Tech viewpoint on virtual assistants
A view from Jeremy Pounder

Tech viewpoint on virtual assistants

The next tech frontier is just round the corner and brands need to be ready. At Mindshare, we have recently carried out "Project Virtual Assistant", a multidisciplinary research collaboration with the Institute of Management Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, into virtual assistants – the next generation of computing. We set out to explore the opportunities and challenges of the VA for users, service suppliers and brands.

Already, there have been pioneering steps in this field with services launched including Google Now, Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana. IBM is focusing on delivering the artificial intelligence of Watson to the B2B world. And brands such as Coca-Cola and Domino’s Pizza are starting to experiment with VAs.

During the research, it became clear that a world in which consumers are constantly guided by their VAs will be hugely challenging for brands. The prospect of a computer acting on behalf of the consumer suggests huge disruption to the consumer journey. The role of emotion in decision-making may diminish as the VA weighs up product alternatives (would a VA ever suggest Nurofen at six times the price of own-brand ibuprofen?).

Brands will still play a role in helping consumers choose from recommendations but, as emotion takes a back seat and recommendations from the VA become honed around prior preferences, new or niche brands will find it harder to break into markets.

A computer acting on behalf of the consumer suggests huge disruption to the consumer journey

It’s likely that a "paid-for recommendations" model will find a place in the VA environment. If VAs become the gateway to the internet, the threat to Google’s core search business is such that it will ensure a paid ad model is integral to Google Now. There may be fewer paid media opportunities in comparison with the existing search model, but they should be more effective given the greater intelligence offered by the VA. Advertising within the VA has the chance to become the "service" that data-driven targeting has promised for so long.

We expect VAs to be modular, personalised services. As users modify VAs by bolting on specialist features, there is an opportunity for brands to offer services that genuinely provide value in consumers’ lives. For example, Flora could create a cholesterol-monitoring module than connects wearable tech with the VA to help users manage their cholesterol levels. Brands that have a strong association with and credibility in a particular area will be best-placed to take advantage of these opportunities.

VAs are four or five years away from achieving mass-market take-up and will fundamentally transform how we interact with the world around us. Brands need to think now about how they will cope with this next wave of digital disruption.

Jeremy Pounder is the research director at Mindshare