How Can AI Help You?

Experiential Marketing in the Age of Assistance

Data. It’s changing everything as it shapes a new era. In every industry, across every vertical, within every household – data represents the bricks of our future. This holds especially true in marketing where internet users are generating over 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day. But collecting data is no longer enough. Today’s marketers are now challenged to take action, to transform their data into personalized experiences and position each consumer at the centre of their own universe.

2017 was another big year of change as numerous household names faced bankruptcy and restructure, including large retailers such as Toys R Us, RadioShack and Payless Shoes. In fact, in 2017 alone, nearly 40 major retailers filed for bankruptcy or bankruptcy protection[1]. Retailers that are thriving have adopted a new world view, empowering customers with same-day delivery, walk-out payments, self-service return kiosks and voice-powered assistants.

In fact, in 2017 alone, nearly 40 major retailers filed for bankruptcy or bankruptcy protection

Retail is in a massive state of flux. So much so, that we may not even recognize it in ten years’ time. For instance, imagine talking to your future fridge, asking it how much milk is left and telling it to place an order for home delivery. Or imagine a furnace or AC unit that needs maintenance and can automatically schedule the appointment within your calendar.

Omnichannel thinking is moving more towards ‘Sanschannel’ thinking as traditional retail channels disappear before our eyes. The only channel that truly matters anymore is the customer.  Today’s customers have unprecedented levels of access to information. They also excerpt more control than ever as they shop the internet – a marketplace full of endless choices.

Traditional thinking and traditional stores crumble in this consumer-centric landscape. Consider Bonobos, the modern men’s retailer, who uses physical stores only as guide shops for the perfect fit, then offers free shipping both ways to deliver your favourite styles and colours. Or Amazon Go stores that provide frictionless walkout payments. Today’s customers have come to expect uber-convenient, personalized, always-on service.

How can brands deliver?

While the number of malls is plummeting (an estimated 30% closing or being repurposed within 10 years[2]), conversational technology is on the rise. Smart speakers are becoming permanent fixtures in our homes. Digital assistants are replacing stores as sources of information and commerce. In a recent Bing survey, over 40% of consumers expected digital assistants to understand their purchase preferences and make routine purchases on their behalf within the next 5 years.

In a recent Bing survey, over 40% of consumers expected digital assistants to understand their purchase preferences and make routine purchases on their behalf within the next 5 years.

Just like the mobile revolution, another wave of change is coming, and in an even bigger way than mobile – powered by data, digital assistants and AI – putting consumers directly into the driver’s seat.

The Rise of Voice

The age of touch as the primary user interface between consumers and devices is coming to an end. We’re entering the era of voice and conversational interfaces led by IOT and connected devices. As marketers take their data to the cloud, there is a new family of devices rising, powered by voice, appearing in some unlikely places, such as our kitchens, on our wrists and in our cars.

Zero UI, or screenless computing, continues to gain relevance as consumers embrace new devices such as smart phones, smart home speakers, smart watches, connected home, in-car infotainment, etc. We are even on the cusp of mainstream mixed reality.

With these new devices, come new user behaviours. Touching, tapping and clicking are no longer preferred in mobile and ambient settings. Milliseconds matter to today’s consumer who requires immediacy, action and value. In today’s marketplace, voice commands simply make sense.

Gartner predicts that 30% of web browsing sessions will be done without a screen by 2020

Gartner predicts that 30% of web browsing sessions will be done without a screen by 2020[3]. But the future is not just about technology that understand your voice commands. It’s much, much more than that. Marketers today are going to need to advertise their voice skills and train their customers how to use them and to find them.

Technology of the future doesn’t just talk. It thinks. It draws insights from knowledge graphs. It forges emotional relationships with customers. Today’s customers are reaching out in new ways – through voice searching, voice skills, IM, mobile apps, etc. – and brands need to be ready with digital assistants that can respond.

In order for digital assistants to provide the most value for their users, they need access to us and our data. Based on our settings and preferences, we as users will decide how much information to give them. The more they understand us, the better they can tailor results to the graph of ‘me’ or the graph of one. If my digital assistant knows that I prefer to fly on United, like window seats and travel to Chicago every Thanksgiving, they can take on the task of booking me a flight. They may even have predictive powers, suggesting I book my holiday flight as soon as a flash sale appears.

The Rise of Digital Assistants

Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, believes every brand will soon have a digital assistant, “Every brand will build intelligent conversational agents. Your brand needs to have its own agents that can talk directly to customers and to converse across multiple personal digital assistants.” These agents will not only interact with customers, but talk to each other creating web-like networks, similar to today’s internet. For instance, Alexa and Cortana can already interact to help users send emails and update schedules via voice.

Bing research shows that over half of consumers expect to be able to reach and engage with their favourite brands through their digital assistant within the next 5 years. It won’t be sufficient to build voice skills for other platforms – brands will need their own fully branded digital assistants to deepen relationships. For instance, Mavi’s style-bot helps users find the perfect pair of jeans – visual search allows shoppers to upload pictures of jeans they like. And Progressive Insurance’s Flobot offers a full extension of their brand so that users feel like they are engaging with the cheerful spokeswoman.

Feelings will play a large part. Brands will need to incorporate both IQ and EQ into voice interactions in order to create meaningful customer relationships. Capgemini research shows that 69% of emotionally engaged consumers want the brand to play a greater role in their life[4]. Familiar voices, branded wake words, sentiment analysis, facial analytics, etc. can all help retailers connect with consumers on an emotional level. Future retailers will use digital assistants to inspire their customers to take action, deepen loyalty and redefine the shopping experience together.

5 Tips for Getting Started

At this point in the game, retailers should not be asking if they need a chatbot. Rather, they should be at a point where they are discussing, ‘What are we learning from our chatbot?’ and ‘What new goals can we accomplish with it?’ Every brand needs a chatbot as a first stepping stone towards their own personal digital assistant. Here’s some suggestions for getting started:

Create Smarter Chatbot Dialogues

You probably have already started creating your own digital assistant without even realizing it. Call centres are gold mines of recorded conversations that brands can use as training materials for an AI system. By converting these materials into understandable labelled data, AI systems can learn what matters most to your current customers. These are the seeds that will grow into a full dialogue system.

Uncover The Questions

What are your customers actually asking? Again, call centres and customer service are a gold mine. But don’t forget that “Google it” has become a verb. Search query reports can also give insight into voice searches that customers are currently conducting.

Use an Open Framework

You should create conversational technology on an open framework that gives you the most control and flexibility. For instance, Microsoft bot framework is currently available across 16 different channels from Cortana to Facebook to Slack and Skype. It lives up the hype of code once and deploy across many. Ideally, you will be able to deploy your intelligent agent across any channel of your choice, from your website to other existing and creative apps.

Move from Question & Answer to Question & Action

Try to avoid engagements that are simple Q & A sessions. Although popular Q & As are a good starting point for conversational technology, action is the main goal of a digital assistant. How can your bot help your customers take action, accomplish tasks and extract value from each interaction?

Inject your Bot with Personality and Cognitive Intelligence

Create a consistent, human-like personality. Use wake words that mean something to your customers. Connect with users on both an intellectual and emotional level through voice and sentiment analysis.

Maximize Reach

Once you have created a chatbot or a voice skill, be sure to put a plan in place so that your customers can easily find it and know how to use it. When using the Microsoft bot framework[5], you can tag the content to help make your conversational interface discoverable. For voice skills think about how you can integrate it into your existing marketing content. Consider NPR – at the end of the broadcast you’ll hear, “Ask your smart speaker to Play “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” on NPR or you can go to NPR.com.”

[1] “Retailers that have filed for bankruptcy in 2017,” CBS News, September 19, 2017

[2] “Re-think Retail: The Store Must Do More – Ahead of the Curve,” Cowen, April 6, 2018

[3] “Gartner’s Top 10 Predictions for 2017 and Beyond,” Gartner, October 18, 2016

[4] “Loyalty Deciphered – How Emotions Drive Genuine Engagement,” Capgemini, 2017

[5] Microsoft Bot Framework available at: https://dev.botframework.com/

Christi Olson

Christi Olson

Head of Evangelism for Search at Microsoft
Christi Olson

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