If you haven’t bought an Echo or Google Home yet, I’m sorry but you’re an abject failure of a 2017 marketer. And I don’t mean “have you tried Alexa at the store or your friend’s house?”

I mean, “have you bought an Echo, lived with Alexa listening to you, forgot you had an Echo, left it unplugged for a week, plugged it back in and forgot about it, used it only to listen to music and then, oh and then, one day you use it for something extremely useful and IT CLICKS THAT THIS IS A COMPLETE GAME CHANGER?”

Start with an Echo Dot. It’s $50. And you won’t feel like you broke the bank when you need to upgrade later this year.

In Cory Doctorow’s new book, Walkaways, the people of the near-future have an A.I. powered home assistant that not only can order groceries or provide answers to basic questions, it also syncs with appliances, controls entertainment devices, and uses light to highlight chores that need to be completed. Which is basically possible today using the existing infrastructure of Alexa and Google Home. Of course, Doctorow throws in a working sim of your dead lover as the protagonist A.I., but that’s why it was a good novel. And not possible today. Yet.

So assuming you’ve already bought into the serendipity and early brand opportunities with these A.I.-powered assistants, it’s critical we spend some time thinking about next-gen brand opportunities. Specifically, the new Echo Show that debuted this week — featuring not only a screen, but a camera to go along with the microphone.

Chris Messina calls this The Fifth Family Member, pointing out it’s design fits a familiar invisible technology pattern. Not beautiful but not ugly. Something you buy and set-up and forget about. Until you find a few things that make it invaluable. “By reducing the importance of appearance, Amazon can emphasize function over form, keep its prices anticompetitively low, and drown the market with products that offer access to its AI voice assistant.”

Meanwhile, Scott Galloway at L2 is musing about these next-gen brand opportunities higher in the sales funnel and consumer purchase cycle than the conversion — the brand itself.

Voice…will expedite the decline of brand equity as a vehicle for sustaining healthy margins. There is an arrogance in academia and business that a focus on brand building will always be a winning strategy. No, it might not.

Of the 13 firms that have outperformed the S&P five years in a row (yes, there’s just 13), only one of them is a consumer brand — Under Armour. Note: it will be off next year’s list.

At L2 we’ve been running tests (barking commands at Alexa) to glean insight into the Seattle firm’s strategy. Some findings:

1. It’s clear that Amazon wants to drive commerce through Alexa, as they are offering a lower price, on many products, if ordered via voice vs. click.

2. In key categories like batteries, Alexa will suggest Amazon Basics, their private label, and play dumb about other choices (“Sorry, that’s all I found!”) when there are several other brands on amazon.com.

Retailers often leverage their power and custody of the consumer to swap out brands for their own private label. That’s nothing new. Only we’ve never seen any retailer this good at it.

Death, for brands, has a name … Alexa.

Source: “Alexa, How Can We Kill Brands?” | No Mercy No Malice | Scott Galloway | L2

 

 

Will voice-enabled devices and ordering kill brands? No.

But they will certainly impact how the public interacts with them. Especially commodity products and those that aren’t unique enough in marketplace ecosystem to stand out (ie. the battery example above).

All the more reason to jump in and start familiarizing and experimenting with this space now.

As new smart devices continue to emerge and as consumers embrace new, more natural ways to interact with those devices (like voice commands), the micro-moment behaviors mobile kick-started will only multiply.

And as data and machine learning become more sophisticated in enhancing everyday consumer experiences, the expectations for relevant, personalized, and assistive experiences will continue to skyrocket.

We’re heading toward an age of assistance where, for marketers, friction will mean failure, and mass messages will increasingly mean “move on.”

Source: Micro-Moments Are Multiplying—Are You Ready for the Future of Marketing? – Think with Google

I’m only at 354 of 975 total pages of the digital copy of Cory Doctorow’s new book, Walkway.

Yet I’m highly enjoying the paradox between the haves and have nots, impacted mostly by those who are excited about thinking differently and embracing new technology — and those who are not.

Here’s how one of his characters classifies this natural resistance to change in the book…

“Anything invented before you were eighteen was there all along.

Anything invented before you’re thirty is exciting and will change the world forever.

Anything invented after that is an abomination and should be banned.”

–Excerpt From Cory Doctorow’s “Walkaway.”

To be clear, this isn’t how I think. But it’s how a lot of people think — consciously or not.

As a student of how people are influenced, this topic fascinates me. Looking forward to finishing Walkway soon…

I love studying retail ups and downs, and the fact you can still go walk around a Sears or Kmart today while they decline is a special, real-time gift for those of us in retail marketing to witness an unprecedented decline in this brick and mortar legacy.

If you haven’t lately, I highly recommend you spend a Saturday afternoon just walking through your local shopping mall and be sure to walk through the Sears anchor — if there still is one. I call it “The Prescient Marketer’s Field Trip.”

It’s not that I’m rooting for these companies to fail. It’s that I’m energized at disrupting, and then self-disrupting once you’re on top. And today we can see the real-world impact of category disruption at work more clearly than in recent decades.

Be sure to stop at the Payless Shoe Store, too.

Once, Sears was the disruptor—not the disrupted.

When the Sears catalog first appeared on doorsteps in the 1890s, it fundamentally changed how Americans shopped. Back then, much of the population lived in rural areas, and they bought almost everything from little shops at rural junctions. These general stores had limited selection and charged exorbitant prices. They were the only game in town.

“The Sears catalog had an even bigger impact in 1900 than Amazon has had today,” said Robert Gordon, a professor at Northwestern University and author of The Rise and Fall of American Growth. Like today’s e-commerce powerhouse, the Sears catalog provided shoppers more choice than ever before, and at lower prices. Sears freed shoppers from the tyranny of the local general merchant and improved their living standards.

“The cost of living went down the minute Sears became available,” said Gordon.

Searching for parallels of Sears’s fall through business history, Gordon could find none.  “There is nothing like the decline of Sears and Kmart,” he said.

Source: The Long, Hard, Unprecedented Fall of Sears – Bloomberg

Meanwhile, we’re seeing innovative retailers expanding their offering beyond straight retail. In fact, I have a client who is treating their shopping mall experience as a destination in some really smart ways. And this is why the Scheels taking over the Sears footprint at my local mall will have a 65 foot tall indoor ferris wheel and 16,000 gallon aquarium…

“Unlike a typical sporting good store or department store, the new Eden Prairie Scheels will be a collection of entertainment venues, specialty shops and boutiques staffed with experts who focus on their passions. The 240,000-square-foot Scheels Retail Shopping Adventure will showcase Minnesota’s largest selection of sports, fashion and footwear under one roof,” according to a news release.

BONUS: 

What American shopping malls looked like in 1989

 

Abandoned Malls Look Like Sad, Empty Video Games

“Playlists are Spotify’s answer to product innovation,” – industry analyst Mark Mulligan.

Source: The Secret Hit-Making Power of the Spotify Playlist

And the results are fascinating

Source: Superintelligence and Public Opinion – NewCo Shift

My friend Tim Brunelle recently gave a speech on creativity and the age of A.I. and automation. He wrote a 11 min read Medium piece on it that is so rich and full of quotes, it takes a couple reads through to realize its breadth and impact.

For starters, I love his point about how idea people are agitators that can be perceived as troublemakers. This is something I’ve learned a lot about myself in the past few years…

 

As Idea People, we are also agitators.

I’ll paraphrase Robert Grudin, who describes us in his book The Grace of Great Things, “Many [Idea People] initially are seen as troublemakers simply because their vigorous and uncompromising analysis exposes problems that previously had been ignored.”

Grudin warns that, “Creativity is dangerous. We cannot open ourselves to new insight without endangering the security of prior assumptions. Creative achievement”—and that’s what I believe all of us Idea People are all about — “Creative achievement is… an adventure. It’s pleasure is not the comfort of the safe harbor, but the thrill of the reaching sail.”

So onward we sail.

Tim goes on to discuss the problem of A.I. and automation stealing our jobs, and then his simple premise that rather than resist and fight it, we should learn how to enhance our own creativity using these new tools..

So I’m curious — what if you editors, you publishers, writers and designers thought of yourselves as technologists? How might your product evolve, what new products would emerge — from curious Idea People seeking to apply the benefits of AI to the sustained, periodic shipment of words, images and motion to subscribers?

I must admit I am not a scientist. I am not a software developer. I can’t spool up an artificial intelligence on Amazon Web Services. But I can ask questions and I can learn. In learning about AI and automation I’ve found I am not afraid of the future of Idea People. I’m bullish on our abilities to derive opportunity from the evolution of technology.

I believe the long term, passionate, purposeful thinkers in this room will discover unique, robust and profitable ways to benefit from automation and artificial intelligence. If we remain curious.

I think this is cogent advice for anyone in the creative industry or a role that requires any semblance of problem solving. Embracing emerging technology and learning to use it today pays long-term dividends.

Don’t fight the A.I. Become it’s master. 

 

“The AI neither hates you, nor loves you, but you are made out of atoms that it can use for something else.”

–Eliezer Yudkowsky, A.I. theorist

 

“…All great and honourable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and must be both enterprised and overcome with answerable courages.” – William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1621

Source: William Bradford is one of the main reasons that the Puritan Movement got rolling

When the architect of the world wide web speaks out about how his creation could end us all, I usually stop to listen.

On the 28th anniversary of the world wide web’s birth, Sir Tim Berners-Lee published this letter detailing what he views as the three main challenges for the web: loss of control over personal data, the spread of misinformation across the web and the need for transparency with online political advertising.

1)   We’ve lost control of our personal data

The current business model for many websites offers free content in exchange for personal data. Many of us agree to this – albeit often by accepting long and confusing terms and conditions documents – but fundamentally we do not mind some information being collected in exchange for free services. But, we’re missing a trick. As our data is then held in proprietary silos, out of sight to us, we lose out on the benefits we could realise if we had direct control over this data, and chose when and with whom to share it. What’s more, we often do not have any way of feeding back to companies what data we’d rather not share – especially with third parties – the T&Cs are all or nothing.

This widespread data collection by companies also has other impacts. Through collaboration with – or coercion of – companies, governments are also increasingly watching our every move online, and passing extreme laws that trample on our rights to privacy. In repressive regimes, it’s easy to see the harm that can be caused – bloggers can be arrested or killed, and political opponents can be monitored. But even in countries where we believe governments have citizens’ best interests at heart, watching everyone, all the time is simply going too far. It creates a chilling effect on free speech and stops the web from being used as a space to explore important topics, like sensitive health issues, sexuality or religion.

2)   It’s too easy for misinformation to spread on the web

Today, most people find news and information on the web through just a handful of social media sites and search engines. These sites make more money when we click on the links they show us. And, they choose what to show us based on algorithms which learn from our personal data that they are constantly harvesting. The net result is that these sites show us content they think we’ll click on – meaning that misinformation, or ‘fake news’, which is surprising, shocking, or designed to appeal to our biases can spread like wildfire. And through the use of data science and armies of bots, those with bad intentions can game the system to spread misinformation for financial or political gain.

3)   Political advertising online needs transparency and understanding

Political advertising online has rapidly become a sophisticated industry. The fact that most people get their information from just a few platforms and the increasing sophistication of algorithms drawing upon rich pools of personal data, means that political campaigns are now building individual adverts targeted directly at users. One source suggests that in the 2016 US election, as many as 50,000 variations of adverts were being served every single day on Facebook, a near-impossible situation to monitor. And there are suggestions that some political adverts – in the US and around the world – are being used in unethical ways – to point voters to fake news sites, for instance, or to keep others away from the polls. Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups. Is that democratic?

Later in the letter, Berners-Lee says “I may have invented the web, but all of you have helped to create what it is today.” I think that’s extremely poignant.

Much like The Manhattan Project, we don’t always understand the full implication of our pioneering technology as they occur. Artificial intelligence (A.I.) is emerging as that next leap forward we truly don’t understand today. Rather than resist technology’s rise into our personal lives, I advocate we embrace its persistence and help guide it to the best possible outcome.

Dave Egger’s The Circle is coming out as a movie in two weeks. When I read the book in 2013 I called it the Atlas Shrugged of our digital generation. Eggers had his pulse on a very real and emergent trend related to connectivity, interaction and the subjective slippery slope of using connectivity tools for good and evil.

It will be fascinating to study how the general public reacts to the film, and in turn, how their behavior impacts awareness and outcry around the use of the topics above: 1) abuse of our personal data, 2) fake news, and 3) transparency.

Berners-Lee is a pragmatist, and a realist. But the general public is rarely either. It often takes fictionalized fantasy to help us escape our own fictionalized fantasy.

It’s been especially enjoyable to witness young people reading The Circle start to question aspects of their digital lifestyle in news ways. Like this op-ed from a student at the University of Washington:

Right now, most people have strongly opinionated answers to these questions, but after reading “The Circle,” readers are sure to have a more nuanced response. While it’s unlikely to completely change your mind, the book does an excellent job of complicating these familiar questions with new technology and perspectives.

As the influence of the internet in our lives grows, and companies and the government automatically have more access to our thoughts and lives, we have to ask ourselves where to draw the line. We need to be aware of how far people and companies are allowed to go and if we, as humans, are truly using these technologies for good; what is progress and what is too much?

I’m excited for the film, but I’m also a pragmatist and realist about how deep its impact could be.

As for me, when the architect of the world wide web speaks out about how his creation could end us all, I usually stop to listen.

 

 

Sources:
Sir Tim Berners-Lee lays out nightmare scenario where AI runs world economy | Social Media | Techworld

Three challenges for the web, according to its inventor – World Wide Web Foundation

Beyond the Page: ‘The Circle,’ by Dave Eggers — Privacy in the modern age | The Daily