How Brands Can Own The Conversation With Virtual Assistants

Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Google Home all have one thing in common: we treat these devices like people. If you’ve found yourself referring to a virtual assistant with pronouns such as “she”, “he” or “they”, you are not alone. Outfitted with human-like voices and catchy names, virtual assistants are expected to be present in more than 55% of US households by the year 2022. As more and more users turn to virtual assistants to facilitate tasks, the need to understand the behavioral underpinnings of this technology becomes apparent.

Ever since Apple debuted its Siri virtual assistant for iPhone in October of 2011, consumers have become accustomed to interacting with their mobile devices in ways beyond the traditional keyboard. The iPhone was a very early device in the market that encouraged users to make outbound calls, check basic information such as the weather, and schedule upcoming events using a virtual assistant.

Amazon was one of the first major e-retailers to offer its virtual assistant, Alexa, with the capability to embed certain brand or product information within the device in the form of downloadable apps. Campbell’s Soup, for example, quickly capitalized on the ability to engage with consumers in their homes by offering the “Campbell’s Kitchen” app. Campbell’s Kitchen is able to recommend nightly recipes based on products in the company’s line.

Many virtual assistants now offer similar recommendation-based capabilities. These smart voices have evolved into trusted members of the user’s inner circle. Gone are the days when consumers associated these machines with scenes from The Terminator or I, Robot, and today’s devices are far more sophisticated that those featured in Hollywood plots. However, they do have one very important thing in common with their fictional counterparts: they speak and act like people.

Imagine for a moment that it is the early days of the Internet, and your slow, unwieldy mammoth of a home computer suddenly started speaking to you with bespoke recipe suggestions for an upcoming dinner. It is safe to say that you might have become slightly alarmed. Fast forward to today, where the same suggestions from a mobile or home-based virtual assistant could likely drive you to order the suggested ingredients directly from the device.

This feeling of comfort and willingness to engage exists because of the trust built into the virtual assistant. The relationship that people had with their computers in 1995 pales in comparison to the one that you have with your cellphone today. Old friends offer a level of trust to which we turn in times of need compared with recently met acquaintances. Consumers trust devices on which they’ve long relied and which have already filled a need.

It is a solid understanding of what consumers want that backs this trusting relationship. By leveraging the power of AI and big data, virtual assistants can use their knowledge of consumer preferences to recommend a product or experience based upon past actions. Virtual assistants manufacture a sense of trust that is important for any brand’s engagement with consumers to increase the use of assistant devices as a sales channel.

Adding a layer of human-esque dialogue boosts consumers’ willingness to trust the voices (read: big data) on the other end of the speaker. Behavioral economics research has shown that in lab settings, people are more willing to interact and engage economically with individuals that they trust. Trust is a known key factor in accepting recommendations for products or services, and when brands break the trust that they’ve developed with their consumers with errant virtual assistants, corporate nightmares begin.

Burger King found itself in the hot seat when a TV commercial purposefully activated Google Home devices in viewers’ homes each night:

You’re watching a 15-second Burger King ad, which is unfortunately not enough time to explain all the fresh ingredients in the Whopper sandwich,” the actor in the commercial said. “But I got an idea. O.K. Google, what is the Whopper burger?”

Spoiler alert – “invading” the homes of potential customers by activating technology is not the way to build trusting relationships. Rather, Burger King could have better utilized virtual assistants by educating consumers about how they, on their own terms, can use these devices to research the company’s product offerings.

Despite the Burger King advertising faux pas, hope is not lost for brands whose aim is to build virtual assistant capabilities into technology, as seen with Tide’s collaboration with Alexa. Tide Stain Remover launched a stain removal virtual assistant app, which allows users to ask the “expert” assistant how to remove any one of two hundred potential stains in a step-by-step manner. Tide tapped into the trusting relationship that one has with an experienced friend or family member well-versed in laundry care to provide a point of contact for consumers who need a little guidance.

Brands that choose to engage with consumers through virtual assistants must understand the underlying trust dynamics that exist with the use of this technology. Consumers spent their precious time engaging with their devices. These devices matured into trusted confidants and obedient assistants. A violation of that trust spells trouble for a brand since the breach downgrades an improper recommendation into a big data security debacle. Mastering the trusted relationships maintained between consumers and their connected home or virtual assistants will allow brands to explore enhanced two-way communication techniques that speak to consumers.

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