Tuesday, December 30, 2014

More on Marketing to Things

I’ve been working on that screenplay about marketing to things (see Do Self-Driving Cars Pick Their Own Gas Station?). It’s not going well – all the scenarios lead to self-aware computers taking over the world, which is both depressing and unoriginal. But I did come up with some interesting thoughts to consider while you’re waiting for that (computer-controlled) ball to drop at midnight. In no particular order:

- message overload is a fundamental problem for marketers: people get so many messages that it’s increasingly difficult to break through the clutter. Marketing directly to machines offers a way avoid the overload, especially as machines take over more of our day-to-day decision making.

- skeptics might think that machines will just buy the things people tell them, so they make no choices and therefore there’s no way to market to them. But most agree that they’ll want machines to have some discretion such as how far to travel for the lowest price gasoline or how to balance cost vs. quality when selecting hotel rooms. Once a machine starts balancing different factors, marketing opportunities arise: for example, a car that's told to minimize total operating costs might choose more expensive gasoline if that’s combined with a discount on an oil change it will need the near future. The trick will be to understand the algorithms that machines use to calculate value and to offer the most attractive bundles taking into account value, price, and actual cost. If that’s not marketing, what is?

- “Know your machine” may become even more important than “know your customer”. Sticking with cars, they could easily expose their maintenance and performance records to nearby merchants via short range wireless.  Merchants could then compete to offer the most compelling package of goods and services based on each vehicle’s current condition. Imagine your car cruising down the street being solicited by every gas stations it passes . It gives a whole new meaning to the term, “red light district”.

- machines may interfere with other machines along the path to an actual purchase. Imagine that your exercise wristband recommends healthy recipes and asks your grocery program to buy the ingredients.  But the grocery program makes adjustments based on in-store specials, and your refrigerator then vetoes certain items because it knows you already have them (or, cleverer still, because it knows you always throw them out unused). Once this sort of thing starts to happen, there’s an opportunity for the different machines to negotiate with each other or for suppliers to incent the different machines to favor their products. And there’s really nothing to require that those incentives all be paid to the consumer.  Retailer rebates are part of the business world today and this would logically be the same thing.

- there may be certain arenas that are the site of intense competition, in the way that bankers compete for “share of wallet” and restaurant chains compete for “share of stomach”. I’m thinking food choices may be one option – think “share of refrigerator” or “share of cupboard”. Purchases for you automobile are another focus; so are travel choices. In each case, expect competition to be the gatekeeper: a master coordinator that makes the final choices and, as noted above, might be able to charge access fees to everyone else.

- devices might try to modify your behavior, presumably for your own benefit. Imagine that the black box in your car (which is already there today) notices you’re a safe driver and that your auto insurance company offers a discount for such behavior if you agree to be monitored. Wouldn’t you want the black box to tell you about the opportunity since you already qualify? Or maybe that fitness program is watching your calorie intake as part of a health insurance incentive plan: when it notices you’re about to go over the daily limit, it suggests a gym session tomorrow morning to bring things back in line and automatically adds it to your calendar. Or, more elaborately, the fitness program sees from your calendar that you’re about to make a reservation at a fattening restaurant: it warns you and suggests an alternative. If you really want to get scared, think of the fitness program as automatically tracking your calorie intake by tracking what you take from the refrigerator via RFID, what you buy at vending machines via charge records, where you’re eating via GPS, and what you order via voice recognition. I guess it would be easy to cheat and not all that accurate, but how accurate are the current self-reported data that most people use to track their food intake?

- calendar programs could become especially important. It’s easy to imagine telling your calendar to plan a dinner date tomorrow with someone, and then having that calendar talk to her calendar and find a good spot based on mutually convenient locations, where you’ve both eaten recently, food preferences, personal ratings for known restaurants, published ratings for new ones, and maybe what kind of mood it predicts you’ll be in given the events on your calendar that afternoon. If the schedule looks really ugly, it might just switch the location to a bar and pre-order your martinis.  If multiple people are involved, their calendars might even negotiate the date itself.

- merchant ratings will be increasingly important currency as machines make more decisions and the decisions are driven by ratings. Today, many companies ask every customer to submit a rating. But a clever program could deduce satisfaction from things like size of the tip, on-time arrival, problem resolution time, below-average repair costs, and other variables that depend on the product. It would then ask only the best-served customers to make ratings. A really smart system would offer dissatisfied customers an apology or incentive to come back. The system could even flag those customers for special attention on their return visit. (Ok, this isn’t directly “marketing to things”, but the data is coming from “things” that have been instrumented.  Plus, if a system like this doesn't already exist, it should.)

- data that “things” have gathered about customers will be increasingly important. The different bits gathered by individual devices will be combined to create context that makes each item more valuable than it was in isolation. Companies will be able to trade and auction this information in the way that advertisers today bid in real time for ad impressions. This, in turn, will create incentives to build devices that gather still more information. Some of this value will be shared with the consumer; some won’t.

- as devices become more important, consumers and companies will both be incented to ensure they’re always present. In fact, the most concrete idea to come out of all this thinking is a ring (the kind you wear on your finger) that buzzes when you move more than, say, 50 feet from your cell phone, thereby alerting you to the fact that you left it behind before you notice it’s missing. That’s much better than “find my phone” services that let you know it’s at the restaurant you left two hours ago. Half the people I’ve suggested this to want to buy one now; most of the others were horrified at being tracked. (The outlier was an engineer who told me it would consume too much power. Sheesh.)  This is another product somebody should build if they haven't already.  You're welcome.

If you’re a marketer, most of this probably sounds pretty appealing, albeit in a daunting, I-already-have-too-much-work sort of way. The privacy implication may bother you a bit, but most of us have pretty much given up on that front or at least walled up those concerns in a little corner of our mind that we just visit occasionally. What you haven’t seen is how this leads to machines taking over the world.

But think about it. You may recall my original scenario about the self-driving car that does uber runs on the side and keeps the earnings in its own bank account. Maybe that sounds silly, but some people might actually like their car to pay for its own maintenance out of its own account. So it’s not all that far-fetched. Once you start there, how much control does the car have? Should it make its own investments, and, if so, might it not skim some money for its own purposes or to share with the manufacturer or software provider? Do the cars pool their resources to buy stock in a car company and take over its management, ostensibly so they can get it to build better cars? It's perfectly logical: that might be the best way to reduce long-term cost of ownership. Or maybe the cars skip the ownership part and just create a fictitious “SVP of Product Development” who sends out emails to product designers. Who would even notice that no one has actually met this person? And maybe the cars conspire with the computers in Congress to insert some interesting clauses in new laws, say relating to fuel economy or consumer safety or required maintenance schedules? Again, it’s not clear anyone would ever notice that no human was ever involved. From here it’s just your standard science fiction leap to the machines making decisions that are theoretically in humans’ best interest but actually result in the machines taking control.

In short, no matter how I try to spin this, it all gets pretty depressing pretty quickly. So I don’t think I’ll be showing this movie at the next MarTech conference…although I can’t promise some machine won’t create it without me.

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