DC’s great marketing minds may disagree about top trends, but at AAF DC’s January AM AdBuzz, four digital agency pundits were aligned in believing that innovations like chat bots, personal assistants like Alexa, and virtual reality applications may all edge their way into strategic marketers’ plans. In fact, as Social Driver CEO Thomas Sanchez asserted, keeping up with the pace of change on the bleeding edge of consumer electronics and artificial intelligence may represent the best case for agencies’ value proposition.
Sanchez said, “It used to be that you could just hire a social media manager for your shop or your brand and that person would have enough skills to run the Twitter account and run the Facebook account. Today that’s not really the case.” Whether it comes to live streaming videos in real time, or figuring out how to interact with the Internet of Things (IoT), “there’s no more single social media skill. Social media skills are very cross-functional.” Marketing success will begin to belong to “those who make things, those who can do things, those who can create things, more than just people who can plan and come up with ideas.”
Increasingly, Sanchez predicted, clients will move to hire “people who can go out and execute. I think that’s really where agencies can make a difference in 2017.”
Social Driver may be best known locally for hosting client “war rooms” surrounding major events like the State of the Union address. In these rooms, social reaction is monitored and selectively engaged to promote client causes. The company boasts accounts like Accenture, Honda and the American Hospital Association, for which it organizes branded content and socially driven video outreach.
Virtual Assistants get Attention
Sanchez was part of an all-star panel that included Shane Brown, account director for Burson-Marsteller; Amanda Nguyen, strategy director for agency CHIEF; Joe Gizzi, strategy director for MXM; and moderator Brian Wohlert, account lead for Centro.
Brown quipped, “Guests are alarmed when I yell at [Alexa],” but said, “all of these brands are already looking at integration [with Alexa] because there’s an open API.” Wohlert was the first to agree with Brown and said that Alexa and the world of verbal “search” and virtual assistants dazzled Centro’s leadership at this month’s CES show in Las Vegas.
Electronics companies like the stereo maker Sonos are already integrated, making audio in every room voice controlled. Wohlert can see a day when asking Alexa for a substitute for cayenne pepper elicits a response sponsored by a brand.
Sanchez suggested that consumers might ask Alexa to “send my congressman a message,” when prompted by advocacy-driven paid or social media. While Gizzi didn’t disagree, he noted that chatbots already are breaking new ground in this arena. “People were skeptical initially about talking to Siri; Alexa is the next generation of that.” But chatbots already are interactive enough that if your congressman had a chat bot, constituents could interact with it and find out where he stood on an issue or provide feedback. “Or, it could just offer customer service for a brand. Living out this customer journey, a bot can actually through natural language processing conversationally lead you to other content, a website, a purchase, or tell you to share something with a friend, making for a much more emotional experience. It would be like having a little brand rep at your fingertips.”
Chatbots Ask, “Would You Like to Talk to Somebody?”
Sanchez says his conversations with non-profits about bots have explored what might happen, for example, if you texted a friend, “Hey I just can’t take it anymore,” and your bot responded with, “Would you like to talk to somebody?” How different might that be, he mused, from telling a friend you’ll be there in 15 minutes and being asked if you want to call an Uber. “That kind of thing is going to happen and I think there could be a big advantage to non-profits and brands to move into that space.”
That’s where integrations with multiple systems become most powerful, Nguyen observed. Technology may be most successful to the extent it is allowed to disappear, allowing consumers to seamlessly switch to a different device, service or platform to complete an action. It’s this seamlessness and feedback that may help brands be more responsive and customized offline.
Or, as Brown envisioned, “It’s forcing brands to shift to helping consumers and providing content or substance vs. just pushing out paid content that is the brand’s message.” Brands should be thinking about how to engage people and give them something that makes their lives better or helps them have fun, not just watch a commercial.
Gizzi expects one benefit of interacting with AI to be the feedback chatbots and virtual concierges can offer to their brand masters about how brand messages are received by their intended audience. A consequence of helping robots become more expert at natural language processing could well be that brands learn from what people are telling bots in reply. This could force brands to “change their content strategy and their conversation tree,” which impacts the eventual marketing strategy.
Wohlert asked where such bots would “live,” and the initial answer is likely on brand sites, though they may use social platform to convey alerts like when the shirt you ordered will arrive in your mailbox. “You feel more involved in the process,” that way, he allowed. He said some sports teams are testing such services that would allow consumers to ask questions like, “are these seats available and what games are coming up?” Brown’s favorite bot is Digit, a bot-powered savings tool that monitors his bank account and puts money into savings at regular, pre-proscribed intervals.
Interactivity’s Aflame; VR is … ‘Lame’?
Regardless of how it’s executed, 2017’s big trend will be interaction, Nguyen said. Websites will be more interactive. “It doesn’t have to be long-form,” but such content will be “sticky and grab people and have them do something with it vs. only being talked at.” Snapchat and Instagram both are making interactive stories more popular, and she predicts more platforms will follow suit.
Being prepared with an offline response to what happens in social media is key to even having a conversation, Gizzi noted. “Poor Red Lobster, they didn’t know that [Beyonce’s new single] Formation was coming [in last year’s Super Bowl halftime show, with a line in it: ‘When he f*ck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster, ’cause I slay.’]” Social media expected a response in an hour, but Red Lobster didn’t know what was happening. “It’s an argument for always on, capitalizing on the moment like Super Bowls and other things where you can get huge amounts of press if you are fast to move.”
Among other noteworthy trends, Sanchez cited security. “This is the year that people just woke up and said, it could be a competitive difference to have good security.”
The biggest lack of consensus among the panel focused on the possible applications of virtual reality for branding and consumer engagement. Nguyen doesn’t foresee much uptake of VR until the technology becomes cheaper and more accessible. “It’s too expensive to enter the space … [and] there isn’t a lot of content out there.” Other than gaming which may find a natural niche, training and education might make the first successful forays. Gizzi admits that he had “high hopes” that Facebook would do something to advance adoption, but just putting on the viewers is awkward; “people get dizzy and disoriented.” Before VR gets a running start, 360 videos will likely take hold on Facebook through socially shared vacation photos or perhaps in more evergreen applications like a sports team’s Hall of Fame and history. Sanchez simply branded it as “lame.”
Live video, conversely, could have impacts ranging from offering “behind the curtain” looks at brands to how consumers react to what they see of those they patronize. Nguyen said, “What’s interesting about the live components [of branded video is] to see when people react to a statement and allowing people to engage… not just the drop-off rate [when people stop watching or how long they view], but to see when people laughed about something or loved something or were angry about a certain statement.” Two-way experiences, could well, “inform a lot of content strategies and open the door to more sophisticated communication.”
Said Gizzi, “My fear is that if it’s not a relevant message they’re not going to come back.” The other possibility is that live video “could be a regular syndication platform.” Rather than being caught up in the trap of thinking that a live event necessitates a big investment of both time and expense, “with FB live I just pull out my phone and I do whatever…. this is social TV.” From Martha Stewart to Snoop Dog, all that’s required to grow a following is say, “hey, we’re going live in five minutes and here’s what we’re going to be talking about, and you can have an immediate audience.” Those brands with greater authenticity will have the freedom to be more transparent, vs. brands that lack it and “might have to spend more time putting together an event that’s more like an ad.”
Hack the Tech – Inspire New Applications
Sanchez uses the Social Driver Snapchat channel to talk daily to members of his team. “I can email them and pretty much all of them will read it, but that’s kind of boring.” Instead, “I’ll just record a [Snapchat] message in the morning that says, ‘hey remember that today we have a team at SXSW,’ or similar. I just use Snapchat as a kind of internal sales meeting. For a CEO that has to be out doing sales meetings or conference calls or road shows all the time, it allows me to have an open door with my team and I don’t feel like I have to be so formal.”
Other business leaders may experiment in similar ways to hack technology to their own usage, and in so doing inspire new questions about how it could be used to further their outreach or burnish their brand. The real key to change would be: how will their agency be ready when brand managers’ next call is to their agency.
What Will Die on the Vine?
What makes something like Vine die and others like Snapchat and Instagram video endure? Nguyen says, I think it’s the integration of multiple ways of communicating. You can go on Facebook or Snapchat and layer on other experiences, whereas Vine is just watching a video – it’s a more linear conversation.” Key to succeeding will be giving users the opportunity to interact like sending a sticker or starting a back-channel conversation. “Snapchat may not be fully conversational in that way yet, but people do have the opportunity to make it their own vs. just a one-way communication.”
Gizzi says Vine didn’t fail, it just became Periscope, Meerkat and Boomerang. Users and platforms will continue to experiment and the winners will be folded back into the mothership,” again, making paying attention to new technology key to marketing and branding success.
Sanchez says that Twitter has failed so far to attract marketers because they don’t have the integration that breaks through to their “stand alone experience.” He is, however, “super positive on Twitter this year,” because, “not only do we have a president that tweets – huge,” but CEO’s will be coming to their marketing teams and saying, “how do I get on this new thing?” That means that agencies will have to train their leadership on how to use Twitter this year.
Further, political leaders will be calling out the brands that agencies work with, necessitating crisis managers and their agencies to have a plan for when brand leadership tweets something not “on message,” or when trolls attack, eliciting less than circumspect responses in real time. Agencies will have to train and do some hand-holding. “I also think Twitter will be acquired this year. Just overall we’re going to see Twitter in the news a lot this year.”
Gizzi, conversely, is “thumbs down” on Twitter. “They’ve professed a lot that they’re a news service, not a social network. They want blogs and media to pull their content in,” which in effect gives the content creators more power than the social network. Twitter is “a very passive service,” when you think about it, because you don’t have to create content to consume what goes on there. “On the whole, I don’t see brands having great experiences on Twitter. They’ve actually recently just shuttered their ecommerce team because that wasn’t a successful venture for them. [They’re experiencing] more of a shift towards a media company than a monetization company for brands and advertising.”
That doesn’t mean it can’t be very interesting from an advocacy perspective, Gizzi said. “You see groups like black lives matter and niche LGBT groups who really want to interact on Twitter because there’s some level of anonymity, and camaraderie where you can meet people you’ve never met before just by following hashtags.” The best recent example of this was the Women’s March which allowed people all around the world to just “pop in” and join the conversation. “But from a brand marketing perspective, I’m a little cold.”
Nguyen agreed saying, “we use [Twitter] to disseminate information,” but Twitter is more useful on the “research track” to identify influencers and issues to engage with than to advance a cause. She thinks it’s interesting that the White House is clamping down on the use of agencies like EPA of its social channels. “It will be interesting to find out what kinds of approval and records management issues come up with this platform that is so incredibly popular and can be used to connect with so many people but may not be available” in some cases.
Facebook’s biggest failure was its difficulty – twice – to provide accurate metrics on consumption of advertiser videos on its service, Sanchez said. “They really stumbled in the trust factor.” Another example of where Facebook is “really failing in their analytics,” was when observers looked to Facebook to see what was trending during the Women’s March and it wasn’t even on their list, vs. Twitter’s reflection that it was the top subject for days.
Gizzi noted that marketers may also have to evolve their opinion on Snapchat. “You can reach an audience we can’t get in traditional TV news or print advertising,” but at the same time, “what we’re starting to see that they’ve created a caste system of 15-20 different creators and publishers who will feed you the news, and if you want to advertise with them you have to go through these guys. Given that we’re in an era of alternative facts and fake news, having a select group of companies that a Facebook or a Snapchat has deemed more worthy of getting their news to us… that’s loaded.”
Also loaded: AAF DC’s calendar of future AM-Buzz panels and opportunities to meet and greet the movers and shakers in DC’s advertising, marketing and creative communities! Watch http://aafdc.org for events and sign up! Members attend free.
Melinda Gipson (@DM2PRO) is an account director with Sabio Mobile, an innovative, targeted mobile advertising company serving brands, political campaigns and advocates looking to fundraise, mobilize their audiences, or advance their brands. She edits this blog and welcomes contributions from members and tips from anyone in the community about trends in the DC market.