All posts by TheBlackFin

Chief Marketing Officer, Agency at Epsilon & Principal at Blackfin360, LLC.

Galactic Cannibalism & The Future of Marketing

I have spoken a lot recently about how disruption is the new normal. I recently heard someone compare the last five years as a “supernova” of disruption in terms of the intensity and velocity of change. 

With the rise of artificial intelligence, conversational & ambient experiences, connected systems and mixed reality on the horizon we are moving well beyond a supernova and are now on the verge of galactic cannibalism.

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Galactic cannibalism is when one galaxy collides with another and there is a subsequent absorption of parts of one into the other. From a consumer marketing standpoint how we consume and interact via digital channels is about to be absorbed and redefined through new advancements in connection, cognition & immersion.

The key point to surviving and thriving is to have a comprehensive data strategy as data assets will serve as the fuel of this shift. Regardless of which galaxies collide a thorough understanding of data, content, experiences and outcomes is a marketing foundation for the future.

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In The News: Luxury Daily & Seasonal Retail

I was recently asked by the team at Luxury Daily to elaborate on a proprietary Epsilon research initiative tied to how likely consumers are to shop in-stores vs. online for the 2016 holiday season.

Findings show that 87% of shoppers are “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to purchase at brick and mortar stores this year, with 55% of shoppers “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to look at a product online and then go to a store to buy.

Conversely, 76% of shoppers are “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to purchase online this holiday season, with 54% of shoppers “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to look in store for a product and go online to find the best deal. These findings further signify the importance of personalizing communications both online and offline and creating a seamless customer journey across marketing channels.

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With this as a baseline, I was asked by Luxury Daily to outline the key findings and impact for luxury retailers.

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Luxury Daily also asked how luxury retailers and retailers in general should respond.

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Voice Based UI Best Practices

Over the past year I have focused research efforts on the shift towards conversational experiences and what consumers expect. The research has been covered by Adweek and it’s fascinating how open consumers are to engaging and adopting these experiences as long as they are easy to use and are convenient.

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One flavor of conversational experiences is tied to voice based user experiences. I recently visited Amazon HQ in Seattle and wrote about my experience with the newly formed Amazon Alexa partner team and the rise of voice based user experiences.

Since this article published I have seen client interest and demand for voice based concepts and skill creation rise as our brand partners see the potential of voice based systems.

Here is a slide from a recent client presentation. Almost every meeting over the past few months has included discussions around voice based UI.

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I strongly believe that we will begin to see a convergence over the next few years where elements that enable connection such as social messaging and voice based conversational user experiences combined with cognitive computing (AI) and immersive experiences such as holographic computing will become interconnected and will redefine how we approach connecting with consumers.

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Voice based experiences will play a key role during this time as our interactions with connected systems and the rise of micro services as a primary mechanism to navigate a hyper connected world will become the new normal.

We will begin to see services such as Alexa Voice Services quickly proliferate throughout 3rd party devices from in home IOT systems to connected vehicles and “skills” will become a key component for how we navigate beyond screens. Estimates already show over 28 billion connected devices by 2019.

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Developing voice based experiences differs greatly from visually driven experiences. Visual experiences provide immediate context and cues to the end user that can guide the user and enhance the experience.

Here are 5 emerging voice UI design patterns the Amazon team and I discussed and subsequent best practices and points to consider when designing voice based skills.

  1. Infinitely Wide Top Level UI

With a mobile user experience, users have the benefit of visual cues that can guide their actions within a given experience. Be it a hamburger menu or on-screen prompts. With Voice based UI the top level of the UI is infinitely wide. Here are a few best practices for building solutions to beyond infinity wide top level.

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Don’t assume users know what to do – It’s important the first time a voice skill is initiated to provide additional detail and tell the user about their what options they have for interacting with your experience.

Expect the Unexpected – Unlike visual interfaces there is no way to limit what users can say in speech interaction. It’s important to plan for reasonable things users might say that are not supported and handle intelligently.

2) Definitive Choices – The key to successful Voice UI design is to make the next consumer action clear. Consumers will not always say what they want so it is incredibly important to map intent beyond the normal function of a skill. An example is how a consumer may end a session. They may utter done, quit, etc… and the skill needs to provide clear action for how to end the session. Here are additional points to consider.

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Make it clear that the user needs to respond – Ask the user a question vs. simply making a statement.

Clearly present the options – Prompts are very important, especially if the question set is an either/or vs. yes/no.

Keep it Brief – Speech is linear and time based. Users cannot skim spoken content like visual content. Quick decisions are key, so voice based prompts should be short, clear and concise.

Avoid too many choices – Make sure choices are clearly stated and do not present more than three choices at a time, avoid repetitive words.

Use Confirmation Selectively – Avoid dialogs that create too many confirmations, but confirm actions of high consequence.

3) Automatic Learning

One of the areas I am most excited about over the next few years is the intersection of artificial intelligence and the ability to apply machine learning and other higher level algorithms to create more personalized experiences. For Voice based UI it is important to understand how sessions can persist over time.

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Obtain one piece of information at a time – Users may not always give all of the information required in a single step. Ask for missing information step by step and focus on a progressive profiling strategy vs. lead capture.

Develop for Time Lapse – It is possible to create skills that allow for sessions to persist with end users. This can be hours or days. This can allow more data to be collected across sessions.

Personalize Over Time – As sessions persist and users interact with skills it is possible to further personalize the experience over time based on previous interactions.

4) Proactive Explanation

With traditional visual design a user can open a web page or a mobile app and the information design shows you what to do. With voice you don’t have a page so having the ability to clearly articulate definitive choices in addition to providing proactive explanations such as tutorials or help are critically important to reduce user frustration.

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Offer help for Complex Skills – If a skill does more than three functions, it is important to not overload a single prompt to the user. Present the most important information first, along with the option of a help session.

Make sure users know they are in the right place – In speech only interactions, users do not have the benefit of visuals to orient themselves. Using “landmarks” tells users that Alexa heard them correctly, orients them in the interaction and helps to instill trust.

Use Re-Promptiong to Provide Guidance – Offer a re-prompt if an error is triggered. This should include guidance on next steps

Offer a way out if the user gets stuck – Add instructions into the help session. “ You can also stop, if you’re done”.

Don’t blame the user – Errors will happen. Do not place blame on the user when errors happen.

5) Natural Dialog

Research shows that people are “voice activated” and we respond to voice technologies as we respond to actual people. This makes the crafting of voice based narratives incredibly important as the dialog needs to be natural, consumable and written for the ear not the eye. Here are a few key points to consider for enhancing natural dialog within a skill.

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Present information in consumable pieces – Humans only retain a small amount of information that they hear, only present what is absolutely required in order to keep the interaction as short as possible.

Longer lists need to be broken out into three to five items and ask the user if they want to continue after presented with each chunk.

Write for the Ear, not the Eye – The prompts written for voice-forward experiences will be heard, not read, so it’s important to write them for spoken conversation. Pay attention to punctuation.

Avoid Technical & Legal Jargon – Be honest with the user, but don’t use technical jargon that the user won’t understand or that does not sound natural. Add legal disclaimers to the Alexa app for users to read and process.

Rely on the text, not stress and intonation – Use words to effectively convey information. It is not possible to control the stress and intonation of the speech. You can add breaks but cannot change elements such as pitch, range, rate, duration and volume.

Clarify Specialized Abbreviations and Symbols – If an abbreviation such as a phone number or chemical compound is somewhat specialized, ensure to test the text-to-speech conversion to see if additional steps need to be made.

One final takeaway RE: the Alexa voice based system is the proximity to transaction and list creation via Amazon’s core services. This combined with 6 years of development tied to Alexa Voice Services and the rising partner ecosystem are all signals towards the convergence of connection, cognition and immersion.

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Disruption is the New Normal

I recently had the pleasure to speak at Success North Dallas discussing the topic of DISRUPTION is The New Normal. This hour long discussion looked at the past, present and future of emerging technology and how to apply the trends of today to the business models of the future.

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The past looked at key milestones from the launch of the iPhone to the rise of visual storytelling.

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The present looks at how aligning events + context into moments matters, how co-creation is the new normal and the rise of conversational experiences.

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The future looks at the role cognitive computing, immersive experiences and cars as the next mobile platform will play as we look to connect the present to the future.

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It was a highly interactive and energetic crowd!

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How Digital Is Shaping Shopping Decisions

I recently provided an article to The Financial Express based on proprietary research outlining how digital is shaping shopping decisions. Here is a repost of the article.

Digital shopping tools are gaining popularity amongst consumers and proving to be the key drivers in their path to purchase. The Q1 2016 consumer survey conducted by Epsilon in North America, Shoppers Voice, analyzed consumer shopping habits and sentiment. The findings uncovered how consumers are navigating digital and social media on their path to purchase.

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Among the interesting takeaways from this study is the influence that digital and social media have on a shopping trip as well as how marketers can use these tools to better the shopping process for customers through contextually relevant experiences.

The study revealed that 75% of consumers depend on Facebook for shopping information, whereas less than 30% of consumers depend on Instagram for information related to product purchases. Around 46% of consumers reported they do not use Pinterest for shopping information.

These findings show that the current dependency on social media — as part of the shopping process — is to gain information in the form of product recommendations and customer reviews from trustworthy sources. This is currently leveraged more through content-based platforms than visual-based platforms. These platforms inspire consumers and act as aspirational channels that engage users through ideas related to home decorations, style trends, travel destinations and more.

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For marketers looking to understand where these visual-based platforms fit in their digital marketing strategy, it’s important to consider where they fall on a consumer’s path to purchase. These platforms are currently used by consumers earlier in the shopping process, before they are ready to make the purchase.

Consumers using social media for product reviews and customer feedback do so later in their decision-making process, turning to their trustworthy sources to make the actual purchase decision. These insights are mainly gathered from social networking websites.

Marketers should keep an eye on various social platforms and develop the ability to determine if a particular digital strategy makes sense for their business. In addition to social media, e-commerce websites are taking prominence in decision-making for consumers. This is particularly true when it comes to consumers seeking information based on product reviews and recommendations.

For instance, in the US, 77% of consumers rely on Amazon.com for information on purchase and purchase-related behavior even though they might not shop from the website. This information helps consumers understand the quality of products. Another report, 2015 Digital Shopping Tool Impact Study, found that while penetration for mobile payments lies at only 7%, the impact on purchase decisions for consumers using mobile as a tool rests at more than 31%.

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While there is low consumer adoption for mobile payments, the shopping tool has a strong influence on shopping behavior due to its ability to enable fast, convenient and secure options for customers to pay with their smartphones. A mobile strategy will help marketers increase loyalty amongst their best customers and influence impulse purchases.

As with any marketing plan or approach, once marketers understand how consumers are leveraging social, e-commerce and mobile in their path to purchase, a digital activation plan needs to be created.

It is essential to ensure that all marketing tools are working together. With so many ways to interact with shoppers, it’s easy for marketing messages to become fragmented and disconnected resulting in sub-par customer experiences. Making sure all marketing tools work together — online and offline — will create a seamless and enjoyable shopping experience that will lead to the highest likelihood of conversion and, ideally, long-term relationships.

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SMU Digital Accelerator

I look forward to being a part of the faculty for the upcoming SMU Digital Accelerator Certification program. I will be teaching the digital strategy module on Day 1 with a special guest appearance from Roshen Mathew, Executive Director of Digital Media & Emerging Tech @ AT&T.

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You can register for the course here. If you are interested in the course I have a 20% off registration code: Mastermind

Looking forward to seeing you in class on the 19th of September @ SMU in Dallas.

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In The News: Mashable & Ad Exchanger Yahoo Acquisition

I was recently asked by Mashable & Ad Exchanger about the recent Yahoo/Verizon acquisition. Mashable was interested in the role that Tumblr could play to enhance the content creation entities within AOL. Ad Exchanger was interested in which elements of Yahoo’s technology would be additive to Verizon & AOL.

Here is an excerpt from the Mashable article.

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Excerpts from the Ad Exchanger article:

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Amazon Alexa & Voice User Experiences

Since it first arrived at my home nearly a year ago I have been hooked on the the Amazon Echo and the potential of voice based user experiences. This week I spent time in Seattle at Amazon HQ meeting with the Alexa partner team discussing everything from voice UX best practices, skills development for the Alexa and more.

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To recap, the Echo and it’s cloud supported voice based engine Alexa have been in development for the last 6 years. Since it’s initial launch the devices that comprise the echo ecosystem are regularly sold out and based on the nearly 40,000 stellar customer reviews  (4.5 stars) the experience is resonating with it’s users.

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The core of the experience is a combination of automated speech recognition, natural language processing and a cloud based AI that comprise a voice based user experience. Voice UX is another example of a conversational experience and will become pervasive over the next few years.

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As with most artificial intelligence entities, learning new skills is how personalized and contextual experiences will be created. With Alexa It is possible to “teach” alexa new conversational elements and interactions through developing skills.

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An analogy would be when Neo in the Matrix “learns” kung fu through a knowledge/skill upload. In a similar way Alexa may not be able to learn Kung Fu, at least not yet, but it is possible to build highly engaging voice based experiences.

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Developing Skills for Alexa is one of the quickest ways for brands to connect with the rapidly growing audience that calls upon Alexa to empower their daily lives. Brands such as Dominos and Capital One have already launched skills to capitalize on being the first to own certain invocation phrases. With the Dominos skill a user can order a pizza and track their order through Alexa.

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Skills are comprised of a Skill Interface and a Skill Service. The Skill Interface is how the Voice User Experience is configured. This includes invocation and utterance phrases from the user as well as the mapping of intent schemas scored and resolved by the Skill Service. This is how Alexa is trained to resolve a users spoken word and connect it with a users intent and resolved into action.

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One of the benefits of Alexa is that the experiences can persist beyond a single session. Even though the experiences may seem ephemeral by nature, the fact is Skills can be created that persist across sessions. This could be hours or days.

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The other benefit is that all invocations and interactions are mapped to cards in the Alexa companion app. This is one way that brands can connect a skill interaction with mobile and digital campaigns.

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Other benefits for brands is that it is possible to deep link to skills within the Alexa companion app for those looking to connect omnichannel communication and messaging to drive discoverability of the skill.

One of the key points for brands to consider is the role being “first” can play when it comes to user invocation terms. Brands that align with non-trademarked terms such as “laundry” will be the first in the order of how skills are discovered. This is key as the Alexa engine expands beyond the Echo with Amazon Voice Services.

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Looking to the near future there will be 45 million connected homes by 2017 and connected car penetration will be over 60 million cars by 2020. The role that Alexa will play in the coming years will go well beyond the Echo, Dot, Tap & the Fire Stick and extend into other form factors through the portable Amazon Alexa Voice Service.

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An example is the connected car partnership between Ford & Amazon to further connect Alexa. This is where the platform will create scale across the ever growing IOT ecosystem.

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Future posts will cover emerging trends tied to Voice Based User Experiences such as the infinitely wide top level UI, definitive choices, automatic learning, proactive explanation as well as user punctuation. For additional questions or assistance with Alexa Skills please follow Tom Edwards @BlackFIn360

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Pokemon Go: 15 Vital Marketing Insights

Pokemon Go mania has hit the US. The near perfect storm of timing, relevance, and word-of-mouth has momentarily captured the media spotlight and Pokemon fans new and old.

I recently provided iMedia with 15 Vital Marketing Insights that marketers should consider when building high engagement digital to physical programs.

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Community, Common Cause, Competition, Gamification, Word of Mouth, Game Mechanics, Scarcity, Nostalgia and Mixing Reality are all elements that contributed to the run away success of Pokemon Go.

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There are many lessons to be learned by marketers. By aligning existing strengths of the brand with the passion of community and a compelling experience, it is possible to create a highly engaging consumer experience with similar attributes that make Pokemon Go a success.

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The Medium Is the Message

This week Adweek published our quantitative research infographic about consumer behavioral shifts tied to social messaging and the types of experiences they are interested in engaging with in both the print and online edition.

Look for this week’s issue of Adweek. Our research is on page 13.

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With apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Snapchat vying with conventional SMS to be the preferred texting method, the line between social media and texting is more blurred than ever. And brands have a real chance to capitalize on this, according to a newly released study by Dallas-based marketing group Epsilon.

“We are on the verge of a transformational moment, as consumer behavior is dictating a shift towards intimacy of sharing content and experiences versus public sharing,” said Epsilon chief digital officer of agency business Tom Edwards. “Messaging apps now boast more active users than social networks, and this shift from social media to social messaging will redefine how we, as marketers, will approach connecting with consumers.”

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