We are looking to a future of hyper-personalisation and über-targeting; a time when brands can read consumers' minds and provide spookily accurate product suggestions, writes Rebecca Coleman. If your brand wants in, though, it will have to prove itself worthy.
In 2015, Mark Zuckerberg – in a Q&A on Facebook (where else?) – said: "One day, I believe we’ll be able to send full, rich thoughts to each other directly using technology. You’ll be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it too, if you like."
While this sounds terrifying, especially if you have friends like mine, telepathy is on the tech innovation agenda, with several start-ups focusing attention on mind-reading devices. Although many are currently clunky headsets with even less appeal than Google Glass, the presence of the likes of Thync and Telepathy Jumper show that Zuckerberg isn’t living entirely in a fantasy land.
Letting friends know what you think is one thing, but letting brands read your thoughts is an altogether different proposition. While people might not be quite ready to open their brains to marketers, we are moving toward a world in which they will expect the brands with which they choose to interact to target them only with communications that are personal and desired.
This is why former marketer Anthony Thomson founded Atom Bank, with the primary aim of becoming the world’s first ‘telepathic’ bank. "Our job is to look at data and work out what you want before you need it," he says. He believes that where traditional banks would, for example, send customers last month’s statement, Atom would use data prediction and forecasting to send its customers next month’s statement.
Thomson has also registered his interest in future-facing technologies such as facial recognition, nanobots and innovations controlled by brainwaves like those mentioned above. He believes that, while it might take decades for this tech to come of age, it is vital to have a vision that encompasses where we’re heading.
While bona fide telepathic tech might be some way off, there are businesses working on technology that delivers the thrill of digital interactions that seem human and personal, to the extent that you feel like the interface is your friend.
It’s a more efficient way to discover new products and brands which cannot be found through a Google search or fashion magazines
This is the mission of Sentient Technologies; one that is as futuristic as its name suggests. The business is working on AI that learns like a human brain, using Darwinian theories of evolution to ensure that the machine is continually learning and improving its systems.
The company recently partnered with Canadian etailer Shoeme.ca to deliver AI-enabled ecommerce. "A visual filter provides shoppers with instant recommendations of available shoes," explains Sentient’s chief technology officer, Nigel Duffy. It is, he says, "similar to the way a personal shopper in a physical store helps people find shoes they love.
It uses visual cues within a product image to discern what is interesting to the shopper, so they don’t get bogged down in complex menu selections and search terms. It’s a more efficient way to discover new products and brands which cannot be found through a Google search or fashion magazines".
This idea of helping customers find the things they want, but cannot Google, is not only helpful, it also injects some of the serendipity of physical shopping into the online experience, which has long felt more ‘nuts and bolts’ than ‘surprise and delight’. It should also reduce the frustration associated with having to wade through the endless aisle of an etailer’s extensive catalogue to pinpoint your object of desire.
"Our goal is to make it like having [the customer’s] best friend beside them as they shop," says Duffy. "As shoppers spend increasingly more time online and on mobile, visual and impulse technologies like these will become a more
natural part of the shopping experience."
Indeed, the path to purchase, once a straight-forward line, is more complex than ever before. People add items to wishlists; they research a purchase on their commute and buy it in a store at the weekend; they ‘showroom’ (inspect a product in a physical store, but then purchase it online); they duck and weave through apps, sites and devices.
This is something that eBay Advertising’s commercial director, Alessandra Di Lorenzo, has noticed. "This year, we have observed a true evolution of the shopper journey into a multi-device experience; more than half of all visits to eBay in the UK are now made via a mobile device," she says.
This is also something that is set to amplify as digital natives increase their spending power. "We’ll see multi-screening and swift movement between devices become the new normal for purchase journeys," says Di Lorenzo. "After all, younger generations already habitually use mobile devices as their primary way of interacting with brands. And wearable technology is likely to feed into this trend rather than revolutionise it."
Duffy explains that a major benefit of Sentient’s AI is that it doesn’t need to hold customer data. "Whereas traditional personalisation technologies rely on gathering user search-history and inventory metadata, the benefit of our visual-intelligence technology is that it is able to discern a shopper’s tastes based on only a few clicks and collecting no personal identifying information," he says.
To persuade shoppers to let us inside their heads, we’ll need to give them stuff that’s consistently relevant, timely and actionable
This works online, but what about targeting consumers on-the-go and in real-time with hyper-personalised messages predicting what they want before they know it themselves? If marketers are truly to capitalise on telepathic and predictive tech, it will require infrastructure – and, more importantly, buy-in from the consumer. It will demand data, and therefore trust.
Michelle Whelan, managing director of shopper marketing agency M&C Saatchi Shop, says she has seen several brands moving toward telepathic tech in their physical spaces, from Whole Foods Market committing heavily to apps with an in-store mode, to in-store innovation such as Samsung Smart Signage – all moves in the right direction.
However, Whelan urges retailers and mar-keters to handle targeting and data-collection with care. "Remember that insight is always going to be more important than infrastructure," she says. "To persuade shoppers to let us inside their heads, we’ll need to give them stuff that’s consistently relevant, timely and actionable."
If Zuckerberg is right about our telepathically enabled futures, brands need to start thinking now about how to get people to let them read their minds.