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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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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As Audio Gets ‘Smarter,’ iHeartMedia Embraces Voice Activation, Chatbots, Wearables

With Spotify and Pandora making their respective extensions into the work of “smart audio,” iHeartMedia is using its presence at CES2018 to highlight the radio network’s digital moves including letting listeners access iHeartRadio through a chatbot for Facebook Messenger and Samsung’s voice activated assistant Bixby.

In a sense, the new features represent a fuller step from iHeartMedia’s omnichannel focus over the past year. In 2017, the company started iHeartRadio All Access powered by Napster, it expanded the number of podcasts, and struck over 200 platform integrations, making its audio available in cars, at home, on wearables, via gaming consoles, through virtual assistants, and “nearly everywhere listeners want to tune in,” iHeartMedia says.

iHeartRadio is also available in nearly all major OEMs and aftermarket products as well as Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and more. In addition, iHeartMedia can be heard in every vehicle reaching more than a quarter of a billion people monthly through its 850 local radio stations nationwide.

“In 2017, we built on iHeartRadio’s strong foundation of content access and discovery,” said Darren Davis, President of iHeartRadio and iHeartMedia Networks Group. “Consumers are taking advantage of the ease and ubiquity of virtual assistants, smart speakers, set-top boxes and other connected devices, and in doing so, they’re proving that audio is an important part of their day-to-day life. As we look ahead in 2018, we will continue to innovate – blending the iHeartRadio experience seamlessly into the way listeners use the influx of these new smart devices – and as always, make iHeartRadio easily available on the products and platforms they use most.”

The role of “smart audio” via Connected Intelligence is already being felt in the way consumers choose what and when to buy something, whether on their phone, on a Connected Home device through a virtual assistant, or in a Connected Car.

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.

In 2017, 35.6 million Americans will use a voice-activated assistant device at least once a month for sudden rise of 128.9 percent over last year, says eMarketer.

iHeartMedia’s stepped up effort to be everywhere consumers expect comes as Pandora has aggressively moved to ramp up its Smart Home strategy, most recently in an expanded collaboration with Sonos to employ voice-activation controls.

Rounding out iHeartMedia’s partners are Jibo, billed as a “social robot for the home”; Garmin’s new GPS running watch, the Forerunner 645 Music; and Roku users will now have access to iHeartRadio’s full feature set.

The company is also introducing new automotive updates with General Motors and Ford.

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2018 Online-To-Offline Marketing Predictions

As our coverage of how location technology has evolved over the past year has shown, the use of place-based information has spurred myriad ways for brands and consumers to connect online and offline.

It may be hard to imagine the shape of things to come in 2018, but we surveyed several executives in the space to peer into their respective crystal balls on what to expect over the next 12 months:

Collin Holmes, founder and CEO of Chatmeter

Mobile localization and the arms race for A.I:

Consumers are tired of pre-fab marketing messages, and are turning to each other as sources of what to do and buy. In addition, with the introduction of ad blockers which more than half of the U.S has installed on their devices, it’s getting harder and harder for brands to effectively reach their target audiences.

This will continue the rise of mobile and location-based marketing. Consumers have become more comfortable with enabling geo-location services on their phone, due to the value they are getting from many apps being able to access their location. This has tremendous value from a marketer’s perspective, but will rely on new tech, like A.I., to provide detailed and actionable insights on massive amounts of consumer behavior data.

Multi-functions of social:

Social is evolving a lot as well over the last couple years. Seems like people are still maintaining significant spend, many are even increasing, but they don’t feel it may be contributing much to company performance. In the local space, we are seeing big growth of social on driving customers, and big shifts in the review space from Yelp to Google and Facebook in terms of usage and review generation.

Google Maps is getting five times the number of reviews compared to Yelp, and two times that of Facebook. Facebook climbed to number one in total reviews, and most reviews per location. Yelp has seen a 12 percent drop of reviews being created monthly in the last 12 months.

The growth of voice search:

AI and voice search will require more careful strategies for marketers in 2018. These advancements will turn content marketing upside down. People speak and ask questions in natural language, not keyword-based searches, which means your content will either have to include FAQs or be peppered with questions and answers.

Gil Larsen, VP of Americas at Blis:

Cost-Per-Click vs. Cost-Per-Visit

2017 saw the emergence of a powerful new marketing metric: Cost-per-Visit (CPV). With this model, brands pay for an ad only when a consumer that’s been exposed to it visits a specific location. Using the CPV model not only helps brands increase foot traffic and boost sales, but also helps foster a more trusting relationship between brands, agencies and vendors. In 2018, CPV will continue to gain momentum as the metric of choice. Tech partners will need to abandon click-based measurement schemes and work towards building transparent relationships with advertisers to compete.

In 2018, brands will place greater emphasis on location intelligence. Previously, brands focused mostly on proximity advertising but now we’re seeing advertisers turn to more sophisticated uses of location data to inform their campaign. By analyzing historical location data and detailed behavioral patterns, brands gain comprehensive insights into consumer preferences and habits which can be used for hyper-targeted campaigns.

What Blockchain Means For Online-Offline Marketing

There are many technologies that will make impact next year but the most interesting one is the rise of blockchain. By enabling marketers to conduct transactions in a secure and transparent marketplace, blockchain has the potential to solve for many industry issues.

With blockchain, the end-to-end processes of booking, buying, and placing digital ad space will be recorded and stored. And because all these transactions would be available to the public and verified by common consensus, blockchain will help bring about greater transparency and end ad fraud. Integrating blockchain technology into our existing advertising ecosystems will take time.

Larger players will take longer to adapt, and organizations from across the industry will need to come together and agree on a common set of standards. We’ll see more and more startups adopting the technology, and the IAB and other industry bodies will begin setting some key standards. Within five years, the ad industry will transition into using blockchain as a transaction leger. And within a decade, we’ll likely see it become a new industry standard. It’s time for brands and their tech partners to prepare.

On Location And Viewability

To promote transparency, more technology vendors will (and should) develop visualization tools. Throughout 2017, concerns over brand safety, viewability, transparency and ad fraud have led to calls for greater transparency across the industry. These concerns have led some of the loudest voices clamoring for change to make significant budget cuts and many others to tweak their global contracts. In order to heed the calls for greater transparency, companies need to develop tools that foster trust between vendors, agencies and brands.

Gilad Amitai, Ubimo Co-Founder & COO:

Using location data in real time for foot traffic attribution has been widely adopted as a core KPI for measuring retail campaign effectiveness.

By implementing cross device matching techniques, this metric can now be used also to measure other channels besides mobile. Arguably the best indicator of this new standard is Snap’s reportedly $125M purchase of Placed. This acquisition exemplifies the recognition of the growing need to demonstrate ROI for advertisers by connecting the digital world to store purchases and visits.

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Microsoft Releases’ Healthbot’ Virtual Assistant For Hospitals

Microsoft has re released a “private preview” of its artificial intelligence-powered chatbots for healthcare program, which is designed to enable hospitals and medical centers to easily create interactive virtual assistants and chatbots to serve patients.

The program is part of Microsoft’s Healthcare NExT initiative promises to give patients self-service access to health information while reducing costs for medical administrations.

Initial partners include Aurora Health Care, which serves 15 hospitals, over 150 clinics and 70 pharmacies throughout eastern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, and Premera Blue Cross, which is billed as the largest health plan in the Pacific Northwest, and UPMC, an integrated health care delivery network.

The companies are working with Microsoft to build out bots that address a wide range of healthcare-specific questions and use cases.

For instance, insurers can build bots that give their customers an easy way to look up the status of a claim and ask questions about benefits and services. Providers, meanwhile, can build bots that triage patient issues with a symptom checker, help patients find appropriate care, and look up nearby doctors.

At Aurora Health Care, patients can use the “Aurora Digital Concierge” to determine what type of care they might need and when they might need it. Patients interact with the bot in natural language – answering a set of questions about their symptoms – and then the bot suggests what could be possible causes and what type of doctor they might want to see and when. They can also schedule an appointment with just a few clicks. This is an example of how AI can have direct impact on people’s everyday lives, helping patients find the most relevant care and helping doctors focus on the highest-priority cases.

“Aurora Health Care is focused on delivering a seamless experience for our consumers and the health bot allows us to introduce technology to make that happen. The use of AI allows us to leverage technology to meet consumers where they are; online, mobile, chat, text, and to help them navigate the complexity of healthcare,” says Jamey Shiels, VP Digital Experience, Aurora Health Care.

The AI-powered healthcare initiative comes amid a wider set of moves by Microsoft to take advantage of Connected Intelligence. Last month, for example, Microsoft’s Internet of Things software program, Azure, got a location intelligence boost from Dutch navigation software company TomTom. That effort allows Microsoft Azure clients to apply a wide array of TomTom API services under the Microsoft IoT brand including search and geocoding, routing, traffic, and maps.

Meanwhile, there are even more changes occurring in the healthcare space. This month, pharmacy and clinic chain CVS Health’s $69 billion acquisition of insurance giant Aetna appears poised to upend the way consumers access and pay for wellness, medication, treatment, and benefits.

The blurring of lines among healthcare providers across wellness and care, prescription management, and insurance clears the way for tools like chatbots, which are becoming more commonplace in consumers’ wider lives, to become an integral part of healthcare.

By incubating the health bot project as part of Healthcare NExT, a new initiative at Microsoft that is aimed at “transforming  healthcare by deeply integrating greenfield research and health technology product development, in partnership with the healthcare industry’s leading players.”

As Google, Apple, and Amazon look to ways to expand their own respectiv approaches to managing healthcare tech, expect Microsoft to ramp up more  collaborations with its rivals as well as healthcare companies.

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Button’s Mike Jaconi On How Buzzfeed And Walmart Are Demonstrating The Complement Of Content And Commerce

Social news site Buzzfeed is expanding its existing content alliance with Walmart and the retailer’s e-commerce platform, Jet.com, via the Button Marketplace, an app engagement and partnership platform that connects mobile content and commerce brands.

The expansion involves Buzzfeed Tasty, the publisher’s food and recipes video portal, which the Button bills as a “blending of content and commerce.”

“This partnership represents a natural combination of the two on mobile in a way that is exciting for customers, serving yet another way Tasty, Walmart and Jet are evolving the shopping experience to meet customers where they are — no matter when or how they want to shop,” Button’s Natalie Gerke writes in a blog post. “With Button’s technology and expertise in app-to-app partnerships, Tasty is able to drive users directly into the respective Walmart.com and Jet.com apps to complete their transaction, known to be the highest-converting channel within today’s digital retail industry (apps performing 4x better than mobile web).”

Here’s where Button’s Marketplace comes in. The platform provides the connective tissue between complementary mobile apps and websites — such as Buzzfeed and Tasty — to promote loyalty and payment when its users seek to buy something related from a Walmart or Jet.com.

Just by way of explanation of how other ways Button creates complements between commerce and content, last May, The Weather Channel app began featuring Button Marketplace apps from Uber, Groupon, delivery.com, Caviar, and Resy.

As a result, its users would be able to hail a ride, sign up for a deal, get a food delivery, or make a reservation without leaving The Weather Channel to connect with those functions. In addition to maintaining engagement, The Weather Channel could potentially drive revenue through affiliate deals to promote those separate app functions.

As Walmart seeks to combat rival Amazon to be the primary online and offline shopping center for consumers, the extension to other apps within its own mobile base could help it prove its own greater convenience to consumers.

Michael Jaconi, founder and CEO of Button, offered his take on the intersection of commerce and content and how apps can make those connections more seamless, particularly for brick-and-mortar brands trying to enhance their omnichannel strategies.

GeoMarketing: How has the nature or state of app engagement changed since Button launched over three years ago?

Mike Jaconi: The phrase coined years ago by Apple – ‘there’s an app for that’ – still rings true today. Since starting Button in 2014, apps and consumer engagement with them has grown significantly. In fact, as Button’s recent report we released with App Annie shows – 2017 Index: The Mobile Consumer – consumers prefer apps for their convenience, whether it’s saved personal and payment credentials or because they’re easier to navigate. The growth is apparent, as the App Store and Google Play now feature a combined 5.9 million apps, and smartphone sales are expected to hit more than $330 billion by 2021, three times the forecasted $102 billion this year. For any retailer or service provider looking to acquire new users, apps will be imperative to their success when it comes to a mobile strategy.

How has Button itself evolved over the past year?

Over the past year, our growth has skyrocketed and our product has evolved to make it even easier for Publishers and Merchants to partner in mobile. We’ve welcomed a range of new partners across a variety of industries including Walmart, Buzzfeed, Target, Walgreens, The Weather Channel, and many others. The platform is now driving hundreds of millions in spending annually, and retailers of all types are coming onto the platform to diversify their mobile marketing budgets. Button is the most cost-effective acquisition channel our partners have in mobile – and with the duopoly of Google and Facebook only growing more powerful – Button is becoming an even more vital ingredient in retailers’ growth strategies.

Looking at brick-and-mortar perspective, how necessary is for stores to have an app? Is it all about promoting loyalty? Or are there other aspects stores should consider?

Mobile commerce is continuing to grow faster than any other channel of spend. Amazon, the guiding light in retail, saw more than a 50 percent YOY increase in sales on the Amazon app this past holiday season.

For brands to succeed with their most loyal audiences, they need an app to serve these consumers — and an acquisition strategy to make it succeed. With apps being retailers’ highest-converting channel, this is an essential pillar of retailers’ growth strategies in this era. Brands must also remember that apps aren’t using mobile to strictly make purchases, but also to price compare while in-store, access savings on the go, and research items they’re interested in when they don’t have time to shop. Retailers that don’t have a comprehensive mobile acquisition strategy will lose out on these valuable “moments of intent” that so frequently pop up in mobile.

Sticking with brick-and-mortars, how well are they using third parties such as Google Maps, Foursquare, Uber, OpenTable?

Creating the connective layer between digital and physical is a strategy we’ve worked to create since day one of Button. When it comes to finding a place to eat, consumers look at reviews on an app like Foursquare to find the best around them.

By creating that seamless connection between inspiration and the ultimate action, we’re making it simpler for consumers to get to the places they want. We’re also helping to make the apps themselves more useful — they go from being a place to get information to a place where you can take an action! Google Maps has also made a similar connection for consumers with the integration of Uber and Lyft.

Retail is following the natural extensions listed above, and I expect the next three years to show more progress than the past 20 when it comes to connecting online behavior to offline retail spending.

How does Button view the rise of voice-activated digital assistants like Alexa, Okay Google/Google Assistant/Google Home, Siri, Cortana, Samsung’s Bixby?

These new digital assistants are here to stay.  I’m still torn on whether commerce at scale will be possible through them without a view layer – and Amazon’s Echo Show is likely the result of Amazon coming to a similar conclusion. That said, whether a voice prompt or the “tap of a button” – the uniqueness of Button’s platform – the index of matching “actions”, “products”, and “places” will make the voice revolution an exciting part of the Button story. More to come on that in 2018.

Looking to the end of the year, what is Button focused on as it looks to position itself for 2018?

2017 was an exciting year for Button’s Marketplace, which grew with many of the world’s leading and most innovative brands turning to Button to power their mobile partnership strategy.

When companies like Walmart, Uber, eBay, The Weather Channel, Buzzfeed, and many more select Button as their partnership platform, it inspires other brands to follow suit. Our integration roadmap is full with many more leading retailers, and the publishers they’re bringing to work with us represent new verticals and new models we have never worked with before.

This was always our dream – to fix a bunch partnerships that we knew we could fix with better technology built for mobile and with the user in mind, and secondly to build the platform that the business models of the future could be built upon. That’s what’s coming – and I couldn’t be more excited about it.

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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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Pandora’s Sonos Integration Opens More Advertisers To The Connected Home

Pandora’s Smart Home strategy has been continuing with a series of steps designed to make the use of the streaming music platform easier for consumers as well as advertisers.

While listening to Pandora has been accessible on Sonos’ speakers for years, the two brands have partnered on new ways for listeners to employ voice-activation controls.

In keeping with Pandora’s philosophy that “voice is the new touch,” listeners can now control Sonos directly through the Pandora mobile app and command Pandora stations with spoken commands via Alexa. The new experience also includes support for Premium, Pandora’s on-demand service launched earlier this year.

In terms of the marketing potential for Pandora, which has an Alexa Skill in the Amazon Echo — as well as a similar presence on Google Home’s voice-activated assistant — this new integration on Sonos will be an opportunity for advertisers to expand their potential audience reach, as its app users have more ways and places to listen.

For Pandora, this expanded alliance with Sonos is another example of what it considers to be a huge opportunity to reach audiences through connected home and voice-activated devices.

“Pandora listeners love the in-home music experience we’ve created with Sonos, having logged over 250 million hours this year alone,” said Chris Phillips, Chief Product Officer, Pandora. “We have made it easier than ever to control your home audio listening experience by adding beautifully designed features inside the Pandora app to control your Sonos.”

More than 50 percent of Sonos owners across the country use Pandora throughout their home, the company said, as Pandora’s platform is available on more than 48 million activations on consumer electronics devices generally.

“Sonos owners have enjoyed their favorite Pandora stations in any room since the service joined the Sonos platform back in 2007,” said Allen Mask, VP of Partnerships at Sonos. “It is now easier for listeners to access and control all of their music from Pandora, whether it’s from the Sonos app, with voice, and now from within the Pandora app – all working together seamlessly.”

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

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

In Pandora’s 2018 Definitive Guide to Audio, which was released last month, the streaming music platform has been attempting to make the case that the latest shift to Connected Intelligence-based devices represents another leap past terrestrial radio. In essence, the rise of voice-activated devices extract all kinds of data from the Knowledge Graph and therefore create even more personalized experiences for consumers.

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

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

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

In last week’s kick off its first dedicated ad targeting program aimed at voice-activated devices with Nestlé Waters, Eric Hoppe, Director of Product Management at Pandora, told us how Smart Home devices required specific ad formats, as opposed to repurposed ones.

“We see targeting through connected-home devices as an opportunity for both brand building and a way to drive store visits,” said Hoppe. “Audio acts as a powerful tool to establish an emotional connection with audiences, and connected devices offer an even greater level of intimacy, particularly within the home where listeners are more receptive and their environment acts as a contextual trigger. Pandora on connected-devices can drive very specific results and actions through data and technology – advertisers can target more than 2,000 audience segments with the right message at the right time, based on brand objectives.”

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What Do Brands Need To Know About Using Amazon Alexa?

Even as Walmart rolls out voice-activated shopping via Amazon Echo’s Alexa and 40 million Millennials are ready to use Connected Intelligence-powered devices to order holiday gifts, most brands continue to wrestle with the implications of audio.

In a presentation at The LBMA’s Retail Loco in Atlanta last week, Noelle LaCharite, senior technical program manager for Amazon Alexa Machine Learning, offered some clear guidelines for how brands should navigate the use of voice-activation for marketing purposes.

Among her four-point outline for brands, LaCharite’s basic recommendations are:

Avoid Feature Creep. Keep It Simple. “Don’t overwhelm your users with features out of the box. Voice is a new way for users to interact with your product. Keep it simple and grow from there.”

As Natural Conversation As Possible. “Try to make your utterances as natural as they possibly can. Top Tip: Have a real world conversations with one another to create these.”

Core Business Functionality As A Minimum. “It’s important to do the fundamentals right. If you are a news company. Your users will naturally expect you to at least provide the news. Do the extra features later.”

Utilize The Built In Library. “There are hundreds of entities that Alexa can understand using the Built-In library. You can handle this in your skill by simply including them in your interaction model and respond with a useful response.”

GeoMarketing: What should brands know about Alexa’s capabilities as a marketing vehicle? Are you surprised at how much they know or how little they know?

Noelle LaCharite: People are not in a voice-first world yet. So, my goal is to be very aspirational in nature, and just expose the idea of “What would it look like if your brand thought about voice?”

The biggest question is what does your brand even sound like? It’s not something most brands have had to think about. But it’s actually there in some of the most well-known places. For example, most people know what the game show Jeopardy sounds like. You immediately have that tune in your head when the name is mentioned. You don’t have to explain anything. It’s almost common language, but it’s hard to put words around it. And yet, everyone immediately recognizes what it means.

You don’t even have to see Jeopardy. That’s what brands have to achieve now. Most brands haven’t even thought through what ear-cons are, those different sounds, chimes, audio signifiers that identify a brand without additional explanation. That is going to be so important for brands to grasp as consumers shift to a voice-first world.

Amazon Echo Alexa Dot

GeoMarketing’s Lauryn Chamberlain recently spoke to the BirchBox CEO Katia Beauchamp about the way the way Alexa has influenced the way consumers get information. So we’ll pose the same question we did to her: Does the rise of voice-activation call into question the need for a website, or the primacy of a website for brands?

The easiest thing for people to do to be successful is just to look at what are the top 10 things people do on their website. And some of them aren’t going to be top tier ranking. Some of them are going to be three clicks down or 10 clicks down. So find out what those are and make those your first things that you do. We call it the “minimum remarkable product.”

So now, brands are going to have to figure out what’s the most popular thing people are already asking for and make that a top-level indicator of intent in order to get the best interaction.

While Alexa is mostly thought of as powering the Echo in the living room or kitchen, it’s also there on your phone, in the Amazon app. Should brands be thinking of the way Alexa can tie on-the-go and at-home experiences together?

Right, Alexa on the Echo and on your phone within the Amazon shopping app is still the same Alexa.

As an example, one of my Alexa skills is daily affirmation and it’s you can do it while you’re shopping or you can do it sitting on your couch, and it’s the same experience. That’s that contextual experience we’re shooting for. So we want people to be able to say the same thing, the same way, whether they’re standing in front of their washer and dryer, in front of their fridge, or in the aisle of some store.

When we talk to retailers, there’s a lot of interest in using Alexa as a virtual sales assistant to help people while they’re browsing in a brick-and-mortar store. Do you think of those use cases as well?

From an aspirational perspective, absolutely. We’re not actively doing anything like that at the moment, but at the core, the Echo is a customer experience device. So how could you not only delight them in-store, out of store. Because someone already has Alexa on their mobile app, we’re always trying to imagine what could you do to make any brand that you either sell or associated with be more successful.

The challenge, obviously, is, with voice, if you’re in a crowded store, it’s difficult to kind of narrow down what one person is saying. Then you have to think about using voice remotes or a push button. One of the crazy ideas could be to create a phone booth that you step in and close the door.

That’s part of the brainstorming we’re constantly doing. The possibilities really are endless and that’s what’s so exciting about the emergence of voice activation.

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Target Adds Google Voice Assistant Shopping Nationwide

Target is the latest brick-and-mortar brand to sign on to accept requests made by owners of the Google Home through their voice-activated Google Assistant (aka “Okay, Google”) for delivery or pickup via its local online shopping marketplace Google Express.

In essence, the arrangement represents an expansion of Target’s existing use of Google Express.

Starting today, Target shoppers at most of its 1,800 stores in the United States can access items through Google Express and with the Google Assistant (except for Alaska and Hawaii). Target will offer two-day delivery, as well as free shipping for any orders over $35, Google says in a blog post.

Coming In 2018

Most of the capabilities of shopping through Google Express won’t be available until 2018. For example, after the new year, Target customers will also be able to use their Target loyalty membership through REDcard to get 5 percent off most Target purchases and free shipping when using Google Express. In addition, in 2018, Target shoppers will be able to link their Target.com and Google accounts, so the service will remember all their favorite items.

“We’re teaming up with Google to create innovative digital experiences using voice and other cutting-edge technologies to elevate Target’s strength in style areas such as home, apparel and beauty,” Target says. “Work is underway for Google and Target teams to bring this all to life.”

In August, Walmart unveiled plans to rollout a similar voice-activated shopping via Google Express and Google Home tools for its 4,700 U.S. stores and its fulfillment network “to create customer experiences that don’t currently exist within voice shopping anywhere else,” including choosing to pick up an order in store (often for a discount) or using voice shopping to purchase fresh groceries across the country.

These partnership on voice-activation comes roughly a year after Google Home debuted as a Connected Home product to augment Google Assistant.

“Shopping isn’t always as easy as it should be,” Sridhar Ramaswamy, SVP for Ads and Commerce, said in a blog post at the time of the Walmart deal’s announcement “When was the last time you needed to pick up something from the store but didn’t have the time to make the trip? Or you went to the store only to realize they didn’t have the brand you wanted? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could get what you want, however you want, from the stores where you already shop? We launched Google Express and shopping on the Google Assistant to do just that: make it faster and easier for you to shop your stores like Costco, Target and  Walmart.”

Okay, Google, Target shoppers are ready to talk.

Target’s Many Omnichannel Steps

For Target, the expanded Google partnership follows a series of steps designed to tackle one of the primary challenges facing its omnichannel strategy by rivals like Amazon. In August, for example, Target acquired transportation tech company Grand Junction to promise same-day delivery to customers to match one of key appeals of Amazon’s discount shopping subscription program, Prime.

It’s the latest salvo store brand has taken to meet consumers’ demands in the age of Amazon and e-commerce. Those demands include personalized recommendation and satisfying customers’ purchasing preferences, such as online shopping/in-store pickup.

But as Amazon has expanded its discounts and two-day shipping with its Prime membership option, and has just heralded its Instant Pickup option, retailers have turned to one advantage they still possess — at least for the moment — in relation to Amazon: proximity to their customers and known inventory, which makes it possible to offer the ultimate convenience of letting someone click “buy” and then having it brought to them within a few hours.

The Rise Of Connected Intelligence, The Knowledge Graph

In general, the adoption of voice-activation and on-demand delivery/pickup follows the wider capabilities stemming from the rise of Connected Intelligence and the Knowledge Graph, which have propelled personalized, one-to-one connections between brands and digital assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Samsung’s Bixby as they enter the mainstream of consumer behavior.

While Amazon’s Alexa has assumed an early position as a leading voice-activated assistant, Google has stepped up its push into the space as its aligns its services to brick-and-mortar brands such as Panera Bread, which became one of the first national restaurant chains to begin offering voice-activated ordering and payment through Google Assistant.

The voice-activated ordering is currently available in Panera’s hometown of St. Louis and at its six locations in the Silicon Valley area. A full rollout of voice ordering is expected to come to all of Panera’s 2,000-plus U.S. locations by the end of the year, the company has said.

Other national brands that have formally aligned with Google’s voice-activated virtual assistant to accept spoken orders via the delivery marketplace Google Express, including Costco, Guitar Center, Kohl’s, L’Occitane, Payless, PetSmart, Road Runner Sports, Sur La Table, Ulta, Walgreens, and Amazon’s Whole Foods.

In the case of Target, the retailer has been aggressively — and at times, fitfully — revising its omnichannel strategy. For example, earlier this year, it decided to abandon its sub rosa e-commerce program called Goldfish, which was dubbed as the “store of the future.”

Before that, in August 2015, Target started a beacon program with Estimote to round out its in-store sales assistance. It’s unclear how vital the beacon program has been — or even whether Target has continued to use it —  since the company has not discussed those efforts publicly. Along the way, Target’s experiments with interactivity has included retail pop-ups and a showcase IoT-based connected home store in San Francisco.

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