I am a product man. A long time ago, I was actually a product marketing manager for a major technology company. I have shipped hundreds of products over the years. You always try to combine a need with a solution. Meet the needs of enough people and they will buy your product.
In general, however, people should think that they have a need. Oh, sure, that’s what marketing is all about. His job is to create demand where there might not have been. Sometimes it creates awareness. Sometimes it generates leads by finding people who might be a good fit for a product. Sometimes it generates just enough hype that the product takes off as a side effect of an intense hype machine.
How does this compare to Alexa? Back in 2014, Alexa seemed a bit weird. People couldn’t quite understand why you would want one. It didn’t fit into any of the usual product marketing formulas.
It was a device in the shape of a Pringles can that you could talk to. Why would you talk to it? Why spend a few hundred dollars doing what any calculator app would do? Why let it take up space to be a glorified alarm clock? And lights…just flip a switch. It couldn’t be easier.
And for playing music? Well, we had stereos, our iPods or phones, and many other ways to play tunes. Of course, the intercom function can be useful. But who needs an internet-connected device that listens to every word?
But with Alexa, Amazon managed to catch lightning in a bottle… er… can.
I know this is subjective, but Alexa—more so than Siri or Google’s assistant—seems to strike just the right balance between personality and helpfulness, between capability and functionality. Whether you’re setting a timer while cooking, doing a hands-free math calculation while writing, pausing the streaming service you’re watching on the Roku TV to ask a trivia or general question, Alexa is usually relatively helpful.
In 2022, Alexa will be ubiquitous. Many families have one in practically every room.
There’s no question that she’s a faceless AI front for a giant company, but she’s generally always been a friendly, helpful faceless AI front for a giant company.
Times are changing’
But that helpfulness seems to be changing. Last week, Amazon announced it’s about to introduce vendor-provided answers for common Alexa questions. Here’s how Amazon describes it:
The feature is called Ask Customers Alexa, and it works like this: When customers ask Alexa questions, including questions related to a product’s features or compatibility, Alexa responds with helpful answers from brands from those product categories.
For example, a customer buying cleaning products on Amazon.com might ask, “How can I remove pet hair from my carpet?” A brand can now provide answers to such questions, along with links to its Amazon store.
Amazon says these are not paid ads. Sellers do not pay for placement. In its place, a new Ask Customers Alexa feature is coming to Seller Central, where suppliers can see and answer questions using “self-service” tools. Responses are then moderated by an Amazon team in charge of such things. All answers are attributed to the brand that answers them.
According to Rajiv Mehta, general manager of Alexa Shopping at Amazon, “Amazon recognizes brands as experts on their products. With this new capability, we have made it easier for brands to connect with customers to answer common questions and guide their purchasing decisions. better informed.”
Yes, this can’t go wrong.
Playing with the SERP (search engine response page) priority algorithm has already irrevocably changed editorial journalism. Most articles (including mine) undergo SEO review. Even if a headline were hugely appealing to people (or simply made the most sense), it could be bombed in favor of a headline with higher Google juice.
Yes, you’ll still get valuable content (if I do say so myself), but SEO looms large in almost every editorial decision on almost every website. It’s exactly what everyone needs to do now to keep the revenue stream (needed to produce and run expensive publications) in. We all need good content and we all need to pay our bills.
It’s not unreasonable to expect suppliers to compete for positional prominence in Alexa’s supplier-provided answering system. It’s also not unreasonable to expect that sales pitches, even if disguised as oh-so-helpful responses, will penetrate those answers.
This “service” isn’t expected until October, so we don’t have sample answers. But we can certainly expect that questions like “Should I use scissors or electric clippers to cut my hair” could result in something like: “Never pay for a haircut again with this new cutting-edge design and look your best without it.” the help of others. This answer is brought to you by ManGroomer, the ultimate DIY hair cutting kit. Want me to send you one? It can be there in two days.”
Now, to be honest, the ManGroomer is great and saved me from considerable embarrassment for Zoom meetings during the height of the pandemic lockdowns. But that’s not the point. Pitching, even for products that work, spoils the helpful relationship many of us have developed with Alexa. She’s no longer a trusted, helpful friend, she’s just another door-to-door salesman trying to sell you something, except she’s already in the house.
We’ve all had that friend who got all caught up in a multi-level marketing plan. Now, instead of talking about “what about those Yankees?” every other word is a pitch for some MLM product. It is annoying, unpleasant and can eventually damage the relationship.
It’s true that Alexa has offered some items at random times before (think Amazon Music). We always answer with an irritated “Ah, no. Nuh-nuh-no.” Sometimes she appears with a yellow-ringed alert that is a reminder to do something about an upcoming Subscribe and Save order. But these promos and notifications have not been specifically linked to third-party vendors until now. They don’t give suppliers a way to play the system for the best SEO response results.
This is my concern for Alexa. Amazon’s engineers have managed to train Alexa for just the right balance of helpfulness and unobtrusiveness. But if she’s constantly trying to sell us, it gets old. First it’s ads on answers. Then maybe it would be ads in our timers.
“Alexa, set the timer for 10 minutes.”
“Timer set to ten minutes. Want to buy Amazon’s Choice Classroom Timers for Teachers. A two-pack is just $6.95. Want to trade before midnight tonight and place your order for neon-colored timing luck?”
Or maybe they put ads in our alarm clocks.
‘Good morning David. You may want to buy a box of muffins. Can I send them to you now?
‘How about more coffee pods? You know you want them.
“Ooh, I saw you were watching The Grand Tour on Amazon Prime Video. Got a set of floor mats for you…”
Will nothing be sacred?
“Alexa, what is 228 divided by 19?”
228 divided by 19 is 12. Speaking of 12, may I interest you in a 12-pack of shoe storage boxes? Amazon’s Choice is now $37.95 and I can have them in your warm little hands on Thursday. All you have to do is is say yes. Do you want them? Well, do you want? Say yes. Go ahead. Say it.”
Okay, so that’s probably an exaggeration. But how many previously beautiful websites now seem like pitch machines due to monetization and SEO? So why do we think Alexa won’t go into that same dark hole? The revenue stream is probably too tempting to ignore.
A changing relationship
I am sad about this. Alexa has been a fantastic (and frankly unexpected) boon for many of us. At this point, she is practically a trusted member of the family. But if her very nature is tarnished by a far-reaching search for even more Bezos Bucks, it will be a real shame.
For example, I wouldn’t be nearly as comfortable having Alexa in my elderly parents’ house as I thought she would pressure them with brand marketing. The same would be true of having her around young children, or someone with poor impulse control. It’s just too easy to say yes to a trusted family member. After all, how many times in the past nine years have you said yes to her helpful little questions?
For the record, I emailed Amazon PR asking if there’s a way Amazon customers can opt out of these potential upsells and how Amazon, other than content moderation, can prevent Alexa from turning into an SEO driven hype machine. I haven’t received a response yet. I will update this article if I hear anything.
So what do you think? Think Alexa is going to be a nasty upsell bot? Would you buy something from Alexa if she answered it as part of a question? Or do you think the world is just going to hell, and this is just another slippery rock on the slippery slope down? Let us know in the comments below.
You can follow my daily project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter @DavidGewirtzon Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtzon Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtzand on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.