– James Sutton

It’s no longer news that within companies big and small a wave of Conversational AI inertia continues building across marketing, product management, e-commerce, digital transformation and customer services teams.  More and more examples of these technologies in action are appearing from nearly every industry, most visibly of course in the big B2C sectors such as retail, hospitality, financial services, travel and media/communications. 

What’s still a work in progress however, is figuring out the implications of chatbots, virtual agents, sentiment analysis and other AI driven technologies on brand, customer experience, conversational commerce and the digital marketing mix.  To help provide perspective on some of these important topics, I am sharing below a few of the most frequent questions I hear from Chief Marketing and Digital Officers and some responses for each on how best to prepare the enterprise for success.

As voice technology grows more and more prevalent, what impact will this have on the retail landscape, and on brands’ approaches to marketing?

  • CIOs, CMOs and other client executives tell me that improving customer experience with conversational AI, along with being where the customers are (or want to be), is more important than nearly any other initiative. That means not just voice enabled virtual agents such as Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant and Cortana, but messaging platforms including Facebook, Kick, Slack, Skype and others.
  • Think beyond only designing for a single branded agent when contextualizing Conversational AI for marketing initiatives. Forrester’s data in a September 2017 report shows, “Apple’s Siri is present on 375 million devices globally, while Google Assistant is on 2 billion Android devices. In comparison, Amazon has sold an estimated 18 million Echo devices.”

Behind Conversational AI – what is coming next we need to begin experimenting with and planning for?

  • It’s not too early to begin preparing for augmented and virtual reality and determining how that will factor into brand representation and the consumer’s shopping and buying experience. The iPhone X embeds all these capabilities and more into their platform, Echo Show is doing the same with their visually based device and all the others will be there within quarters. I don’t think it’s coincidence that founders for several of the emerging Conversational AI platform companies came from gaming companies where AR and VR have been for a couple years now. These technologies are going to be very intertwined.

If consumers will be able to order through devices like Alexa linked with shopping services like Amazon simply through speaking, how must brands adapt to make sure they make it into consumers’ voice-activated shopping bags? 

  • Whether you sell value meals, mutual funds, airline tickets, sports cars or hotel rooms, you better be two things in the voice-enabled marketplace:
  1. Easy for your customers to find – at the sound of their voice.
  2. Even easier to buy from once they connect with you.
  • Gartner reports that “by 2018 more than two billion people will use conversational AI to interact with VPAs, VCAs and other AI-enabled smartphones and connected devices on a regular basis.” We have to assume that a fair share of those 2 billion will want to do more than ask about the weather or to hear their favorite song – they will be looking for ways to find, research and buy things.
  • In a conversational AI world, our virtual assistants will search, open, fetch, command and engage the dozens or more websites, portals, apps and systems we all interact with on a daily basis. “My virtual agent does that” becomes the new “there’s an app for that.” 

Vanity URLs will be as pointless as Yellow Pages ads.

Would we move towards a ‘brandless’ future where consumer loyalty and brand packaging no longer holds clout?

  •  Loyalty will go to the brands who make it an easy process, which use AI to personalize and contextualize the experience based on past interactions, location, time of day, language, even mood. It’s micro-targeting taken to an extreme.  
  • Achieving the above while maintaining security, confidentiality, privacy and trust will be a significant differentiator.  No one wants “creepy”!
  • Lastly, not everyone will want to shop over their smart speaker from their kitchen counter. Demographics will drive a lot of adoption – or resistance to adoption. Brands targeting digital natives need a very different approach than those focused on Boomers or X’ers.  Think across digital (and traditional) channels be it social network, car, home, phone or even mirror for that matter!

For those of you with brand, commerce or care responsibilities for your company, where do you see Conversational AI impacting your strategies for engaging and supporting your customers? Any theories, predications or lessons learned you’d like to share, we’d love to hear them!


About me: I run the Conversational AI practice for Cognizant and love sharing ideas with others in this space. Feel free to provide your feedback on this post, connect on LinkedIn or visit me on Twitter to talk further.