Picture this. It’s Monday morning, and your alarm clock wakes you up at 7:40 a.m. It’s given you an extra 15 minutes in bed, responding to data it received from your phone about your quality of sleep. Before you ask, Alexa has switched on the lights in the bathroom and is playing your morning bulletin. As you finish brushing your teeth, you hear the coffee machine start to bubble away in the kitchen. You open the fridge, finish the last of the milk in your coffee, and see a notification come in saying that more milk will be arriving today in your grocery delivery. Your personal assistant reminds you that you have three meetings today, and for once you’ll need dress smartly. It suggests three items from your wardrobe that would be suitable.
OK, the scenario above doesn’t quite reflect where we are today, but it doesn’t feel far off. In the past 10 years, we’ve gone from seeing ads on TV screens and billboards to receiving a slow drip of content and engagement tactics — from games to influencer posts and email offers — that entice us to buy. Each method has nurtured a relationship with consumers over time, encouraging us to file their product away in our subconscious, ready to recall as soon as we’re in need of our next coffee, dish soap, or clothes shopping binge. But for anyone who has asked Alexa to order lightbulbs or told Siri to send a text to their mum, you know that the silent AI revolution is already well underway.
Automation breeds passive interaction
Automation changes our lives in ways people never thought possible, and the way we make decisions and choose products and services continues to evolve dramatically. More and more, we’re engaging in a series of silent interactions with brands and products that were predetermined. We no longer give another thought to using predictive text or Google Translate — with its 500 million+ users and counting — to help us communicate more easily. Long gone are the days where we had to painfully spend hours compiling mixtapes; that’s all taken care of for us by Spotify, with its predictive analytics along with its algorithmic radio and playlists that have increased listening diversity by 40 percent. And where would I have been while planning my wedding without Pinterest’s weekly serving of pins I might like? Forget evil robots stealing our jobs for the moment and notice the influx and adoption of systems that use AI to drive efficiency, promote customization, and support better customer service. They are revolutionizing brand experiences as we know them by silencing the role that louder, more attention-seeking communications play in our decision processes.
In fact, forget decision processes. As The Futures Company recognized years ago when they coined the term “Pivot to Passive,” automation will drive us even further towards passivity as algorithms predict, define, and sort what we are using. In some instances, this already makes our lives more simple and streamlined. Amazon’s army of Alexa Dots and Echoes — which has already passed the 10 million sold mark — along with its interconnected capabilities and smart devices already change the way we interact with our homes and manage our grocery lists. Switching off a light no longer requires your finger, it can be done with your voice; and you can purchase household items while you’re cooking or restock office supplies mid-project.
The silent solution
While each of these interactions is still an “experience,” they’re increasingly silent — occurring in the background so people are free to flow between activities without interruptions. As brands become better able to predict proactively what we want and provide us with what we need without prompts, we enter into a new era that rewards a brand’s silence over its ability to get your attention. This upends existing ideas about how brands should interact.
Reducing noise will become the most prized characteristic for brands to own, leaving behind anyone who clunkily serves up YouTube pre-roll in the hope of garnering attention. You can even imagine a situation where the MTA becomes a positively silent experience: You enter and feel a quick buzz of your phone as your card is automatically topped up with a new monthly travel card, then you seamlessly tap through the gate, thus avoiding the 8 a.m. Monday morning systemic failure of every single ticket machine.
It’s no surprise people gravitate more toward these silent and seamless interactions. They save us time and often feel more personal. It’s as if someone (or something) understands and predicts your needs, ensuring you don’t have to think about them amid the million and one other commitments you have every day. Starbucks’ app, for example, already had 1 million monthly users by early 2016 (with mobile payments accounting for 30 percent of its transactions by July 2017), further proving how willing we are to trade off aspects of quality in favor of convenience. It drives preference for the brand by making the process of ordering and collecting your coffee painless and wait-free — unlike a local artisanal cafe that may have better coffee, but also has a line out the door.
Rewriting the brand rulebook
While the topic of silent AI could easily tempt us to plaster a title like “Are brands dead?” on a column like this, that would emphasize the wrong part of this dialogue. Brands are by no means dead, but the rules of play will change dramatically, and at pace. In fact, a 2017 Gartner study predicts that 85 percent of customers will manage their brand interactions without speaking to a single human by 2020. The current conversation is not about technology killing brands, but about identifying the ways interactions with customers will become as seamless and customized as possible, without asking the customer to do any work. How will brands ease pain points with customer service? How are these companies meeting their customers where they are, rather than asking customers to come to them? For example, why create microsites when you could just as well leverage Facebook or Twitter?
In its current, stealth form, AI makes us rethink how marketing works. An ecosystem like this now requires brands to focus more on the way they design and implement systems that are truly useful and tailored to their consumers’ needs. Brands can also fuel growth by leveraging data and analytics to understand what their customers are drawn to and make sure it’s available to them. As artificial intelligence continues its understated rise, it’s time to absorb, engage, and enjoy the silence.
Jessica Lehmann is associate director of strategy at Brand Union, where she leads strategy for a number of clients in the tech and innovation space, including Harman.