How the Echo could kill marketing

Profile picture for user cmiddleton By Chris Middleton November 15, 2016
Are digital marketers ready to get out of the human ‘gunk’ business and refocus their business on machines? Chris Middleton offers a personal opinion.


When Salesforce unveiled Einstein at Dreamforce in October, much was made of the impact that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will have on marketing – including the fact that AI will be a key competitive differentiator for marketing organisations pitching to prospects and clients.

Factor in the ongoing trend towards traditional, centralised IT budgets being replaced by cash for digital programmes within line-of-business departments, and it’s clear that AI and marketing have a promising future, at least in terms of tactical spending.

But all of this has missed an important point. While these transformations have been going on within Marketing departments and CRM vendors, the whole business of marketing has been undermined by a very different application of AI: Amazon’s Echo/Alexa, Google’s Assistant, low-cost domestic robots, and smart devices connected to the Internet of things.

In other words, these devices render traditional marketing obsolete.

Amazon’s Echo points towards an immediate future in which someone sitting at home might say to Alexa on their device, “Get me two tickets to San Francisco and four nights at a five-star hotel near Union Square.” Or simply, “Order me some coffee!”

At that point the questions become: Which airline? Which hotel? And, Which coffee?

So it stands to reason that marketers will soon spend a great deal of time marketing brands, products, and services to machines – to platforms such as Amazon, Google, and Apple – and not to human beings. And that contradicts everything that marketing professionals have learned about their business over centuries.

Josh Valman, CEO of marketing services and rapid prototyping outfit RPD International, says:

It’s a really big problem, because marketing departments are so used to treating humans as this big blob of gunk that can be easily ‘impressioned’ with pictures and colours. But with machines, you’ve no longer got access to your lump of gunk. It’s all robotic. And a lot of our clients are now saying, ‘How the f*** do we market this product to a machine?’

This is a real-world challenge that is already affecting multinational businesses, he says:

It’s a problem that has particularly come up for one client of ours, who happens to be a major British airline. They’ve basically said, ‘Bollocks to marketing! There’s no point anymore’.

They’ve said, ‘We need to work out how these algorithms work and find better ways of winning the algorithm game. We’re never going to be the cheapest airline, so we need to find other ways of being top of the list’.

The fact that enterprises both large and small may opt to get out of traditional marketing entirely poses a serious challenge for marketing departments and agencies. Devices such as the Echo are connected to vast commerce and fulfilment platforms, which are designed to make people buy through those platforms as a matter of loyalty and convenience: no Echo app, no deal.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) technology underlies hundreds of thousands of businesses, both large and small, and Amazon has made huge investments in robotics and artificial intelligence

The same principle applies to Apple, whose Airpods won’t just be expensive, wireless headphones, but also interfaces to Siri via Apple’s platforms, apps, and services – and to everything that’s available through them, including retail and payment systems – on both IoS and Sierra devices.

Meanwhile, Google’s Assistant AI technology is being rolled into a variety of applications, including its Home hub. The key difference, of course, is the wider Google platform, the AI applications within which will extend to its Allo messaging service, its Now machine-learning system, to Android phones, and to search.

Google claims that 20% of US searches are already triggered by voice, rather than text.

In short, AI is now deeply embedded into Google itself – the algorithms behind which marketers already spend fortunes on trying to second-guess. Entire industries have sprung up around promising to get products and services onto page one of any search. So new opportunities will abound in helping organisations to pitch and sell their products to machines.

Industry-specific big data sets will be another growth area in the years ahead, connecting apps and even humanoid robots to sources of machine-readable expertise – robotic concierges in hotel foyers, for example. Which restaurant, shop, product, show, or service will they recommend to guests? Marketers need an answer to that question.

And there’s another challenge with audio/voice interfaces: unwanted marketing noise, which is a much greater irritant to the ear than to the eye. Third-party applications already include bespoke filters that allow people to remove unwanted chatter on Echo and Assistant devices, and so only receive communications that they want to hear and respond to. SoftServe’s VoiceMyBot is just one example.

Another nail in traditional marketing’s coffin.

My take

In order for Amazon’s future of seamless, audio/voice-enabled shopping to become a reality, then manufacturers and service providers must compete to grab Amazon’s attention in entirely new ways to ensure that competitors don’t get there first.

In the meantime, interfaces like Alexa/Echo will learn their owners’ preferences, and those links between buyer and product/service may prove hard to break.

The same principle applies to smart devices, such as fridges, connected to the IoT: machines that may order new goods when, for example, their owner regularly buys the same produce from the same retailer.

Low-cost domestic robots complete the picture: devices that are little more than smartphones or tablets on wheels, with voice activated controls. In rising numbers of homes, these devices will monitor security, control heat and light, tell your children stories, and do your shopping for you – not by leaving the house, but by logging on to cloud platforms, such as Amazon.

Again, those four-way relationships (machine/owner/seller/platform) may prove hard to break, especially when loyalty and reward schemes kick in.

So are digital marketers ready to get out of the human ‘gunk’ business and refocus their business on machines?