Will VoiceFirst personal assistants kill brand marketing?

I recently read an interesting article in Harvard Business Review by Niraj Dawar, that outlined how the rise of voice-led AI platforms is a game changer for marketing as we know it. The premise of the argument is that because AI platforms and ‘personal assistants,’ such as Alexa, Cortana and Siri, will become the principal interface with customers, the role of brands will diminish.

Dawar suggests the changes will have an impact at acquisition, satisfaction and retention levels.

While the article paints a slightly gloomy picture for brands – whose value would diminish in a hyper-personalised world ruled by personal assistants that match individual needs to product spec – it seems that content marketing may play a key role in preserving the emotional value that a brand delivers, over and above functional benefits. Far from being a threat to content marketing, this could actually be an opportunity for marketers.

A quick look at each level of change, shows how content marketing can play a key role in the brave new ‘VoiceFirst’ world that is fast approaching.

1. Acquisition:

Dawar explores how crudely-targeted brand advertising will become a thing of the past, to be replaced by personal assistants with a complex knowledge of how their consumer (or owner) behaves, and the ability to make product recommendations that are ‘made to fit’.

So, how will content marketing save the day for brands?

While the article suggests that all marketing will need to be single channel focused, aiming to influence the personal assistant, there will inevitably be a role for content that can be delivered directly to consumers, without going through a personal assistant. In order to do this, brands will need to strengthen their direct relationships with customers, through direct messages, channels and the social communities they circulate in.

Personal assistants will however provide brands with the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the customers they serve through personal assistant data. This will allow them to target not just at a broad segment level, but more specifically at a microsegment level. Understanding this will allow them to create content, and more specifically create stories, that position their products not only in a broad consumer context, but in ways that suit the specifics of how consumers like to use a product. Take for instance a kitchen knife that can be used for a range of different cuisines. Through data from personal assistants, brands will learn who their knives are used by and why. This enables them to create stories about how and when to use them, and educate consumers on additional products. Content informed by this insight will help strengthen a brand’s direct relationship with customers.

2. Satisfaction:

The article outlines how personal assistants will be able to determine what customers want, and make increasingly accurate and satisfactory recommendations. In this new world, it doesn’t matter whether a trainer created by Nike will help you ‘just do it’ or whether by wearing Adidas, ‘impossible is nothing,’ your personal assistant will know how, when and where you jog and will recommend the best trainer for you.

So, how will content marketing save the day for brands?

Regardless of personal assistants, we always listen to people we trust and I doubt that word-of-mouth will go the way of the dodo. This means that reviews from fellow customers and experts will become even more important, because they have the trust! While user-generated content is important, demand for quality content is unlikely to recede, and marketers will need to facilitate these stories and make them more prominent. While this will influence the customer, it may also influence the personal assistant whose algorithm will inevitably be driven by mentions, shares and ultimately positive social sentiment towards a product or service.

3. Retention:

In a world where personal assistants will help customers make substitutions as new products come on the market, or as their needs evolve and change, brands will have a more difficult time holding onto them. Their hard-earned loyalty through brand marketing investment, is likely to be abruptly curtailed by a bot that knows individuals better and suggests what they really need.

So, how will content marketing save the day for brands?

Successful brands will need to be the owners of products that can be mass customised, and loyalty will be earned by the brands listening and talking with consumers. Again, content will be needed to start the conversation, and be adapted to keep it going. It requires forums, debate and use cases, to influence people and to show personal assistants that a particular brand is working hard to meet its customers’ needs.

Do brands need to worry today, or is this still years away?

The short answer is ‘yes’, brands need to act today, because personal assistants are already here and full adoption of the available functionality won’t be far behind. VoiceCommerce commentator @BrianRoemmele recently tweeted that 62% of households that own a #VoiceFirst device purchased groceries through it and 35% have purchased retail items. So, brands can’t afford to ignore this phenomenon.

Brands should seize the opportunity today to put more effort into connecting with consumers directly through social and 1:1 channels. By adding value to communities through great stories, they can show how they meet customer needs and make their lives better. They can use data to better shape those stories that position their offer in the context that consumers use their products.

Crucially, brands need to learn quickly about personal assistants like Alexa, Siri and Cortana, and experiment and innovate to understand how they will shape consumers’ context tomorrow.

In order to do this, brands will need the journalistic curiosity and ability to create conversation, that content creators provide. Regardless of technological progress, the rules of trust, effective listening and consumer psychology remain. The challenge for brands is how to operate effectively, within these rules, in a changing technological context.

Philippe Crump