Paging Brands: Your Next Digital Channel is Coming

In 2008 Iron Man showed us the dream of a fully personalized artificial intelligence-based assistant (and not for the first time on film). Despite the invention and improvement of technologies like Siri and Google Now, however, many people still don’t feel comfortable talking to a machine out loud. KITT, Jarvis and (okay, we’ll go there) HAL had the additional advantage of human voice actors and a script, an advantage not afforded to our synthetic friends in today’s smartphones. Their communications have a stilted feel (and their frequent misunderstandings of commands don’t help).

More recently, the world woke up and realized there was a better way. Facebook M, Skype’s chat-bots and the ill-fated Tay point to a trend towards what anyone with a phone has realized is a far more natural way of communicating. It’s the same way I’m talking to you now: text.

The Atlantic’s millennial-focused Quartz publication figured this out when they released their take on the news app earlier this year. Through a simple branching conversation (not unlike the dialog tree from a role playing video game) Quartz uses their unique style (and a liberal application of emojis) to communicate the latest world events. Integrated push notifications help keep readers up to date throughout the day. (This app is now the primary way I get my world news. I’m excited for when someone figures out how to successfully make this work with my RSS feeds.)

Apps & Bots

Insofar as voice is concerned, Amazon are getting a lot of this right now with Amazon Alexa. With her pluggable Skills model, Alexa provides a far greater range of potential functionality than the locked-down Siri. Alexa also offers user interface cards that appear in the flow of the conversation in her companion application, allowing for a mix of conventional user interfaces interspersed between natural conversations. At Accenture, we started experimenting with Alexa early last year to provide an inexpensive mechanism AI assistant interaction, but the awkwardness of voice interaction didn’t go away.

Less clumsy, then, are Facebook and Microsoft’s recent announcements about their bot platforms (integrated with Facebook Messenger and Skype respectively). Microsoft even went a step further and built their Cortana virtual assistant into Skype to act as a mediator between the different applications, allowing users to book a stay at the Westin purely through messaging. Facebook additionally offers the advantage of being able to inject graphical user interface elements into the conversation to provide richer input where messaging isn’t enough.

As many brands have learnt the hard way, customers are tired of downloading an app for every single business they interact with. In the case of hotels, for example, many customers may not travel enough to have hotel chain loyalties. Microsoft’s Westin integration with Cortana demonstrates a world in which that app is not necessary.

This messaging interaction then, can act as an in-between and an augmentation to existing digital channels. On the one hand messaging offers a rich interaction model, with push-driven conversations. There’s also no home screen slot to take over. But there is some ambient information and user interface advantages to a mobile application which are still relevant in the brave new world of bots. We see a way to position messaging components as a potential stepping stone to full application interactions (where necessary).

The classic text adventure game Zork featured this threat for players who dared venture off into the darkness without a torch. Zork used text based options to allow players to navigate its fantasy world, one of the first games to do so.

Brands and businesses should no doubt be apprehensive about this potential future. With so many entry and integration points there’s suddenly quite a lot to think about, and quite a lot of heterogeneous technologies to work with. Between M, Skype bots, Siri and Cortana how does a brand ensure they aren’t being locked out of any of these channels? Moreover, do they strike early to take advantage of industry specific keywords like “book me a hotel”? If not managed carefully I can see a bidding war heating up…

On the flip-side of the impending threat, the messaging economy also presents an amazing opportunity. CPG companies are especially well positioned to take advantage of this. Whereas before the willingness of a customer to install a mobile application for their toothbrush may have not been so high, the ability to subscribe to an alert when it is time to replace theirs may seem more reasonable if it is centrally managed by their virtual assistant.

A push notification when this stuff is real would be nice…

There’s still too much movement in this space to recommend a single solution in good faith, but a great way to keep up to date on messaging and artificial assistant interfaces is to simply follow me on Medium. Early experiments are encouraged but, as with any new channel, adoption can be expected to grow slowly at first. As the messaging paradigm gains steam and as the messaging platforms (Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon are the ones to watch; Google and Apple are conspicuous in their absence) we anticipate a sharp and exponential uptick. At that point it will become dangerous to be left behind.

As well as our work with Alexa, Accenture Labs recently recommended craft beer to attendees at Millennial 20–20 in London with nothing more than a simple text message. Using publicly shared beer preferences from Untappd and partnering with Crazy Mountain Brewery, we provided a rich experience based on the Customer Genome to reveal attendees’ hidden beer profiles.