Revolutionary Measures

4 challenges to the rise of the virtual assistant

Home automation is the next battleground for technology. Following on the heels of Amazon’s launch of its Echo and Echo Dot devices, which feature its voice-controlled personal assistant Alexa, Google has unveiled its plans for a range of hardware to control the smart home. The Google Home speaker features a virtual assistant, excitingly called Google Assistant, that lets you give commands and then either provides information or controls your smart devices. For example, you can stream music, control the temperature and turn the lights up/down/off, as with the Echo. And Amazon and Google are not alone, with Apple announcing its HomeKit standard which will allow users to control devices through their iPhone via either apps or Siri.amazon_echo

When it comes to mass adoption, it is early days in the home automation market, and each one of the major players will need to overcome four big obstacles:

1          Do we need it?
Smart home kit has yet to really take off, with many consumers not willing to pay extra for internet-enabled light bulbs or thermostats. While Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa can do more than control your home, with the ability to find information, check the weather/traffic, book an Uber taxi etc., you don’t really need a separate device for this. You have one – your smartphone. So what each player has to do is find ways of encouraging people to adopt it, developers to create apps that use its functions, and manufacturers to incorporate it into their own hardware. Given that we’re talking about white goods such as fridges which are replaced infrequently and are normally price-sensitive purchases, this last point is going to take some time. As an early adopter I’m going to give Alexa a go, but I can’t see a compelling reason for mainstream consumers to buy an Echo or Home, until the ecosystem around them are more mature.

2          Is it clever enough?
As an existing Siri user I know that for a smart assistant it can be pretty dumb. It doesn’t really know enough about me to provide helpful answers and most attempts at ‘conversation’ end with switching it off and trying a Google search instead. Amazon and Google promise that their assistants will be much cleverer and will learn about you in order to provide a personalised experience that understands your context, location and previous behaviour. The jury is still out on whether it can be intelligent enough to replace human interaction for basic tasks.

3          Is it private?
The self-learning promise of Assistant and Alexa also has a darker side. Essentially, you are putting an internet-enabled microphone in the heart of your home, where it can listen and learn about you, before sharing that information with Google and Amazon. While both have privacy safeguards, the less you let it share, the less useful it will be. Many people will be concerned about where their data is going, and how it will be used – particularly given the amount of information Google and Amazon already possess about us all.

4          Are we going to be trapped in silos?
For me the main issue behind each of these platforms, is that essentially they are silos. You can’t play any music stored on iTunes on either of them for example, but have to either rely on Amazon Music, Google Play Music or Spotify. Even in an age of technology giants, very few of us rely on just one platform – we tend to use bits of each and value the fact that we can pick and choose where we get email, buy products or listen to music from. By their very nature, rivals are not going to push their competitors’ services, and no-one wants to have to buy multiple hardware to cover all their bases. What is needed is some form of interchange between all platforms, a kind of one ring to rule them all – but I can’t see that happening soon.

As with any innovation there’s a lot of hype around virtual assistants, and the hardware that they control. What is needed is some equally smart marketing that overcomes the objections listed above and really focuses on the benefits – otherwise mainstream consumers are likely to simply keep their dumb homes as they are.

October 26, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Being a fox, not a hedgehog

In a famous essay based on a fragment of Greek poetry, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin divided writers into two groups – hedgehogs (who essentially know one thing in depth) and foxes (who know many things and see the world through a variety of experiences). This classification can be equally applied to all of us.

A Red Fox on an Evergreen, Colorado's porch.

As human knowledge has grown, and professions have become more specialised, people have been encouraged to be more hedgehog, and less fox. After all, the time, dedication and skills needed to become a brain surgeon, mean it is unlikely that the same person could train as a rocket scientist. So, since the Renaissance, where the likes of Leonardo da Vinci were equally adept with science and the arts, we have been pushed down the path of specialising and knowing one thing in depth.

This has obvious advantages – no-one wants to be operated on by a brain surgeon who only did half their training, but it also very limiting. As hedgehogs, people tend to view the world through the prism of their own experiences. Hence you might find that someone in the police force is by nature suspicious and on their guard, or a primary school teacher talks down to adults, treating them like children. These are obviously extreme cases, but we’ve all met someone and been able to correctly guess their profession due to what they say and how they say it.

More importantly, at a time when pretty much all the knowledge in the world is on the internet, and digital technology is changing how we work, live and play, being a hedgehog is also out of step with today’s reality. Sticking to what you know, rather than looking to acquire new skills limits everyone’s potential – it is no accident that the most enthusiastic and fearless users of new technology are children, who are naturally foxes as they learn.

However, becoming more fox-like is not easy. Like anything new, it involves giving up long-held, cherished beliefs and taking a risk. It can also be more difficult than it looks. The internet overloads our hedgehog brains with too much information, making it hard to see the wood for the trees. For example, when Spotify has tens of thousands of tracks how do we choose what to listen to? The safest bet is just to stream what we know about already, confirming our hedgehog tastes. Artificial intelligence that learns what we like automatically suggests more of the same, rather than throwing in a curve ball – “you like Puccini, have you tried Taylor Swift?”

So, how do we encourage our foxiness, but without losing the focus that a hedgehog brings? I think it comes down to three things:

1. Communication
It is easy to sit in our hedgehog silos, blaming other groups when things go wrong. Companies are full of inter-departmental feuds, with sales complaining about marketing who criticise engineering who grumble about accounts, until no-one is happy. Much better to actually sit down and listen to what everyone does, why they do it, and then try and fit it all together for the good of the wider organisation. The same principle applies in relationships outside work – understand the mindsets of those around you if you want to be able to talk their language.

2. Turn the internet on its head
In the same way that the internet encourages silos, it also provides almost limitless scope for new experiences. Rather than just extending what we do offline onto the web, use it to find new things to do, new skills to learn and new people to talk to. Type a random idea into Google and see what comes back (though be careful what you wish for), take up a new hobby or subscribe to the magazine used in the Missing Words round of Have I Got News For You?, for example. Obviously make sure it is legal, and while you may hate it, at least you’ll have had a new experience.

3. Don’t smother fox learning
As I’ve said, children are naturally foxes in how they pick up experiences from all around them. But at a certain age this stops, and they are focused solely on what they should be learning, at the expense of letting their imaginations wander. I’m not advocating dismantling the education system completely, but schools and universities should make sure they are teaching a balanced curriculum, and ensuring that students remain curious about the wider world. Why not get astrophysics students to read French literature at the same time?

When the Hedgehog and the Fox was written in 1953 there was no internet, smartphones or tablets and in many cases the solid, reliable, trustworthy hedgehog was the ideal to aspire to. Times have changed, and we all need to encourage our inner fox if we are to thrive in the constantly-evolving digital world.

December 9, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Social Media, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ten lessons from ten years of YouTube

Español: Logo Vectorial de YouTube

This year YouTube celebrates its tenth anniversary. Originally founded in 2005 it has grown to have over 1 billion users, with 300 hours of video currently uploaded every minute of every day. For those without a calculator that’s 432,000 hours of new content every day.

Available in 70 countries and languages it made its founders $1.65 billion when Google bought the site back in 2006. At the time many thought they were mad, but the phenomenal growth and the amount of user data that it provides to Google has proved the doubters very wrong.

So what can startups and marketers learn from YouTube and the growth of video more generally? To mark ten years of YouTube, here are ten lessons I’ve drawn from its success:

1. Don’t always follow the rules
One of the big issues with startups in new markets is that existing legislation doesn’t cater for their disruptive power. Think of Uber and Airbnb and the regulatory issues they are having as they look to sidestep rules governing taxis and accommodation respectively. With YouTube and other video sites that launched at a similar time the big issue was users uploading copyrighted material. Competitors protected themselves by checking content before it was uploaded – slowing down their growth and adding to their overheads. In comparison YouTube let users upload anything and then took it down if lawyers or rights holders complained. This gave it a key differentiator, attracted more users and reduced its costs.

2. It is all about You
Despite the growth of brands on the site, the vast majority of content on YouTube is still created by amateurs. By giving a platform for everyone to easily share video, YouTube has been part of a democratisation of the web – as shown by the viral success of many of its videos, and the helping hand it has given to the careers of artists and bloggers such as Psy, Ed Sheeran, Zoella and many others. Brands trying to connect with audiences on YouTube need to understand that it is a two-way street – it isn’t just about providing your own content, but encouraging consumers to work with you and share what they are doing if you want to increase engagement.

3. Video is worth 10,000 words

It may have taken a few years for broadband and mobile data speeds to be able to comfortably cope with streaming video, but now it is the medium of choice for many. If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, video is at least 10x as effective as it allows people to see what is happening, rather than relying on words or static images.

4. It isn’t just cute cats
A few years ago I did some market research with C-level executives to find out where they got information from. The big surprise was that YouTube featured highly in their responses. But a quick look at some of the business content on the site – from the Harvard Business Review to TED talks and The Economist – shows that there’s plenty for any audience to learn from YouTube, whatever demographic they are part of.

5. It can be monetised
People do make money from YouTube. Aside from the celebrities and stars that have used the channel to launch themselves, owners of popular channels are able to make money from the ads around their content. The targeted audiences YouTube delivers (thanks to Google’s knowledge of viewer’s demographics), make it an important way for marketers to reach the right people quickly and easily.

6. Media has become multimedia
Ten years ago there was a sharp divide between traditional print media and the broadcast world. The combination of YouTube and cheaper, higher quality video cameras (or even just smartphones), mean that any journalist or publication can create and upload multimedia content quickly and easily. From interviews to reports, people now expect to see embedded video on news sites, with most media outlets now having their own YouTube channel to host and share content.

7. YouTube is the back end, not just the front end
For every video accessed directly on the site, many hundreds more are reached through other sites. Essentially YouTube provides a complete infrastructure for brands to set up their own channels, for free, and then embed links in their own site or other media. Again, it makes it easy for companies to share video, on or off the site.

8. Attention spans are shorter
People, particularly on mobile devices, are increasingly browsing video content, rather than settling down to watch it for a long time. While there are plenty of exceptions – my children would watch 10-15 minute videos of Stampylongnose playing Minecraft all day – most people don’t want to watch long form content on YouTube. So videos need to be short, snappy and broken up into bite size chunks if they are to be watched and shared.

9. Showing is easier than telling
Doing a DIY job used to involve poring through a manual or asking friends and family for advice. Now you simply go onto YouTube and watch a professional doing it, explaining as they go. The same applies to lots of jobs and hobbies, and with YouTube results prominently displayed in Google searches, it has never been easier to work out how to do something for the first time.

10. Innovation is constant
YouTube may be ten, but it still faces challenges. Facebook is looking to compete by making it simple for its users to share videos on the network, while streaming music services are waking up to the amount of music content watched on the site. Recently Snapchat announced that it has 100 million users watching 2 billion mobile videos every day. The shift to mobile and the fact that as video grows up it becomes more of a commodity means that YouTube needs to constantly evolve if it is to remain relevant.

Ten years is a long time in tech and social media, and the growth of YouTube shows how it has managed to build a brand by understanding what people want and giving them a platform to share. It will be interesting to see what the next decade brings – hopefully not another Justin Bieber………….

May 27, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment