“The message to the team hasn’t changed,” Hurst said. “Our mission is to complete the job the guests hired us to do in a compelling and unique way that makes a difference, that makes them want to cross the street for us, or use our app to have their food delivered, while tracking their driver to the door. That’s not going to change either.”

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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 Voice And Audio Have Become The New ‘Touch’

Augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and the voice-first revolution have the potential to redefine how fans discover and experience music, as well as related brand experiences — and this shift is happening today, not in the distant future.

But according to Susan Panico, SVP of strategic solutions at Pandora, what marketers really need to focus on is how human intelligence can scale artificial intelligence — not the other way around.

“[Marketers] have to remember that there isn’t really a more personal geo-location than [someone’s] home, right?” Panico said. “And as more people adopt a connected home devices, it’s really important for marketers to think about that you’re in a very intimate environment.”

GeoMarketing: We all like to play with VR headsets, but what have you seen at CES that’s really affecting your business at Pandora? And, in a broader sense, what do marketers then need to know about these trends?

Susan Panico: One of the biggest trends isn’t even really a trend — it’s here and now: Voice. We’re really seeing everything being controlled with voice, and audio becoming the new touch.

And, for Pandora, we’re now on 2,000 connected devices because we want to make sure that people can get their music wherever they are. We’ve also seen tremendous growth in [listening] on voice activated speakers: We have 300 percent year-over-year growth there.

But what becomes really interesting is — when you think about all those buzz words of AR, and AI — for us it’s a lot more about human intelligence, and how that human intelligence can scale artificial intelligence.

And the implication of all of this as a marketer is, well, I don’t think that there’s any more personal geo-location than your home. Right? And as more people adopt a connected home devices, it’s really important for marketers to think about that you’re in a very intimate environment.

There’s a lot of co-listening opportunity, and the way that you speak to people has to be very authentic and very natural, and it becomes a lot more important to think about “what’s your sonic identity?” What’s the sound of the brand? What’s the voice that you’re going to use to talk to? Just think about the things that you do in your home, or apartment — you don’t want that experience to be jarring. You don’t want someone shouting to you like you’re on the radio, and you want something that’s a lot more contextual, connected, authentic, and natural.

So it’s interesting because so many marketers think about what their visual representation is, and now they really need to start thinking about their sonic representation.

You’ve been evolving a bit at Pandora. What trends do you see in how people are listening to their music, and how has that changed since Pandora launched? What are you thinking about in terms of taking the company forward?

What’s really interesting is that we sit on about a billion data points a day. Not only do we get people’s age, and zip code, and that sort of data through registration, but they’re persistently logged in all the time — so we’re able to see and match that behavior. Also, what’s become really interesting [determining] the ideal time to serve an ad.

No two Pandora stations are alike, right? My station wouldn’t be the same as your station because of how you thumb up and thumb down. And what we’ve seen from an advertiser or brand standpoint is that when you interrupt that listening experience is just as important as what the actual message is itself.

All that data and  intelligence that we’ve taken around serving up the next perfect song that is going fit what you’re wanting to listen to is just as important when it comes to when and how you serve up the ad.

For example, a lot of young people, younger millennials, they take a lot of time to settle into what they want to listen to. They’re changing stations around; you don’t want to interrupt them during that time. Whereas people like myself, who are the Gen X side, they know exactly what they want to listen to.

So, all of that science informs what we do. It’s not about just the data points; it’s about the human on the other side.

What kind of ads or brand experiences on Pandora have been most successful or compelling, in your mind?

Well, audio is the primary media platform that we use, of course, but one thing that we’ve seen that’s been really interesting over last year is this idea of value exchange. A lot of brands giving the gift of an experience, or of some kind of value, in exchange for time spent listening. And what we’ve seen is that in exchange for watching a 15 second ad ,or interacting with an ad, that you can give an hour of uninterrupted listening, you can give more skips — and then, with our premium access, is you could get on-demand tracks in a free experience.

That’s been a really powerful platform for us, particularly with multi-tiered service that we have for all sorts of listeners.

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How Local Businesses Can Take Advantage Of Their ‘Frenemy’ Relationship With Amazon

As large and small retailers head to the NRF’s Big Show this weekend, the question of Amazon as a friend/enemy or “frenemy” will hang over most of the discussions as the industry seeks to find a way to adjust to the e-tailer’s hegemony and influence with consumers.

Earlier this week, Amazon touted the benefits to SMBs during 2017. Among the highlights Amazon pointed to was that more than 300,000 U.S.-based small and medium-sized businesses joined the Amazon Marketplace.

The company also said that more than 140,000 SMBs selling on Amazon surpassed $100,000 in annual sales, while Amazon Lending surpassed $3 billion lent to small businesses on Amazon since the program started in 2011.

“More and more small and medium-sized businesses are choosing to join the Amazon Marketplace and sell right alongside Amazon to reach customers around the world. Entrepreneurs and small business owners are succeeding on Amazon – they sell half the products that Amazon customers buy, and more than 140,000 small and medium-sized businesses surpassed $100,000 in sales on Amazon in 2017,” said Peter Faricy, VP for Amazon Marketplace. “These businesses are reinvesting in their local communities – creating jobs and supporting local suppliers. We are proud of how the Amazon Marketplace helps empower so many small businesses, not just in the US, but around the world.”

Amazon’s Gravitational Force On Retail

The growth of e-commerce and the decline of store sales has largely been blamed on the gravitational pull Amazon exerts on the space.

And stats cited by  Bryan Eisenberg, co-founder of marketing consultancy BuyerLegends and co-author of  Be Like Amazon: Even A Lemonade Stand Can Do It, would seem to suggest that this is not a case of mass paranoia: Amazon captured 89 percent of all online holiday spending in the five-week period beginning on Thanksgiving, according to an analysis of credit- and debit-card transaction data by Earnest Research in New York.

In comparison, Walmart, which purchased Jet .com in 2016 for $3 billion, remained a distant second a 4.4 percent, Eisenberg notes.

Amazon has continued to move aggressively in expanding its promise of near-immediate delivery and physical pick-up options for its online shoppers by rapidly opening up fulfillment centers in major cities. But as Eisenberg suggests, there is a lot that local businesses can do to take advantage of Amazon rather than be crushed by it.

The Instant Pot Model

The first thing retailers need to do is come to terms with the fact that Amazon is determined to reach every city, town, and block with ease over the next few years.

“You can’t even say ‘Amazon dominates,’ because it’s beyond that when it comes to retail and retail search,” Eisenberg says. “When someone wants a product, they’re going to Amazon. It’s their choice to be there or not. I think retailers have to be there. Yes, you can keep them as a ‘frenemy.’ But keep in mind two things.”

The first is that when brands are exceptional, and they behave like Amazon, they can grow massively without having to compete with the e-tail giant.

One example Eisenberg offers is the phenomenal success of the Instant Pot.

While Amazon has been adding its own versions of many products sold on its platform, it isn’t going to compete with Instant Pot for two reasons, says Eisenberg: Instant Pot is priced fairly and has built a cult-like community around it. The latter is something Amazon would not be inclined or able to do.

As a result of all those factors, Instant Pot thrives in Amazon’s world.

Another example Eisenberg points to is Anker, which makes cell phone accessories, which has similarly built its brand through Amazon despite facing  white labeled items sold under Amazon’s banner. Amazon doesn’t slight or mind Anker because it adheres to what Eisenberg says is Amazon’s “four pillars”:

“They take care of their customers, they get the products to them quickly, they’re constantly innovating and creating new products, they price their products fairly, and they sell well,” Eisenberg says. “So if you live by Amazon’s rules, they leave you alone. But if you’re an Energizer or a Duracell that have gauged consumers on batteries, Amazon will create a private-label knock-off and price it to allow it to take over that market.”

The Amazon Advantage

That product proposition can also be applied to local stores, Eisenberg adds, though many of the benefits are still a few years off.

“The advantage to local businesses is – and I don’t think you’re going to see that today — that you will be able to get global reach,” Eisenberg says. “Amazon has out-Googled Google by becoming a better product search engine. They’re also potentially be competitive in retail services such as plumbers and contractors.”

That’s a space that Google, Yelp, and Facebook have been aiming to capture as well. And that competition from Amazon will give those local businesses a good deal of leverage, especially as the marketing battle among voice-activated assistants heats.

“We know that Amazon is betting the farm on Alexa and implanting that beyond Echo devices,” Eisenberg notes. “Alexa will be more deeply embedded on other people’s phones, it will be on watches and wearables, it will be on refrigerators, and most importantly, it will be in cars. It will have an important place in self-driving cars at some point.”

In the not-too-distant future scenario Eisenberg paints, a consumer will be traveling in their autonomous vehicle and decide they need a shirt for a conference they’re attending next week. They’ll tell Alexa to find it. Considering that Alexa knows the person’s size, where you like to shop, and has their payment info, the voice activated assistant will have the details in seconds. After scanning listings near the route, Alexa will ask if it should navigate to a selected store.

The store will get the sale and Amazon will be able to take a piece of that advertising business, while taking another piece through its payment system. And because Amazon can’t do everything itself, it will be a win-win for retailers, Eisenberg says.

“There are more things that Amazon can offer in terms of services that can’t fit into a warehouse or fulfillment center,” he says. “It’s also more cost efficient to rely on a retailer than on its fulfillment center.”

Eisenberg’s view is already borne out by at least two local retailers that shared their stories with Amazon.

“Since selling on Amazon, we’ve been able to grow our business from three to 40 employees, right here in Delray Beach, Florida,” said Michael Dudley, managing director of Salon’s Choice. “We recently launched on Amazon in the U.K., and are now shipping thousands of orders a day through Fulfillment by Amazon to customers around the world.”

“We launched on Amazon two years ago and are now operating in more than seven countries around the world,” said Phil Williams, CEO and founder of Coffee Gator. “2017 was our biggest year on Amazon, with sales growing by more than 100 percent year-over-year, and we expect 2018 to be even bigger.”

Nevertheless, for those retailers who plan to take their chances in terms of opposing Amazon’s local incursions, Euclid Analytics CEO Brent Franson presented his own battle plan that calls for updating co-op data and marketing strategies.

“Building an effective data co-op for retail is challenging – 55 percent of online shoppers start their product searches on Amazon, says BloomReach – but ultimately worth the battle,” Franson wrote on GeoMarketing this week. “More choice will force the industry’s three major players – Amazon, Facebook, and Google – to improve what they offer to marketers. If the competition is better, then the Big Three runs the very real risk of significant losses. Either way, the consumers – in this case, the marketers – win.

“The right co-op structure will yield better personalization based on actual customer needs and intent. It will earn customer trust by balancing privacy concerns with personalization; for example, the co-op should outline clear rules that ensure obfuscation of certain kinds of data (e.g. PII) before sharing with the pool. Finally, it will prioritize optimized marketing for long-term value. This is about building long-term relationships that reward both the retailer and the consumer; it’s not merely about immediate conversions. Each member of the cooperative should believe in, and be working toward, that goal.”

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Can Understanding Hourly Car Traffic Flows Improve Store Traffic?

Mobility data provider Citilabs has created what it claims is the first comprehensive map of hourly traffic flow in the U.S.

Dubbed Streetlytics, the data visualization tool leverages information from billions of data points to measure and paint what Citilabs CEO Michael Clarke says is the “most complete picture of the moving population.” In addition to hourly details of where traffic is coming from and going to, it also shows traveler demographics based on derived home locations.

Asked if there is any value for either multi-location businesses or even independent small-to-medium sized businesses from Streetlytics’ hourly traffic map, Clarke emphasized that “Streetlytics is much more than an hourly traffic map.”

“It does provide the directional volume of vehicles and people moving along every street in the US by hour and type of day (weekdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays), but it also tells business where those people live (and the associated demographic information such as income, size of household and many other attributes), as well as where those people are coming from and going to and why they are traveling (commuting to work, for example),” Clarke said.

Streetlytics also compiles the routes that people take, he added. So, for a business, let’s say a doughnut chain, Streetlytics can identify the road segment where you find the maximum number of the target market that does not currently drive within, say a quarter-mile, of one of their existing locations and/or their competitors.

“Nothing like that has existed until now—determining location based on the flow of the target market down the streets, not simply based on where the target market lives,” Clarke said.

In terms of who Streetlytics data, which hows the intensity of traffic volume on roadways in the continental USA by hour for an average work day, the underlying data and insights are applied today in advertising, insurance, real estate, retail, investment and new mobility solutions.

Hugh Malkin, director of Business Development, offers this explanation of the tool’s value: “Since Streetlytics provides the routes used for every vehicle trip, it is also a great base line or control to measure the impact of new technologies around smart cities on every road in the US. These averages can help businesses, startups, and governments spot anomalies in the new technologies they are testing to help them learn and get better faster.”

“Another example of how this information is important is that it tells businesses not only the number of people that pass in front of or near their location but the detailed characteristics of those travelers,” Clarke noted. “That is important information for helping business to align their product breadth, depth and assortment with the drive by population and for use when comparing against in-store transactional data.”

Smart Cities On The Road

The information from Streetlytics could help spur projects around the “smart cities” concept for businesses, tech companies or municipal planners, Clarke said.

In explaining the underlying value of Streetlytics to those constituencies, Clarke offered this analogy: If you were considering opening a restaurant, you would want to understand the market for your restaurant.

The big question you would have would be “Does the demand exist and does it match with what your restaurant will serve?”

When planners, businesses and tech companies consider where to put a road, a transit line, a bike path or, say, to initiate some kind of new mobility service or smart concept—they really have no clear understanding of the demand—how many people are going to and from every part of the city, by hour by day, Clarke said.

“Streetlytics provides a comprehensive view of travel demand. It tells a provider or planner how many people travel from say Riverdale to Tribeca, or Hoboken to Wall Street hour by hour and the characteristics of those people,” he said. “That’s valuable information for planners who want to have a clear understanding of not just where they have traffic jams or crowded subways, but where those people are coming from and going to so that solutions can be found that serves that market and alleviates the problem.”

“In the same way, it provides a clear understanding of the market for private enterprise to serve that demand with evolving mobility services – does this make sense for us to create such a service – what is the size and characteristics of the market?” You can think of many examples where Streetlytics can improve the ‘smartness’ of cities such as much more efficient ways of operating services and infrastructure on a daily basis, to where you should spend your maintenance budget to give the best bang for the buck,” Clarke said.

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Yelp’s Chad Richard On The Current State — And Near Future — Of Voice Activation

For the past several years, local digital guide Yelp has been working to move beyond being perceived as a “reviews site” to a platform that help make transactions between consumers and businesses.

For example, its Request-A-Quote feature, which lets Yelp users get the price of services before making a purchase via the guide platform, saw volume rise almost 30 percent over the past year.

Before that, Yelp expanded its restaurant services beyond its SeatMe and Yelp Now reservations tools with the purchase of former partner Nowait, a mobile platform that lets consumers virtually hold their place in line at casual dining establishments.

Yelp’s transaction business also was rounded out with last year’s $20 million purchase of location-based loyalty and retargeting platform, Turnstyle, which runs an in-store platform that then connects marketing services to consumers’ phones at 3,500 business places.

In a conversation at November’s Yext’s Onward 2017 conference with Yext President and Chief Revenue Officer Jim Steele,  Yelp COO Jed Nachman discussed  how the role of Connected Intelligence systems that power voice activated assistants and chatbots dovetails perfectly with the trajectory the 14-year-old company has taken.

“For voice and chat, you have to have the data to handle real-world interaction,” Nachman said of the company’s Yelp Knowledge, a tool that analyzes businesses’ reviews to help  understand the experience at specific locations.

To elaborate on how Yelp sees the rise of voice activation, we caught up with Chad Richard, Yelp’s SVP, Business and Corporate Development. Richard joined Yelp in 2015.

Before that, he spent six years at Apple as senior director of Worldwide Product Marketing focused on the Cupertino company’s operating systems and internet services, which included acquiring and building up the first mass market voice-enabled assistant, Siri.

GeoMarketing: What’s the state of voice activation and what does it mean for Yelp?

Chad Richard: Voice activation is a rapidly evolving paradigm of human-computer interaction that I’m pretty excited about. The utility of voice assistants and voice activation is especially high when people are on the go, and high quality local content is obviously a vital component to those mobile moments, so Yelp has a big role and opportunity here.

How does the Yelp Fusion API program reflect the influence of voice activation?

Yelp Fusion is a set of APIs and customized feeds for partners and independent developers who want to integrate Yelp content into their apps, websites, and services. Voice-activated devices and virtual assistants is a very popular Yelp Fusion use case and we’re already seeing some cool applications with our data.

How does Yelp work with other voice-activated platforms?

Yelp has partnered with Apple and been integrated into Siri since its launch in 2011. We also supply local data and content to Amazon for Alexa. So, products like Echo and Fire TV products are enabled with Yelp content. We work with Microsoft on Cortana and also collaborate with companies like Hound, both in their Hound products as well as Houndify, their platform where developers can develop their own voice activated applications that are Yelp enabled.

We work with Nuance, which has been part of the roots of all this, from the actual NLP standpoint to understand what people are actually saying. We’re also working with Samsung Voice, in coordination with Viv, a startup launched by the creators of Siri after they left Apple. Samsung bought Viv and it now powers Samsung’s personal assistant, “Bixby.”

So, even at this early stage, Yelp is virtually omnipresent in all the voice ecosystems. We’re powering voice experiences that are really great when you’re on-the-go, making queries to your smartphone, and even on your Echo when you are hanging out at home. You’re already using Yelp when talking to Bixby or Siri on your Android or iPhone.

The other place we’re seeing voice activation starting to grow is in the car. And that’s not just through Apple’s CarPlay, where you’re using Siri. It’s also native in dashboard experiences. So we’re already working with a lot of auto manufacturers via the Yelp Fusion API, and as those interfaces evolve to offer voice, Yelp will help to deliver our great local content as well.

Yelp’s always been pretty successful at getting our content integrated into car dashes, from BMW, Mercedes, Volvo, Lexus, Toyota, Honda, just to name a few automakers. Most of the auto manufacturers are working with us one way or another, either directly or through integrates like Harmon, or others selling into the auto space. In addition to finding great restaurants on-the-go, drivers can also reserve a table via Yelp Reservations so that there’s a table waiting for them when they arrive. Lastly, we’ve made it possible for drivers to “get in line” remotely at a restaurant through our acquisition of Nowait, which is now a part of Yelp Reservations.

How does Yelp serve as the bridge between brands and voice-activated devices?

When you are using voice enabled experience you want answers as opposed to a traditional search experience where you have a high tolerance for scanning various search results to find what you were really looking for. Yelp is a trusted source for high intent searches because we are able to deliver accurate information that’s highly relevant. This serves brands and businesses well by connecting them directly with the consumers via voice services.

How do you perceive the challenges for brands when it comes to using voice-activation?

One of the tough things about voice activation is for the assistant to really understand what consumers are really asking for. It means having as much content about the user as possible — such as identity, location and preferences – to having speech pattern technologies that can break down the query into specific nouns. If someone says  “Hong Kong café,” are they talking about a café in Hong Kong? Or are they talking about the Hong Kong Café down the street?

There are a million examples of how disambiguation becomes extremely important for these assistants to be smart and efficient for users.

There is the natural language processing and identity extraction side of all of this but its further complicated by the fact that these assistants are built with a broad range of data sources and therefore don’t just rely on Yelp data. We work closely with partners to help ensure they know when a question is best answered by Yelp.

How do you expect voice activation to shape marketing at the local level?

For us, voice represents an incredibly exciting human-to-computer interaction capability where local data is highly relevant. If you think about what Yelp’s been focused on for 14 years now — we’ve been connecting people with great local businesses.

But over the last few years, we have been really focused on getting transactional with it. And what’s cool about voice and Yelp’s role in this trend is the evolution from helping you find great restaurants and places to get a haircut, to actually being able to book a table or order pickup or delivery at that restaurant. Or go ahead and schedule that appointment at the hair salon. Yelp not only powers the discovery process, but it can power the purchase actions that follow.

From a marketing perspective, is the use of voice as opposed to text that different?

It’s not just about discovery with voice. Whereas text is offering a series of options for clicking, voice is about driving transactions. The consumer has this very clear intent that we can actually activate.

We’re seeing two types of voice platforms. You have voice platforms like Siri and Bixby, where you use voice to do the query, but then you get a visual response. And then you can “tap, tap, tap: book” or “tap, tap: buy.” That’s cool, but it’s also great in those moments when tapping isn’t an option – when you’re driving your car or using an Echo. You’re able to simply find — and get — that specific thing you want. And because it’s not a “tap-centric” environment, being able to conduct that transaction via voice is powerful.

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Think With Google: 5 Ways Voice Activated Assistants Are Changing Search

Voice activated speakers for the Connected Home are rapidly becoming mainstream consumer products — and those new devices are having an immediate impact on the way consumers search, Think With Google stats show.

For the 72 percent of smart speaker owners, using their voice activated assistants has become a daily routine, writes Sara Kleinberg, Group Marketing Manager, Ads Research and Insights at Google.

“Voice-activated speaker owners told us that talking to their virtual assistant—rather than having to type—helps them get things done quickly and efficiently,” Kleinberg notes. “And that means more multitasking.”

Here are the top reasons people turn to their voice-activated speakers, according to Google:

  • It allows them to more easily multitask.
  • It enables them to do things faster than other devices.
  • It empowers them to instantly get answers and information.
  • It makes their daily routine easier.

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,  we’ve previously 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.

But it’s the very essence of how people are searching via voice versus text that is most important for brands to recognize. And that’s a major reason that Google, which hasn’t typically had a major presence at CES, has one this year, Engadget notices, including a “skin” covering the outside of the CES monorail promoting the Google Assistant in addition to a booth in the event’s parking lot.

Just last week, Google said it had added more features—like Voice Match,  Broadcast and Hands-Free Calling— to the Google Assistant, which “now gives you the power to voice control more than 1,500 compatible smart home devices from over 225 brands,” a post by Rishi Chandra, VP, Product Management, Google Home, and Scott Huffman, VP, Engineering, Google Assistant, notes.

Source: Think With Google, CES 2018

Google Ups CES Presence

Even as Google remains the undisputed search leader, as Amazon Echo’s Alexa, followed by the forthcoming Apple HomePod smart speaker powered by Siri, the market is still up for grabs.

But not for long.

As GeoMarketing‘s Lauryn Chamberlain (who happens to be covering CES 2018 this week) reports, over two-thirds of consumers who currently own an Amazon Echo or Google Home plan to buy another device in the next six months — and 75 percent of Amazon Echo owners and 69 percent of Google Home owners will purchase the same brand again, according to new research from Strategy Analytics.

“This degree of loyalty may suggest that consumers are highly satisfied with the voice-activated devices they’ve chosen — or it could be simply a “recognition that the technical platforms are different and that switching would involve unwanted complexity,” Chamberlain writes. “But in either case, these findings indicate substantial consumer loyalty to one brand alone.”

Meanwhile as Google seeks to understand the changing shape of voice-fueled search, here are some of the stats that buttress previous studies that highlight the dramatic changes in the way consumers find places and products:

  • 62 percent of those who regularly use a voice-activated speaker say they’re likely to buy something through their device within the next month
  • 58 percent of smart speaker owners use it to manage weekly shopping lists
  • 44 percent voice assistant users order groceries or household items once a week
  • 52 percent of smart speaker owners would like to receive info about deals, sales, and brand promotions, while another 42 percent want to hear about upcoming events/activities featuring favorite brands

Time For A Conversation

As voice-activated assistant observers and execs have emphasized, the use of Natural Language Processing (NPL), is the most important aspect to fully connecting with consumers — something that has been fairly difficult to manage in typical product searches.

Almost 70 percent of queries to the Google Assistant are made in natural language as opposed to the “typical” keywords people type into a search box, says Kleinberg, adding that 53 percent of smart speaker owners say it feels “natural” speaking the device.

“Every industry can [add] value based on just having a conversation,” explained Dave Isbitski, Chief Evangelist for Alexa and Echo at Amazon, in a recent interview with GeoMarketing. “And while the technology that consumers are using to power nearly every aspect of their lives has indeed evolved, “it’s still almost like what’s old is new. We’re going to back to just having a conversation.”

And after decades of analyzing how word-of-mouth marketing has the greatest influence on a purchase, way beyond media and advertising channels, Google’s stat is particularly game-changing for brands: 41 percent of people who have a voice-activated speaker say “it feels just like talking to a friend or another person.”

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Why Mapbox Acquired The Team From Mapzen’s Valhalla

Mapbox’s latest purchase is an “acqhire” of the engineers who have powered Valhalla, the open source routing software from Mapzen that is key to the needs of entities as varied as smart city planners to self-driving car companies to to social media networks.

In a Medium post earlier this week, Mapbox CEO Eric Gundersen said the deal, terms of which were undisclosed, was part of the company’s plan to “double down” on its navigation offering for “key auto and logistics customers in 2018.”

The purchase of Valhalla came as four-year-old Mapzen announced it would shutter its business by the end of this month. Valhalla is open source routing software using open source data — primarily Open Street Map. As such, that should make it easy for its clients to collect their respective navigation resources as they look to companies like Mapbox to enhance their location data.

The New York-based Mapzen, which was backed by Samsung Research America, was headed by former MapQuest executive Randy Meech.

For Mapbox, as Gundersen explained, bringing in Valhalla formalizes an existing relationship.

“For the past three years, this team has been working on Valhalla at Mapzen, building a flexible routing engine that can be customized at the time a user makes a request,” Gundersen wrote. “Adding Valhalla to our navigation stack gives developers the ability to write custom logic to prefer or avoid certain roads dynamically based on specific use cases. This makes it possible to build products like electric vehicle routing that dynamically routes to recharge stations when fuel is low, and elevation-based routing — important for bicycles and electric vehicles.”

Last fall, Mapbox’s plans to boost its technical and marketing capabilities came after a $164 million third funding round led by Softbank. Less than a month after that, Mapbox purchased Mapdata, a Belarus-based startup up focused on using artificial intelligence for use in augmented reality products.

As Mapbox has been crucial in helping build features like Snapchat’s Snap Map, which lets Snapchatters show and see what’s happening around their friends.

As opposed to most social media uses of location, Snap Map is not about where you are and directions for how to get somewhere. A visual “Heat Map” within the feature can be used to point other users to a special event or breaking news at a particular place and are sorted through Snap’s algorithm.

That may seem like a fairly trivial use for location and navigation. But brands are seeking to push the envelope on understanding consumers’ online and offline behavior, and reach them at the best place and time, tools that mix geo-data with AR/VR and social media-based commerce. And as advertising and marketers seek alternatives to Google and Facebook, tools like Mapbox’s are being regarded as fairly essential — as well as difficult and costly to do in-house.

In heralding the capital infusion, Gundersen outlined three areas.

  • Building out an automotive unit, including in-car navigation and autonomous driving by investing in our deep learning and vision capabilities.
  • Expanding our AR/VR/Gaming platform, specifically by growing the Unity Maps SDK team.
  • Accelerating our global expansion across Southeast Asia, China, and Europe.

“Every day we collect more than 200 million miles of anonymized sensor data, and process it in real-time, making continuous updates to the map — from live traffic, to adding new roads, to updating satellite imagery,” Gundersen has noted. “The more apps use Mapbox, the greater the network effect across 350 million users every month.”

With the addition of Valhalla’s team, Mapbox will not only be keeping pace with rivals in the location space, it further enhances its position as a potential partner to its competitors as well as it moves forward trying to capture their business.

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Would Google’s Sale Of Zagat Have Any Impact On Restaurant Reviews?

Years after Google has built up its formidable Digital Presence Management capabilities to connect consumers with nearby restaurants — among the full range of other local businesses — the search giant is considering jettisoning an early piece of its hyperlocal strategy by selling its Zagat reviews property, according to Reuters.

Google declined to comment when we asked about the Reuters story.

Citing only “people familiar with the matter,” Reuters’ anonymous sources tell the news service that Zagat, which Google acquired for $151 million in 2011, has gradually declined as a priority when it sought to revamp the Google+ social network as its “local places” hub in 2013.

The Zagat purchase was also considered a pet project of Marissa Mayer, following her promotion from VP of Google Search Products and User Experience to run the Local, Maps, and Location Services division at the end of 2010. (Mayer left that post to take on the role of CEO of Yahoo in the summer of 2012. She resigned as the head of Yahoo in June 2017 following Verizon’s acquisition of the web portal.)

Zagat’s Stars Fade

As Google Maps has been the primary way users experience local reviews, the Zagat brand has been largely eclipsed, even though it still powers consumers’ restaurant comments and photo sharing.

In the meantime, platforms that share a range of vital business data for restaurants including hours of operation and even unbranded searchable menu listings across Google, Yelp, Facebook, Bing, Foursquare, AllMenus,, MenuPages, and more, have made the focus on reviews something of an anachronism.

“Wait. So Zagat’s still exists?” quipped Andrew Shotland, CEO of Local SEO Guide.

“I don’t think this means anything other than Google doesn’t need, and likely never did need, to own Zagat,” Shotland added. “It was a business development deal that I am guessing Marissa [Mayer] thought would jump start their local reviews effort to compete with Yelp, which looked like the big gorilla at the time. Perhaps it did help get Google started but I am betting that it pretty quickly was of little consequence.

“Perhaps there is still some appeal to the brand for someone targeting either the restaurant industry or the corporate gifts business (I think that was Zagat’s main business — investment banks used to give copies of their books to customers). But from what I understand of their IP, I am guessing the restaurant inspector would not give Zagat a passing grade. Avoid the sushi.”

Duane Forrester, VP, Industry Insights, Yext, agreed with Shotland that there is little reason for Google to continue to run Zagat. (Full disclosure: GeoMarketing is a division of Yext. More details on that relationship here).

“No, Google doesn’t need their own review site — they collect data from across the web, so there’s little upside in ‘owning’ their own small slice of the pie,” Forrester said. “In fact, it could be argued (and likely has been) that it’s a conflict of interest.”

It would be interesting to see whether the separating of Zagat from Google would spur a licensing deal between the search giant and another reviews source for Google Maps.

Given what the NYT termed as a “grudge” between Google and Yelp, it would seem unlikely that the two would strike an alliance. But the absence of Zagat embedded would seem to at least open the window to third-party reviews provider. And Yelp, which has over 127 million business reviews, would certainly be hard to top when it comes to supplementing comments made on Google Maps and local delivery marketplace Google Express.

As it stands, Forrester and Shotland don’t expect any impact to restaurants from a sale of Zagat.

“It’s highly unlikely [that Google search results would be impacted] as Zagat was bought originally partly because of its brand and the quality associated with it,” Forrester said. “That hasn’t gone away with time, and when we factor in the spread of news like this being so slow to reach actual street-level businesses, it’s not likely to do much to change their minds, though it might spur a cycle of raised awareness and get restaurants to focus on their reviews for a little while. And that’s always a good thing.”

The Reviews Revolution

The local marketing space, particularly for restaurants, has changed dramatically since Google bought Zagat.

Although reviews are a crucial point of discovery as brands seek to use online commentary to burnish their reputation and drive foot traffic and sales, reviews alone are less sustainable as a business proposition.

Consider the fact that Yelp, in evolving its identity as a local guide platform, often highlights its ability to drive transactions as opposed to merely serving as a repository for patrons’ “thumbs up or thumbs down.”

“The landscape is almost entirely different [in 2011]; about the only similarity is that as a concept, reviews are still with us,” Forrester said, when asked about the changes since Zagat was acquired by Google.

“From the accessibility consumers enjoy, to being able to leave reviews, to the sheer number of sources open to record a review, to the importance of reviews and their impacts on human behavior and algorithmic choices, reviews have a prominence today that never existed seven years ago,” he added. “Back then, it was still more of a word-of-mouth linked scenario. Today, everyone has access and with a human’s innate skew towards complaining versus complimenting; it’s trickier than ever to extract value from reviews.”

Simply put, people are likely to complain about small negative things and never leave positive feedback for small positive things, Forrester explained.

“Given the importance of reviews today in how a search engine ranks results, though, it’s critically important that businesses do whatever they can to cultivate positive reviews,” Forrester said. “This includes digging in when someone complains. Being ‘seen’ trying to solve a problem is often as powerful as actually solving a problem.”

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Amazon’s Dave Isbitski: With Voice-Enabled ‘Everything,’ Brands Must Get Back To Conversational Basics

With the rise of machine learning and cloud computing to fuel innovation, natural language conversations with AI have become an everyday reality — but even voice-activated intelligent assistants become a major factor in consumers lives, brands’ sense of how to approach them as a marketing vehicle is still in its infancy.

But “every industry can [add] value based on just having a conversation,” explains Dave Isbitski, Chief Evangelist for Alexa and Echo at Amazon. And while the technology that consumers are using to power nearly every aspect of their lives has indeed evolved, “it’s still almost like what’s old is new. We’re going to back to just having a conversation.”

Following a keynote at Yext’s ONWARD conference in November entitled Voice-Enabled Everything, Isbitski talked to GeoMarketing about the reality of marketing through conversation — and the next phase of the mass transition to voice. (Full disclosure: Yext owns GeoMarketing. More details on our relationship here.)

GeoMarketing: Amazon Echo products and the Alexa assistant have become so mainstream. But do brands have a sense of how to approach using Alexa as a marketing vehicle? What’s the top question that you get from brands about how they should use Alexa as opposed to just what people are used to (i.e., text and type)?

 Dave Isbitski: The bigger question that most brands are asking themselves, and that everybody’s coming to, is, “What does it mean to be conversational?”

In terms of digital marketing, we’ve had technology, we’ve had these screens, for a long time. But now, it’s almost like what’s old is new. We’re going to back to just having a conversation. And so, a lot of brands have conversations with customers through their support centers. But those calls sometimes have a tendency to show what the technology couldn’t solve.

So another question brands should be asking: “What’s actually working with my technology today?”

What I start to see is brands will have everyone at the table. It will be, “What kind of calls are we getting from customers in our support center? What are we hearing that’s actually working? What are our reviews in our mobile app – what do people like about our mobile app?”

After that, the questions become, “What do we want to provide? What’s in our specific industry? Where can you do value?”

Because, every industry can do value based on just having a conversation.

What other trends are influencing brands in this new era of artificial intelligent-powered marketing and assistants?

The other thing that I’ve seen is chatbots. Brands who have done chatbots have started to reach that state where they can be more informal with a customer, versus trying to go through what I call “on-ramps.”

You have these on-ramps: “This is how you get to ask a question,” versus “Ask a question,” which a chatbot will give you.

If a brand has started with chatbots, and they’ve experienced that informal conversation, and they’ve seen that customer questions get resolved — which usually, they do — you start to see that expanding their marketing strategy.

Then voice conversation is a smoother transition. What you’re doing is, you’re creating this contract of the types of questions that are going to be asked.

How so?

You can take that data you have from your chatbot. Sometimes the training questions are the same. We have that at Amazon, we have Lex, which is a service through AWS. [Amazon Lex is an AWS service for building conversational interfaces into applications using voice and text].

In fact, with Lex, you can actually take the utterances and intents you’ve built, and create an Alexa skill.

What other issues are brands having to deal with in the transition to voice?

When I was talking about the on-ramps, the worst thing you can do, and I have seen this happen, is to say, “We’ve got a mobile app, this is the parameters through my service that my mobile app calls, therefore I’m going to ask those as questions.”

That’s not conversation. People will know that right away. They’re like, “This is just a back and forth, this is the IVR system. I might as well just hit the buttons on the keyboard. That’s not how conversation works.

You spend most of the time thinking about having a conversation with your customer. So, I guess the bigger question that you’re asking is more about, “What’s the starting point for this?”

Because there are over 25,000 skills, what I tell a lot of people is, “If you’re thinking you’re going to do a finance skill, for example, we’ll see what Amazon customers are saying in reviews, because there’s real data there.” You know what your customers are telling you.

But if you’re looking for voice experience, we share all that in reviews, so you could actually go through, and you could data-mine all that and say, “You know what, I consistently see people are saying this. This one’s got four stars.”

All of that is publicly available. And we saw that in the mobile space, too. If you were going to enter an area, you looked at what was getting to the top of the charts. and the question was always, “How could you create more value on top of that?” And that’s what every brand constantly has to consider.

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