Hold on to Your Butts: Why Samuel L. Jackson and Alexa Broke the Internet

Why are we so excited about Samuel L. Jackson’s voice coming to Alexa? 

On September 26, Amazon announced that Jackson will be the first celebrity to lend his voice to the Alexa voice assistant. Later in 2020, if you use Alexa, you’ll be able to add a Samuel L. Jackson skill, meaning that you can ask Alexa to perform a number of tasks in the voice of the beloved actor. He’ll do everything from tell jokes to sing happy birthday. And yes, the skill comes with both a G-rated and a profane version, in case you’d like Alexa to unleash full-bore Big Kahuna-munching Jules Winnfield on your living room through your Amazon Echo speaker.  

You can’t make Alexa talk like Jackson all the time – the skill is limited to whatever it’s been programmed to do. The skill employs neural text-to-speech technology (TTS), which translates written text to spoken word with a tone and voice to reflect a personality. Businesses are exploring TTS to inject personality into voice-based interfaces such as bots and content that requires voice-over narration. 

The Internet Rejoices

Even though the Jackson skill sounds basic, just the notion of having Samuel L. Jackson dropping F bombs as he delivers the weather report sent the internet into a tizzy of joyful celebration. Social media celebrated a life in which Alexa would sound like the man who told us to hold on to our butts in Jurassic Park and pondered the path of the righteous man in Pulp Fiction:

And journalists did, too:


But why did the news trigger such an outpouring of excitement about an Alexa skill that performs rudimentary tasks? 

Voice Assistants Catch On

Well, for one thing, voice assistants are rapidly catching on. An estimated 40 million Americans, or 12 percent of the population, own an Echo, versus 30 percent who own iPhones – not bad penetration for a product that was released (in limited distribution) only five years ago. All told, about a third of Americans say they use voice assistants regularly in some form. 

Moreover, the Amazon Echo — and the Alexa voice assistant that powers it — most certainly enjoys strong name awareness due to Amazon’s marketing muscle. Amazon announcing a new Alexa skill featuring the voice of Samuel L. Jackson is going to generate buzz, more so than if, say, Microsoft did the same for Cortana. Super Bowl commercials are now featuring Alexa, as a sign of how how familiar we are with Alexa.

A Need for the Familiar

But I believe the enthusiastic response points to something deeper: a need for the familiar. Voice-based technology is coming on strong, as the big tech companies–Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft–race each other to lead a voice-first future. The makers of voice-based apps are betting that the general population is ready to transition from text-based search to using our voices to get what we need, whether we’re searching for a nearby restaurant or finding out the Dow Jones Industrial Average. So they’re barraging us with a slew of products for the home and on the go.  

But the hype around voice can be disquieting. We’re still getting used to the idea of a machine listening to us and talking to us in the most intimate places in our lives, including our bedrooms. There is a fear that these AI-fueled devices will insinuate themselves into our lives in the creepiest way possible. As The Atlantic’s Judith Shulevitz discussed in the November 2018 article “Is Alexa Dangerous?”:

For the moment, these machines remain at the dawn of their potential, as likely to botch your request as they are to fulfill it. But as smart-speaker sales soar, computing power is also expanding exponentially. Within our lifetimes, these devices will likely become much more adroit conversationalists. By the time they do, they will have fully insinuated themselves into our lives. With their perfect cloud-based memories, they will be omniscient; with their occupation of our most intimate spaces, they’ll be omnipresent. And with their eerie ability to elicit confessions, they could acquire a remarkable power over our emotional lives. What will that be like?

Recent news reports about voice devices recording what we’re doing – and employees of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft listening in on our private conversation – have ratcheted up the discomfort to a general alarm. Now we have to worry about machines and people eavesdopping on us?

In response to the backlash, tech companies explained that they monitored select voice samples to do quality control and to teach the machines to get smarter; they also rapidly discontinued the practice. In addition, Amazon recently announced new features to give people more control over their privacy when they use Alexa

Nick Fury to the Rescue

In this context of unease, along comes Samuel L. Jackson lending his voice to Alexa. He has starred in more than 130 movies, including blockbusters such as The Avengers and cultural touchstones such as Pulp Fiction.

And we’ve heard his voice in animated entertainment such as The Incredibles and Grand Theft Auto. It’s a stretch to say that he’s warm and cuddly. But he is familiar and, well, just about everyone’s personification of cool. As with Morgan Freeman, part of his allure is his voice – in Jackson’s case, confident, reassuring, in control, but righteously emotional when the situation calls for a display of passion.

When the chips are down, you want the Nick Fury who Samuel L. Jackson portrayed in The Avengers on your side. And we want him on our side when we venture into a voice-first future.

What Happens Next

Amazon was careful to point out that Jackson is the first, not the only, celebrity, to lend his voice to Alexa. In fact, technically he’s not even the first. In a popular 2018 Super Bowl ad, Alexa assumed the voices of celebrities such as Cardi B and Anthony Hopkins.  You know where this is headed, right? It’s only a matter of time before Alexa will assume the form of A listers with familiar voices such as Benedict Cumberbatch (for when we need British cool) and Scarlett Johansson (who famously played the voice of an AI voice assistant that forms a relationship with a human in the movie Her).  

Meanwhile, Amazon may gain something important from a relationship with Samuel L. Jackson: cultural relevance. Through a relationship with Jackson, Amazon hopes to make its brand more relevant to the beliefs, attitudes, and interests that bind us as a culture. Through his popular persona, Samuel L. Jackson is part of our cultural fabric. Amazon is a popular utility on which we buy things; it helps us live our lives. But we don’t feel an emotional bond with a utility. Amazon wants to give its brand a face – and a voice – to start forging one. 

When Voice Assistants Peddle Potato Chips

The Pringles brand is returning to Super Bowl LIII 2019 on Sunday, Feb. 3.

Now I know we’re really living a voice-first world.

Pringles has released three teasers for its Super Bowl LIII spot. The star of the ad will be a  — wait for it — voice assistant. At a time when advertisers are loading up on celebrities such as Chance the Rapper to hustle products, Pringles is relying on a faceless, Alexa-like voice assistant to sell us on the emotional power of Pringles flavors.

The ad, which will play during the second quarter of the Super Bowl February 3, will sell the viewer on the appeal of “flavor stacking,” or combining Pringles flavors in interesting and tasty stacks. The teasers depict an “emotional smart device” (in the words of a Pringles press release) that laments not being able to taste Pringles. In one teaser, the device sighs, “I cannot taste Pringles. I can only order them.” 

The ad will also supported by “a fully integrated marketing campaign including PR, digital, social media, e-commerce and product sampling.”

Whether a depressed voice assistant will inspire Super Bowl watchers to start stacking Buffalo Ranch, Wavy Applewood Smoked Cheddar, or Screamin’ Dill Pickle Pringles remains to be seen. But the fact that a well-known consumer packaged goods company would shell out $5 million (the approximate cost of a 30-second spot for Super Bowl LIII) for an ad that makes a joke involving a voice assistant shows just how rapidly the voice-first economy is evolving. 

Last year’s Super Bowl featured an ad using Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant, but the point of the ad was to playfully sell Alexa itself. Pringles is banking on the likelihood that people are so familiar with voice assistants that an ad can incorporate the voice metaphor to sell its own product. Here’s what the number say: According to Accenture, half of online consumers globally use digital voice assistants, up from 42 percent one year ago. Accenture also notes that smart speakers are among the fastest-adopted technologies in U.S. history. In the United States, most consumers are aware of Alexa even if they’ve not used it.

The risk, though, is that the joke becomes dated as technology evolves. But if the ad helps Pringles move product in the near term, perhaps it won’t matter. 

Now let’s see if an Alexa knock-off can get us to start stacking chips. 

Why Amazon and Google Are Fighting to Lead the Voice-First Economy

To no one’s surprise, the story of CES 2019 was the battle between Amazon and Google to lead the emerging voice-first world.

CES was awash with announcements about products such as alarm clocks and thermostats powered by Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant and Google Assistant, prompting coverage such as CNET’s “Who Won CES 2019: Amazon or Google?” and USA Today’s “CES 2019: Google vs. Amazon, Who Won?

In the aftermath of CES, though, one question looms: What exactly do Amazon and Google get out of winning this battle?

Numbers Galore

Both Amazon and Google used CES to state the case for their leadership of voice (Apple, Microsoft, and Samsung, while certainly players, are not the leaders in voice although Apple is a strong challenger). Google announced that Google Assistant is on one billion devices, up from 500 million in May 2018 (a figure boosted by the sale of Android phones that contain Google Assistant by default). Amazon disclosed that it has sold more than 100 million devices that rely on its Alexa virtual assistant. In addition, the number of people who use Alexa every day — and who own more than one Amazon Echo smart speaker — doubled in 2018. 

Meanwhile, during CES, more telling numbers were disclosed. According to research conducted by Edison Research and NPR, 53 million adults in the United States (or two out of 10 Americans) own at least one voice-activated smart speaker. The number of smart speakers in homes has increased 78 percent year over year. And on January 8, Accenture reported that half of online consumers globally use digital voice assistants, up from 42 percent one year ago.

These figures don’t mean that people are actually using their voices to buy things from businesses. In fact, most people use voice assistants to perform everyday tasks such as listening to music and getting weather information. But the usage data is important nevertheless. It shows that even if we’re not exactly living in a voice-first world, we’re getting there – and doing so quickly considering that the Amazon Echo didn’t exist until 2014, and Google Home just two years later. In addition, by 2016, 20 percent of all Google mobile queries were voice searches.  

The rise of voice also helps explains why so many companies continue to launch products fueled by voice at CES, and 2019 was no exception.

Gadgets and Software Integrations

CES unleashed a dizzying array of products powered by voice, usually through Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa. These products typically focus on making it easier for people to use their voices to live in their homes and navigate their cars. For instance:

In the Home

Lenovo announced an alarm clock powered by Google Assistant. KitchenAid and GE rolled out smart displays that rely on Google Assistant to help you get recipes, watch videos, and do anything else to keep you occupied and entertained in the kitchen. Currant’s new smart wall outlet, which can be controlled by Alexa and Google Assistant, monitors energy usage and suggests which products to automatically turn off to conserve power. The Dalkin smart thermostat works with Alexa and Google Assistant to control the climate in your home.

You can learn more about major product announcements here and here. (For those of you keeping score, in November 2018, Recode reported that Google Assistant works with 10,000 smart home devices versus 20,000 for Alexa.)  But the most intriguing products, such as the Currant smart wall outlet, use artificial intelligence to not only act on your voice commands but also give you information and manage your home without your intervention.

On the Go

Both Amazon and Google showed that Alexa and Google Assistant are powering our lives on the go, too. Google formally integrated Google Maps with Google Assistant, which is important because of Google Maps’s popularity for mobile wayfinding. As Mashable noted, “Google envisions users asking it for directions home, or to nearby restaurants and saved locations. You can ask the assistant to search for places along your route (like gas stations) or add a stop — all things that used to require some button pushing.”

Amazon announced a stronger push into voice-powered automobiles. CES was barely under way when Amazon and Telenav, a provider of connected car and location-based services, announced a relationship that makes it possible for drivers to use the Telenav Alexa-powered navigation system to do the same kinds of functional tasks that they can do with Google Maps. And then Amazon formally launched Amazon Echo smart speaker for the car. Google announced a similar product through a relationship with Anker’s Roav automotive accessory, which is essentially a Google Home for the car.

These announcements continued a battle for on-the-go voice experiences that has been going on for some with Google, Apple, and Amazon all rapidly launching products and software designed to be the de facto infotainment systems for different car manufacturers. The irony is that major auto makers have been announcing dips in sales for 2018. But overall, automotive has been a strong industry over the past several years. And now cars are getting smarter.

What Do They Want?

No wonder so many “Google versus Amazon” stories have proliferated throughout January. But the more important question than who “won” CES is what do Amazon and Google get out of all these voice-powered products? The answer is simple:

  The company that owns the ecosystem monetizes the voice-first world.

Owning the ecosystem yields practical benefits, such as revenue gained from the sale of smart speakers. Amazon commands a strong leadership of smart speakers, but Google is catching up. As of 2019, Amazon is capturing 63.3 percent of the smart speaker market, with Google Home accounting for 31 percent. The numbers matter for another reason besides revenue: smart speakers connect people with other smart devices, thus acting as a gateway for product integrations. As Accenture noted in its survey of global smart assistant users, “[n]inety-three percent of consumers globally expect their home device purchases, such as smart TVs or computers, to be based on ease of integration with their standalone smart speaker.”

Google’s Motivation

For Google, being the backbone of voice protects the company’s online advertising business, which accounts for more than 70 percent of Google’s revenue.  Google needs to keep giving people reasons to keep using products such as the Google search engine, Google Maps, and the Google Chrome web browser. As people stay on Google, Google can continue to deliver audiences to advertisers and learn from audience behavior. As people use voice, Google can keep them on Google by incorporating voice into its products, launching new products such as Google Home, and making Google Assistant part of other companies’ products, which is the alarm clocks, thermostats, and cars using Google Assistant come into play. 

But it’s not all about advertising for Google. Google also wants intelligent voice assistants to make Google software and hardware (such as Pixel phones) more useful and popular, a dramatic example being Google’s Duplex software, which can make convincing phone calls on behalf of human beings.  

What Amazon Wants

Amazon has its own motivations. Amazon is already a popular search engine for product searches, with half of online shoppers starting their searches on Amazon. Amazon also needs to incorporate voice to keep those shoppers using Amazon as they become more comfortable using voice – not just because Amazon wants them to buy things from Amazon with their voices, but also because Amazon is building an online advertising business that is already the third largest in the industry, behind Google and Facebook

As Amazon creates its own advertising business, it, too, needs to show potential advertisers that it can deliver an audience to them – in the home and on the go, whether they use their voices or text to get what they need. In 2018, it was reported that Amazon was in talks with advertising giants such as Procter & Gamble to permit them to advertise on Amazon Echo speakers. Amazon has denied that it’s going to permit advertising through Alexa. But even if Amazon does not offer ads, per se, it can use voice to mine valuable data about its customers that would be useful to its advertisers, such as Google can.

Amazon is already working with businesses to monetize skills. Through premium content known as in-skill products that reside within Alexa skills, businesses can sell premium content such as in-game currency. For example, Stoked Skill offers free games such as Escape the Room and Escape the Airplane. The games are set up as Alexa skills. Players use Alexa skills to find clues that will help them escape spaces such as jell cells and cars. Customers can pay for optional “hint” packs (in in-skill product) that make it easier for them to escape. 

I could see Amazon also offering branded content and products to Prime customers who use Echo, such as discounts at local restaurants unlocked exclusively through Amazon Echo Auto. Doing so would monetize voice without more intrusive advertising that lack any useful offers.

Finally, Amazon has other plans to monetize voice in the enterprise, such as Alexa for Business to help enterprises use Alexa to improve workforce productivity. As these examples show, companies are using Alexa for Business to book conference rooms, manage the connection status of shared devices, and other workplace tasks. But Amazon has competition in the enterprise most notably from Apple and Microsoft.

What Business Should Do

Brands have a clear mandate: prepare for a voice-first world, and one where Amazon and Google call the shots for now. When consumers start really buying products and services via voice assistants, brands will need to play ball with the companies that control the voice ecosystem. Here is how Recode envisions one way that world will play out:

How it works now: If you ask Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant to buy, say, shampoo, they’ll surface what they think you’ll want. Alexa uses several criteria to suggest a purchase option: Your order history, whether a product is eligible for free Prime shipping and whether the product has the “Amazon’s Choice” seal of approval — “highly rated, well-priced products available to ship immediately.”

Google picks products from merchants thatare most relevant to the query. It also considers purchase history and information about user preferences, as well as an item’s availability and proximity.

Both companies say there is no favoring of specific retailers — or their own products.

Brands also can’t pay for visibility — yet. For now, Amazon and Google are trying to build trust among new — few — voice buyers by making their search results as relevant as possible. It doesn’t, however, take much imagination to see a future in which Amazon or Google merchants could pay to have their products suggested by their smart assistants — like sponsored ads that crowd their websites — as a way to generate more ad dollars.

Today, businesses are participating by creating sometimes clever and inventive voice-based brand building experiences, such as HBO’s voice-activated Westworld game, in which people use Alexa to explore the mythical Westworld. Other businesses have created their own branded Alexa skills. With Tide’s Stain Remover skill, you can get stain removal instructions shared with you through Alexa. Campbell’s offers recipes through Campbell’s Kitchen. Presumably, these businesses could offer in-skill products if they wanted to, an example being HBO offering a premium-tier Westworld game for purchase. And businesses are optimizing their content to be found through voice search. 

Amazon and Google are not the only companies doing the heavy lifting, but they are leading the way to a voice-first world. Smart companies are going with them. 

Shareable Custom Alexa Skills Bring Us Closer to a Voice-First Future

Amazon continues to create a voice-first future.

In April, Amazon launched Alexa Skill Blueprints, which makes it possible for anyone to create their own Alexa skills and responses, with no coding required. And now Amazon has made Alexa Skill Blueprints shareable through channels such as Facebook, text, Twitter, and messaging apps.

With Alexa Skill Blueprints, voice becomes a source of user-generated content, such as creating skills that help the babysitter find things in your home or skills that help you learn new subjects through your own voice-based flash cards, among many other potential uses. Here’s an example of how to create your own family trivia game:

Empowering people to create their own Alexa skills without any coding experience is important to Amazon’s vision for making voice the connective tissue of commerce and everyday living. Alexa fuels an entire voice-based commercial ecosystem that includes, for example:

  • The use of Echo smart speakers to manage our smart homes, listen to music (preferably by streaming Amazon Music), and order products and services. Echo is Alexa’s primary vessel, enjoying a commanding 70 percent marketshare.

For Amazon to achieve its vision, consumers have to become comfortable using their voices to accomplish tasks that we’re accustomed to doing with our fingertips. So far, Continue reading

Why Amazon Prime May Be the Future of On-Demand Living

Amazon fed investors a smorgasbord of impressive performance statistics in its quarterly earnings announcement April 25 – such as a 43-percent increase in year-over-year revenues and the generation of $1.4 billion in operating income for Q1 2018.

But by the tine Amazon announced its Q1 earnings, the company had already disclosed an even more intriguing statistic via CEO Jeff Bezos’s April 18 letter to shareowners: 100 million. That’s the number of Amazon Prime members, a figure Amazon had never before shared. Amazon Prime is bigger than Costco. Amazon Amazon Prime also represents the future of Amazon and possibly the on-demand economy

Prime Is Amazon’s Future

For a fee (which is increasing to $119 annually), Amazon Prime members enjoy a number of advantages unavailable to non-Prime customers, such as free two-day delivery on orders and access to exclusive entertainment content via Prime Video.

With Amazon Prime, Amazon is redefining convenience as a premium service by creating an on-demand lifestyle. Just as Starbucks convinced people to pay more for fast coffee, Amazon wants us to pay more to get access to an even more exclusive tier of on-demand services. Continue reading

Boom! Amazon Makes Voice a Whole Lot Bigger

Amazon just extended its influence on how everyday people live.

Today Amazon announced the launch of Alexa Blueprints, which makes it possible for anyone to create their own Alexa skills and responses with the popular voice assistant – and no coding is required.

In doing so, Amazon has found a way to build on its lead in the smart speaker category, where Amazon is crushing its competitors with a 70-percent market share through its Echo product powered by Alexa. But Alexa is more than the heart of the Echo. Alexa is helping to change the way people live through voice-based experiences.

Not long ago, the idea of using our voices to play music, organize recipes, manage our smart homes, and order pizzas seemed far-fetched in a world dominated by text-based searches and commands. But Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft have been steadily developing assistants intended to get people to use our voices to manage machines. Now nearly half of Americans use voice assistants on their mobile phones alone. By 2022, 55 percent of Americans will have installed a voice-powered smart speaker in their homes.

Amazon is leading the way in the adoption of voice. Alexa is the most widely used voice assistant and enjoys higher rates of engagement than competitors such as Apple’s Siri. In fact, Alexa is the heart of a rapidly evolving network that relies on voice commands to manage our lives. Home base consists of the Alexa-powered Echo smart speaker, which reside principally in our homes. Since launching Echo in 2014, Amazon has sold an estimated 20 million Echo units on its way to achieving a commanding lead in the market for smart speakers.

But Jeff Bezos wants Alexa to go beyond our living room. It’s already well known that automobile manufacturers are incorporating Alexa into their vehicles, and Amazon recently launched an offering to extend Alexa into the workplace. At CES 2018, businesses showcased a number of products integrating Alexa – ranging from smart glasses to bathroom fixtures.

These applications of Alexa do something important: make people more comfortable with the voice interface. As Bezos told Billboard, “Alexa is primarily about identifying tasks in the household that would be improved by voice.”

But Amazon needs Alexa to perform more skills for the assistant to become the common fabric of our lives. According to Amazon, Alexa performs 25,000 skills including checking your bank account balance and cooking thanks to interfaces with  third parties. And with Blueprints, Amazon puts the tools of production into the hands of the owners. By empowering end users to create personalized Alexa skills and responses without needing how to code, Amazon has created a compelling way to accelerate the uptake of Alexa. Now anyone can create their own content and customize the product to do what we want. The Amazon website offers a number of suggestions such as helping the babysitter find things in your home, mastering subjects with your own voice-based flash cards, and creating stories.

Making tools more accessible is a common approach employed by technology companies such as Apple and Google. Apple, of course, made smartphone adoption explode by opening up the iPhone to third-party app developers. More recently, Apple released ARKit for developers to launch augmented reality products. Google has taken an even more democratic approach over the years by releasing tools that you don’t need to be a developer to use, such as Google Analytics. Google is now ambitiously trying to make virtual reality more popular by launching tools to create VR experiences.

Apple and Google face bigger challenges making AR and VR more mainstream although Apple less so because AR is easier and less costly to adopt. On the other hand, voice-based experiences are becoming more intelligent and accessible. Plus, it’s far less expensive for people to use voice assistants especially as they become more embedded in products we own already.

With Blueprints, Amazon is widening its lead in the marketplace for voice assistants by changing how we live. Amazon is now Amazon Everywhere.

 

Amazon: One Industry to Rule Them All?

For once, Amazon is playing catch-up.

The great disruptor is just another player in the entertainment space. Amazon Studios, its TV and movie arm, is still looking for a blockbuster like Game of Thrones to compete in an elite league defined by HBO, Hulu, and Netflix. Amazon Music is a follower behind Spotify and Apple Music.

But recently Amazon has made some moves in a bid to transform itself from a follower into a leader. Let’s take a closer look. Continue reading

Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg Want to Change How We Live

Recently Amazon and Facebook announced new products that will extend their reach into the corporate world:

  • Amazon’s Alexa for Business, unveiled November 30, is a platform for a business’s employees to use the Amazon Alexa voice assistant (in Amazon Echo speakers) to manage everyday tasks such as scheduling conference calls and managing calendars. Amazon believes that with Echo smart speakers embedded in corporate conference rooms and offices to manage the mundane things, people will be freed up to focus on more productive work.

  • Facebook’s Oculus for Business, announced October 11, is a bundled set of Oculus products designed to help businesses apply virtual reality (VR) to do everything from train employees to design cars. In fact, although VR has experienced slow adoption among consumers, the corporate world is a different story, where VR is penetrating industries including entertainment, financial services, healthcare, manufacturing, and retail. Facebook believes that by making it easy to purchase hardware, accessories, and associated services needed to employ VR in the workforce, more companies will adopt Oculus over competing products.

These announcements are more than landmark moments for Amazon and Facebook. Alexa for Business and Oculus for Business are also manifestations of something else: the ambitions of Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg to be market makers with artificial intelligence-based voice assistants and virtual reality.

Continue reading

The Four Elements of the On-Demand Economy

Big brands continue to transition to the $57.6 billion on-demand economy, which is characterized by the complete removal of friction from consumer purchases:

  • Jaguar and Shell recently rolled out a partnership to make it possible for people to prepay for gas from their in-car infotainment touchscreens. By using Apple Pay or Paypal configured in a Shell app, Jaguar drivers in the United Kingdom can select how much gas they want and prepay without needing to take out their wallets. The service will expand globally.
  • Walmart now allows customers to bypass lines at its in-store pharmacies. Pharmacy customers use their Walmart app on their mobile devices to order prescription refills and then use an express lane to move ahead of the customer service line and retrieve their orders. Customers can also track order status and view pricing details.

Product preordering is hardly new. As I have discussed on my blog, brands such as Starbucks and Panera Bread have been offering preorder services for a few years. But businesses such as Jaguar and Walmart help legitimize preordering, which is one of the elements of the on-demand economy. Meanwhile, many brands continue to develop services that deliver products to consumers on demand. Amazon removes friction from online (and offline) buying with Dash buttons and Amazon Go stores. Retailers such as (Walmart among them) have launched services that make it easier to either pick up products or have them delivered to your home. Uber deserves credit for being the on-demand catalyst. Now the legacy brands are learning and adapting.

The Four Elements of the On-Demand Economy

The “on-demand brands” typically adopt one or more of the following four elements of the on-demand economy:

  • Making it possible for consumers to prepay and avoid needing to reach for their debit cards or for cash, a model that fueled Uber’s rise. Prepay works especially well with high-volume products that rely on repeat purchases and low consideration, as is the case with Panera, Starbucks, and Walmart’s pharmacy. Typically customers know what they want before arriving at the store and don’t want to spend a lot of time choosing among products.
  • Delivering products to consumers on their own terms, often at their own homes, faster than ever before. For instance, Amazon has launched drone delivery in the United Kingdom to speed up product delivery and is preparing to do the same in the United States. UberRUSH partners with brands such as Nordstrom to offer product delivery, and business such as Heal in Los Angeles bring doctors to your doorstep. These types of services appeal to a variety of demographic segments, ranging from busy parents to urbanites who don’t own cars and lack time to pick up their products. But fulfilling product orders in an on-demand fashion does not need to require the brand to deliver products to the home. Walmart is experimenting with Pickup and Fuel concept stores, where customers order online and then drive to Walmart to have their groceries loaded into their cars by employees.
  • Relying on mobile devices such as phones and wearables. One cannot overstate why mobile has been integral to the rise of the on-demand economy. Mobile searches overtook desktop searches two years ago. There are almost as many mobile phone subscriptions as there are people on earth (which took only 20 years to happen). As Google noted, mobile phone users typically want things done in the moment — what Google calls micro-moments of demand. During micro-moments, people make instant decisions about where to go, what to do, and what to buy: about 76 percent of people who search on their smartphones for something nearby visit a business within a day, and there was a 2.1x increase in mobile searches for stores open now and food open now from 2015 to 2016. Those findings make intuitive sense: when you’re on the go, you don’t have a lot of time to do complex research for things to buy.
  • Using on-demand marketplaces in which people tap into a pool of available inventory to get what they want. Examples of on-demand marketplaces include Uber, Lyft, and Zipcar for either getting a ride (Uber and Lyft) or renting a car quickly. A number of on-demand marketplaces have popped up in local markets to service different industries. For instance, in Chicago, ParqEx connects people who want to rent their parking spaces with people looking for parking in the moment. Many pundits associate Airbnb with the on-demand economy. But I think Airbnb’s success has more to do with opening up a broader inventory of lodging options as opposed to making them available on-demand. Browsing Airbnb is more of an “I am traveling and want an interesting alternative to a hotel” than “I need a place to stay now.”

Voice and Self-Service

The on-demand economy is evolving rapidly in a number of ways, mostly notably through the rise of voice search. Voice search ads a layer of complexity to on-demand transactions: with our voices, we can request more complex services and products. We can ask Alexa, “Tell me where I can watch the movie Get Out this afternoon and use my Stubs discount card” or “Where can I get barbeque ribs in the west Chicago suburbs?” Businesses that want to be found during those open-ended searches need to optimize their online content and data so that they are visible for voice search. Businesses that understand how to make themselves visible for voice will capture more on-demand queries, thus being part of the on-demand journey, from awareness to consideration to purchase and service.

Another major development is the use of buy buttons such as Amazon Dash to enable self-service on-demand. The Amazon Dash button turns any object into a smart device for replenishing items such as laundry detergent. Amazon reports that the Dash buttons, available to Amazon Prime members, have taken off. According to Amazon, Dash button orders occur over twice a minute, and for many popular items, more than half of orders are done via Dash buttons. The list of brands signing up for the program include Campbell’s Soup, Cascade, Clif Bar, Mentos, and Quilted Northern, to name but a few. All told, more than 200 Dash buttons exist.

It’s easy to foresee a time when Amazon will turn the Dash button into an auto-order device that uses sensors to replenish certain products without the consumer even needing to click a button. Auto on-demand may take hold in other industries and forms for products that are ordered often. For now, brands are responding when consumers call — and faster than ever.

Image source: nextjuggernaut.com

Amazon Dashes to the On-Demand Economy

Sometimes change wears an awkward smile. When Amazon launched Dash buttons for instant re-ordering of products in 2015, the idea seemed so goofy that some considered the announcement to be an April Fool’s Day joke. Amazon actually expected people to affix WiFi-enabled hardware devices to any object in our homes so that we could restock on diapers and detergent with the simple touch of a button?

But Amazon was deadly serious. The Dash buttons, available to Amazon Prime members, have taken off. According to Amazon, Dash button orders occur over twice a minute, and for many popular items, more than half of orders are done via Dash buttons. The list of brands signing up for the program include Campbell’s Soup, Cascade, Clif Bar, Mentos, and Quilted Northern, to name but a few. All told, more than 200 Dash buttons exist. They give consumers convenience; and for brands, revenue and access to consumer purchase data.

As it turns out, people find it useful to turn their appliances into smart objects. For instance, if you place a Tide Dash button on your laundry machine, you make it easier to restock on detergent at the precise moment when you realize you are running low, presumably when you are doing laundry with the machine nearby. All you need to do is click on the Dash button, which triggers the instant order. No muss, no fuss, no online shopping cart.

On January 20, Amazon officially expanded the use of Dash buttons on the Amazon home page. (Note the irony here: a business that started as an online retailer launched a physical product and brings it to the online world). You can create your virtual Dash button by choosing an “Add to Your Dash buttons” option on a product’s detail page — but Amazon is also creating them automatically for products you order often or have ordered recently. The buttons are available for both desktop and (more importantly) mobile use — thus turning your mobile phone into an all-purpose dash button.

The Dash buttons are succeeding because Amazon has tapped into a broader trend toward on-demand shopping and living. Uber famously triggered the advent of the on-demand economy with its convenient app that made traditional taxi services look antiquated. Now businesses ranging from Nordstrom to Walmart have been incorporating apps, drones, ride-sharing services, and other forms of on-demand ordering and delivering. According to the Harvard Business Review, the on-demand economy generates $57.6 billion and attracts 22 million consumers annually.

And mobile is crucial to the uptake of on-demand living.  Since 2013, consumers have preferred using their mobile devices over laptops and desktops to interact with retailers online. As Google has reported, we are increasingly using our mobile devices to decide what to do, where to go, and what to buy — and in on-demand fashion. For instance, half of consumers who conduct a local search on their smartphones visit a store within 24 hours.

Google calls these moments of instant decision making “micro-moments.” Amazon intends to capture its share of those micro-moments by making it easier to order products with our phones, which is where Dash buttons on our mobile phones come into play.

Apps such as Instagram and Pinterest have incorporated their own equivalent of Dash buttons, but none of succeeded like Amazon has. Why? Because Amazon had already established itself first as a strong product discovery shopping platform long before incorporating the Dash buttons. And it took years for Amazon to ingratiate itself into our buying habits. The Dash buttons would come later.

Amazon patiently embedded itself into our everyday routines by becoming a user-friendly platform for finding and buying things on our own terms. Dash buttons are just part of its strategy for making shopping an even more natural part of our lives:

  • Dash buttons on our laptops and home appliances for ordering via touch.
  • Alexa in Amazon Echo, automobiles, and phones for ordering via voice.

With Dash — and the much bigger Alexa — Amazon is leading the uptake of the on-demand economy everywhere through natural actions such as clicking and talking. No longer is Amazon a retail engine. It’s a lifestyle brand for the on-demand economy.

Related:

Why Voice Search Is the Future of the On-Demand Economy,” June 14, 2016.

This Is the World Uber Has Made,” June 7, 2016.

Welcome to a New Era of Convenience Shopping,” June 29, 2015.