Digital AI assistants: What opportunities are there for marketers?


If we’ve learned one thing from Behavioural Economics it’s that human decision making is imperfect, and in so many ways.  

Our imperfection comes in countless guises, each with a different name. Confirmation bias, fundamental attribution error, sunk cost fallacy; in fact the Wikipedia page listing out every recognised decision making flaw making runs to 173 separate entries.

Faced with complex choices and limited time to make up our minds, we often fall back on unconscious short-cuts and rules-of-thumb to get us to a speedy decision without having to do the hard yards of carefully weighing up every alternative in turn.

In fact we’ve been called cognitive misers because we’re naturally very stingy with our mental capacity, only doing the bare minimum to get to a ‘good enough’ decision in most situations.

While these mental strategies save us time and effort when making decisions under time pressure or where the choices are complex, they can lead us to missing the choice that’s best for our needs and ending up with something less than ideal.  

Buying unhealthy but easy-to-prepare food for dinner; getting into expensive debt by impulse spending on a credit card rather than arranging a cheaper overdraft in advance; buying an impractical or unnecessary item of clothing just because it’s on special offer. Sometimes we’re our own worst enemies.

AI assistants... in your ear?

But maybe it won't always be this way and help may soon be at hand. Or, rather, in our ears.

With the advent of digital intelligent assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant, artificial intelligence and machine learning programmes are finally starting to appear within everyday consumer products. 

Alexa, for example, powers Amazon’s Echo in-home speaker which has been a surprise hit in the US with 3 million units sold after just one year on the open market.

Tech commentator Anil Dash has pointed out that one of the reasons for Amazon Echo’s success is the fact that it eliminates the need to use your hands or your eyes when calling on it to perform a task. 

That might not seem to save much effort compared with pulling out and waking up your phone, but it turns out that removing that little bit of friction allows the Echo to take on a different, more spontaneous role. 

In a future AI-enabled world, consumers will outsource the effort of making rational comparisons

Just as tablets and smartphones are more suited to spur of the moment tasks than a full size computer, so voice enabled services reduce the barrier to usage still further.

But imagine what could happen once this powerful machine intelligence can be with us everywhere, all the time.

It’s not difficult to envisage a time in the near future where we are accompanied by the voice of our digital assistant whispering advice in our ear. 

Already for less than £10 you can buy a wireless earbud that connects to your iPhone and enables you to use Siri without once needing to touch the phone itself.

The human mind might be flawed, but the digital assistant murmuring advice into our ear doesn’t suffer from cognitive errors or biases. It’s not swayed by peer pressure and it doesn’t dodge the effort of weighing up all the options. It can tell us when our gut instincts are wrong.

Opportunities for marketing

What will this mean for marketing? Consider this everyday cognitive challenge: picking just one item from a supermarket shelf crammed with dozens of alternative versions of the same basic product.

The busy shopper’s typical response has been to fall back on brand and category cues to simplify an otherwise impossibly complex choice. But in future the voice in our ear can tell us which of the products on display best meets our needs (and if an even better choice is available elsewhere).

So in a future AI-enabled world, consumers will outsource the effort of making rational comparisons. The voice in their ear can take care of that, leaving the non-rational elements of branding to become the main battleground for marketing communications.

Of those brands that meet my needs, which project the image to which I aspire? Which will feed my sense of self worth? Which align with my values?

So while some industry pessimists foresee the future of advertising as automated, algorithmic and creatively barren, my bet is for a resurgence of creativity and emotional persuasion. All thanks to the calm, sensible voice in our ear.

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