What Marketers Need To Know About The World Of ‘Connected Intelligence’

AI-powered robots may not be cleaning our homes, but make no mistake: Marketing has entered the era of “connected intelligence” — an umbrella term that refers to the way algorithms, machine learning, and artificial intelligence (AI) are now transforming data in order to power intelligent search, voice-activated intelligent assistants, and more. This effectively changes the way in which consumers discover information, receive structured answers, and interact with brands.

Since the mainstreaming of mobile, consumer data has proliferated and evolved in unprecedented fashion. Today, AI is increasingly capable of making it “smarter” — for uses that include powering the voice-activated interfaces like Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Microsoft Cortana, that consumers are relying on to control more and more aspects of their daily lives.

The question, then, is what do marketers truly need to know — and how are brands taking steps to engage their customers across these new interfaces?

Making Sense Of Intelligent Search, Intelligent Agents, And How They Work Together

The first step to breaking down the ecosystem of connected intelligence is to understand what the designator “intelligent” means in this context. Here, “intelligent” refers specifically to the use of algorithms or AI to make data smarter — thereby improving results, answers, and/or the user experience.

The first important (and perhaps simplest) example of this intelligent evolution for marketers is search. Mobile search — and SEO — has existed for as long as the smartphone. But search has changed since the (relatively recent) days in which a query would result in only a list of “blue links” of webpages. Informed by continually evolving algorithms, today, search is intelligent — and “when you search for things, you get direct, structured answers,” explained Howard Lerman, CEO at Yext (full disclosure: Yext is GeoMarketing’s parent company. More details on that relationship here).

For example, if a consumer searches for “new car,” they don’t simply see links in their search results: They see the knowledge card, with prices, configurations, features of cars for sale, and more, all seamlessly. Similarly, if someone Googles groceries or banks, they get maps back; Google’s algorithm now assumes that users are searching for something in the physical world.

“Intelligent search” refers broadly to this way that search has evolved across interfaces like desktop and mobile — but it also includes searches and queries addressed to intelligent assistants. Simply, the term intelligent assistant (or intelligent agent, or intelligent personal assistant) refers to software that uses AI to then perform services or tasks for a user.

Most people today are familiar with some form of intelligent assistants, even it is by another name: Siri is one example, allowing users to ask questions and make voice searches — and assisting them by returning structured, “intelligent” answers to queries from “who won the World Series in 1996?” to “where is a good bar near me?” Amazon Alexa and Okay, Google are, of course, two other popular examples.

So, we see that, in a world with more data points than ever before, algorithms and AI are being used to produce smarter, structured results for users of “old” devices like PCs and smartphones — and newer interfaces like the intelligent assistants powering smart speakers/devices from tech giants like Amazon, Google, Apple, and Microsoft. But how are consumers actually interacting with these devices, and what’s driving that change?

The Role Of Voice

Two years after its release, most people know this about the Amazon Echo: If we’re talking about Echo and Alexa, we’re inherently talking about voice commands.

The shift to increased reliance on voice over the past year is perhaps the biggest change for marketers since the advent of the smartphone. In 2017, there will be an estimated 33 million voice-first devices in circulation, according to VoiceLabs 2017 Voice Report — and over 50 percent of Millennial (18-34) are already using voice commands once a month or more, according to research from Mindshare and J. Walter Thompson.

Amazon Alexa

“Just recently — in fact, just less than two years ago — voice recognition passed the threshold that makes it a viable user interface,” explained Dan Quigley, principal technical product manager, Alexa Whole Home at Amazon. “Now, consumers are reporting that that’s their preferred interface for communicating [with intelligent assistants and smart home devices.] The idea is that it’s something that gets smarter over time — the AI gets smarter over time — but the other thing that improves is our understanding of what people mean when they say things. A great little example is that in some parts of the country they’ll say, ‘close the light,’ and that means ‘turn off the light.’ We have to learn how to recognize that. [That’s a big part] of the progress that we’ve made.”

As voice recognition technology has improved — and as the AI behind intelligent assistants continues to “learn” over time — adoption of voice commands is skyrocketing. Noted. But why?

“In our research, users [continually] talk about how more efficiently they can manage their daily lives by voice.,” said Elizabeth Cherian, UK Director of Innovation at J. Walter Thompson. “And this makes sense: We’re humans; we’re built to exchange information orally. Swipe and text, on the other hand, are not intuitive.”

In fact, JWT teamed up a company called Neuro Insight to measure brain activity in 100 participants while processing information via text and via voice.

The findings? When respondents took in information by text their brains worked harder than when they took information in by a voice. There is a clear implication here for marketers: Human beings tend follow the path of least resistance; as the sophistication of voice continues to improve, it is likely that many will opt for voice over text because it is cognitively easier.

Put simply, the increasing popularity of voice search and voice commands appears to be at least partially tied to ingrained aspects of human cognition. And, at present, this mode of operating is particularly linked to controlling key interfaces (namely, intelligent assistants) in the world of connected intelligence.

As such, marketers must begin to ask themselves: When are my customers using text, and when are they using voice? And will they buy products directly through intelligent assistants like Alexa? Siri? Elsewhere?

“Businesses today need to push their information to all of these digital services,” Lerman said. “It’s not enough to just put it on the web.”

Brands Explore Connected Intelligence In Marketing: What Works?

The primary brand-based question, then, is this: Why does it matter so much for brands to make sure their underlying data layer is ready for consumption by these new digital services — and also to craft skills (like Alexa skills, for example) or experiences for them?

“This is a key area for businesses today to be watching and taking action around,” said Duane Forrester, VP of Industry Insights at Yext. “There is a cycle powered by data. The engines and services use the data in increasingly sophisticated ways to power ever more useful experiences for consumers. Consumers then come to expect those stand out experiences, and also notice when their favorite brands and businesses aren’t included.

“Faced with loyalty requiring work (e.g., needing to go find a business’ website), consumers usually opt for the shortcut. The click that’s right in front of them. Businesses today need to embrace technical aspects such as marking up content to even stand on the ground level here, whether we’re talking mobile, voice search, or map-based search. That’s table stakes these days,” Forrester concluded. “Skip that step and you risk not being invited to the game.”

It can still be considered somewhat early days in discussions of the sophistication of AI — and of the adoption of the intelligent agents it powers. That said, research indicates that the appetite for discovering brands and purchasing from them via intelligent assistants is there: “53 percent of global smart phone users are excited by the prospect by their voice assistant anticipating their needs — making suggestions and even going so far as to take action, even buying something from a brand on their behalf,” Cherian said. “Like, if it knows that Charmin is my favorite toilet paper brand and just orders it for me.”

This points to a potential opportunity — and challenge — for brands: If someone loves a particular brand, and the assistant knows that, how can another brand get into that already loyal relationship? Or, how can brands capture consumer interest in this new ecosystem before the link is formed?

“We are seeing is that there are a couple of potential future options there,” Cherian said. “Firstly, could there be paid recommendation? Could you, as a brand, pay to have the voice assistant recommend your brand? Especially when there isn’t that bond already formed. It’s not the best option, it’s not maybe the cheapest option, but it is an option that theoretically a brand could pay to get to the top of the list.

“But here’s what can be done right now: This idea of algorithm optimization that matters so much [in the world of connected intelligence] is like the new SEO,” Cherian added. “Brands [need to get their] underlying data layer ready for consumption by these devices. The question is, how do you build into your product and services such as the voice assistant sees you as the best option? That’s something we think brands should be thinking about right now.”

And brands are thinking about it now in an attempt to not fall behind consumer adoption — some that happened to many marketers when consumers were switching quickly to mobile devices.

In one of the most high profile examples, Burger King earlier this year targeted a TV spot to Google Home, rather than to viewers themselves. In the spot (a 15-second YouTube version is here), a Burger King cashier addressed the audience saying that there are too many “delicious ingredients” in the Whopper to list in a short commercial. So, instead, the cashier leans in to the camera and says, “But I’ve got an idea: Okay, Google, what is the Whopper Burger?”

The idea was that the commercial would then be extended to Google Home, delivering clear engagement with the consumer. Soon after the ad aired, Google disabled it, AdAge reported — but it had already taken off, and BK and David Miami went on to release tweaked versions of the ad that would trigger the device once again. The fact that the ad was initially disabled is certainly of note — perhaps most marketers would do well to focus first on making sure their location and other data is rendered accurately and ready for consumption by these devices, rather than speaking to them directly from the outside — but it was an important step forward for showing how brands might be able to take a step into this new technological world in a playful way.

And while the company hasn’t released metrics on how the ad designed to engage customers’ Google Home devices worked in terms of actually driving them to Burger King locations, it did get fans talking — and the “Google Home of the Whopper” campaign won the Grand Prix in the Direct Category at Cannes in June.

In another brand example, as we wrote earlier this month, Patron recently enabled its “Patrón skill” in the Alexa app on Amazon Alexa voice-enabled devices, allowing users to ask for cocktail recommendations, recipes and tips – everything from the perfect brunch recipe to the proper way to shake and strain a cocktail. Future voice platforms will follow.

“Engaging voice communication is just another way that we’re creating simply perfect experiences for our consumers through the tools that we deliver and the tequila that we proudly handcraft,” said Lee Applbaum, Global CMO at Patrón Spirits. “We are excited to be the first luxury spirit brand on the Amazon Alexa platform, which is really the start of a broader initiative that will leverage platforms like Alexa, Cortana, Siri, and future technologies to be able to more seamlessly deliver content to people when and how they want it. Alexa is just the beginning.”

In fact, “Alexa is just the beginning” sums up quite well what marketers need to know about connected intelligence: today, it’s algorithms and AI transforming data to more intelligently answer users’ questions, whether via “old” interfaces like mobile or newer ones like Google Home. But in the future — as voice-activated devices continue to proliferate and new IoT devices come on the scene as well — marketers will almost certainly have to navigate an increasingly connected world, with “smart” technology we haven’t imagined yet; the time to prepare is now.

Fortunately, even in the face of new technology, a classic marketing maxim still holds true: Anything brands decide to do in this realm — whether with chatbots, intelligent assistants, or beyond, must be relevant. It has to deliver clear value and an engaging experience for the consumer.

“Everything … is going to be centered around: It’s got to be user-friendly, and it’s got to be an experience that can truly benefit the user,” said Ben Brown, product lead for Google Home & Wifi. “It can’t just be because an internet service provider feels the opportunity to aggregate. Value [is only added] when it’s something that someone really wants to have.”