Don’t let the digital assistant revolution pass you by

Kent Stones | November 4, 2011

I had an experience this week that made me realize I’m actually underestimating the impact of mobile devices on our lives. It was so transforming that I’m still in a state of wonderment – and I’m rethinking what the influence will be of mobile devices on marketing over the next few years.

I was traveling with some colleagues when I realized we had a dilemma we hadn’t anticipated. I was going to Houston the next day, and they were heading home to Kansas City. The problem? One rental car and flights that were three hours apart. Seeing as I had a very early flight and didn’t want to make my coworkers drive me to the airport after a late night of consumer interviews, I decided that I’d just grab a taxi in the morning. This made me curious, though – was arranging for transportation this way keeping up with the digital age? So I launched the app store and downloaded Taxi Magic to see if everything could be done through a mobile device. I set up an account and requested a taxi for the next morning, and within seconds a text message confirmed my request. Minutes later I had an email outlining my request and offering instructions on how to pay and what to do if the driver was unfamiliar with Taxi Magic (brilliant). So far so good. Next I used my mobile device to create my airline boarding pass, and I was ready to go. Total time to request and confirm the taxi and generate my boarding pass (not including setting up the account) was about three minutes.

Today: Apps Upend Traditional Experiences

The big test, however, was that morning. Would my taxi actually arrive? About ten minutes before the time I’d requested, I got a text that said my cab had been dispatched.  It also gave the cab’s number and a link that took me to a map showing where the cab was. It arrived on time with the only hiccup being that the driver was unaware that I was paying through the app (nicely done, Taxi Magic, for giving me instructions for that scenario in advance). Once at the airport, I paid through the app, the driver got a text with payment confirmation and I received my receipt in an email. Taxi MagicI proceeded through security using my digital boarding pass, paid for coffee at Starbucks using my Starbucks app, then boarded the plane, again using my digital boarding pass. Not one piece of paper or currency was needed, and when the entire process was complete it had saved me time and simplified my life. Beautiful.

Why is this so remarkable, you ask? Two reasons. First, I believe Apple’s launch of Siri and Microsoft’s launch of a similar digital assistant are the beginnings of something huge. Imagine if instead of manually carrying out some of these tasks, I had simply been able to say into my phone, “Get me a taxi to the airport at 6:00am tomorrow.” When these assistants are integrated with third-party services like Taxi Magic, THAT IS ALL I WILL HAVE TO DO. The next action for me would have been getting the text that the taxi was on the way. Simplifying our interaction with digital services, not only in terms of efficiency but also in remembering our preferences, is the next revolution.

Tomorrow: Digital Assistants Upend Traditional Apps

The second reason this is so remarkable is because of the effect it will have on other kinds of purchasing. Let’s say you see a runner on your drive to work and it reminds you that you need new running shoes. You’ll simply tell your phone, “Remind me to buy running shoes this weekend.” Since it learned your brand of running shoe the last time you purchased them, your reminder on Saturday will include sale prices at three stores within a five-mile radius and whether your size is in stock. If your size isn’t available, you’ll be given the option to purchase online.  You’ll then be able to choose the store, set a reminder to pop up when you’re in that area, or integrate it into a shopping list that optimizes your route to minimize fuel use.

This is not science fiction. The technology and systems to integrate all these things exist. It’s just a matter of timing and having the access to hook into these assistants so things work seamlessly. But it is going to happen, and I feel sorry for any retailer who takes a wait-and-see approach. You MUST begin planning for this now, with the realization that you’re going to have to work with multiple “assistants” at first. It’ll be worth it, though, when you start reaping the benefits of being very tightly aligned with your customers and can truly provide them with the personal marketing holy grail that has alluded us for so long. Don’t wait for this to pass you by, get working on it NOW!