How Digital Assistants Are Changing Everything: Acquiring & Retaining Users In An Oversaturated World

Do you remember the feeling as you held your first iPhone in your hands? It was sleek, well-designed and looked just the right amount of flashy. When it launched in 2007, I was already sold on being able to use my phone to make calls, text, listen to music, write emails and schedule meetings. I never could have envisioned the million and one uses my phone fulfills in any given day. As more and more apps and services launched for mobile phones, I remember craving these apps to fill my home screen and loved having multiple categories and screens to swipe through. Today, my feelings towards apps have changed.

In 2014, Nielsen reported that “U.S. Android and iPhone users age 18 and over spend 65 percent more time each month using apps than they did just two years ago,” — an average of 30 hours and 15 minutes per month (1). People have dozens of apps on their phones — whether neatly organized or scattered in categories — and it’s clear our world is oversaturated with content.

Statistics show that people spend the majority of their time in a very small number of apps. “…human brains have a limited amount of processing power,” (2) and with this overload of content it’s easy to exceed this mental power. It’s important to take our brains ‘offline’ throughout the day to avoid overloading, an exercise that very few practice in our internet and app-focused society. The apps that are meant to make our lives easier are slowly taking more and more of our time — accounting for more than 15 days a year (!) spent on apps alone.

The way we consume also varies widely platform-by-platform, particularly related to mobile devices vs. desktop interaction. Discovering and accessing products and services on a desktop are pretty straightforward. You open a browser, go to Google, type in what you’re looking for and click through several landing pages, eventually heading through a transactional funnel (e.g. to book a flight or order food).

On mobile, it’s different for two specific reasons. First, the size of the screen is a lot smaller, making it less comfortable and convenient to spend extensive amounts of time on it to research and fulfill transactions. Second, you’re usually not sitting at your desk or at home when you’re on a mobile device. It’s more likely that you are on-the-go, running around and trying to be as efficient as possible while you complete other tasks. In this circumstance, you want to have your your search experience as curated and streamlined as possible.

When on a mobile device, you’re more likely to go to an app directly vs. using search. However, not only are there a significant number of individual apps for every single use-case, but for some categories, like food and travel, you probably have at least 10–15 apps to get the results you need. With apps for food including Seamless, DoorDash, InstaCart and OpenTable, and others for travel including Expedia, HotelTonight and SkyScanner — just to name a few — users are spoiled for choice.

Unlike looking for information on Google, people don’t go to the App Store and search for a generic keyword to discover apps. Most already have an app in mind, specifically search for it by name and download it. However, once it’s downloaded onto a smartphone, users do not have the ability to remember every individual app for specific use cases. It’s becoming more apparent than ever that people are searching for ways to streamline and make every day more efficient — searching for one-stop-shops that can provide a variety of services.

The discovery problem on mobile due to a shift in consumer behavior leads to a complex and expensive problem for all categories of apps: user acquisition and retention. The traditional, and scalable, way to acquire users on desktop — Adwords — has experienced challenges as apps become more fragmented and niche. Businesses will no longer be able to scale primarily through performance marketing. The sheer search volume for certain keywords is not going to foster this growth.

A study by The On-Demand Economy showed “that the on-demand economy’s growth is a product of its alignment to consumers’ growing appetite for greater convenience, speed and simplicity.” (3) But how will a user ever find out about an app that picks up & drops off laundry? Or an app that matches dog owners to dog walkers? More importantly, from a business perspective, how will I showcase my products to a super relevant user base if they’ve never heard of me before? The more niche a service becomes, the more difficult that becomes to do.

However, if I know that someone is ordering dog food, or asking to get their dry-cleaning picked up, I have access to specific intent-related information that could help me push these services to them proactively, in a way that is relevant to them individually. This is what a successful, smart digital assistant solves: helping with proactive discovery (=acquisition), in addition to facilitating the incorporation of habits (=retention).

As apps are finding it harder and more expensive to acquire users and retain them, on-demand personal assistants are rising to fill the needs of users. Instead of scrolling through hundreds of different apps, a simple text can achieve all of these tasks, in significantly less time. A digital personal assistant has multiple touch points beyond just one vertical, and learns about likes and dislikes, pointing users towards the right services.

Digital assistants are shifting with these changes in consumer behavior, and they will fundamentally alter the way we continue to access products, services and information. With natural language processing and AI constantly in development, there is going to be a (decreasing) element of human assistance to a large number of these requests for the foreseeable future, but the high level of disruption justifies the cost to really ‘own’ this loyal customer relationship. Digital assistants will continue to evolve, with the most successful companies offering accessible, intelligent and adaptable services. In the short term, they will continue to grow in importance, and the resulting innovations will have a wide-reaching impact on our day-to-day lives.

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