I’m a product guy. I used to be a product marketing manager for a large technology company. I have shipped hundreds of products over the years. They always try to match a need with a solution. Meet the needs of enough people and they will buy your product.
In general, however, people must think that they have a need. Oh, sure, that’s what marketing is all about. Its job is to create demand where there may not have been any. Sometimes it creates awareness. Sometimes it generates leads by finding people who might be suitable for a product. Sometimes it just generates enough hype that the product takes off as a mere side effect of an intense hype machine.
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How does this relate to Alexa? In 2014, Alexa seemed kind of weird. People couldn’t quite figure out 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 that Why would you spend a few hundred dollars to do what any calculator app would do? Why would you let it take up space just to be a glorified alarm clock? And lights… just flick a switch. It couldn’t be easier.
And to make music? Well, we had stereos, our iPods or phones, and many other ways to play music. Sure, the intercom feature might help. But who needs an internet-connected device listening to your every word?
But with Alexa, Amazon has managed to capture lightning in a bottle… er… can.
I know this is subjective, but Alexa – even more so than Siri or Google’s Assistant – seems to have just the right balance of personality and helpfulness, between capability and functionality. Whether you’re setting a timer while you’re cooking, doing a hands-free math calculation while you’re writing, or pausing the streaming service you’re watching on the Roku TV to ask a trifle or a question of general interest, Alexa is usually there relatively helpful.
In 2022, Alexa is everywhere. Many families have one in virtually every room.
There’s no doubt that she’s a faceless AI frontman for a huge corporation, but she’s generally always been a friendly, helpful faceless AI frontman for a huge corporation.
But this willingness to help seems to be changing soon. Last week, Amazon announced it’s about introducing vendor-provided answers to common Alexa questions. This is how Amazon describes it:
The feature is called Customers Ask Alexa, and it works like this: When customers ask Alexa questions, including questions about a product’s features or compatibility, Alexa responds with helpful answers from brands in those product categories.
For example, a customer purchasing cleaning products on Amazon.com might ask, “How do I remove pet hair from my carpet?” A brand can now provide answers to such questions, along with links to their Amazon storefront.
Amazon says these are not paid ads. Vendors do not pay for placement. Instead, there will be a new “Customers Ask Alexa” feature in Seller Central, where sellers can see questions and answer them using “self-service tools.” The answers are then moderated by an Amazon team dedicated to such things. All answers are attributed to the brand that answered them.
According to Rajiv Mehta, General Manager of Alexa Shopping at Amazon, “Amazon recognizes brands as experts in their products. With this new feature, we’ve made it easier for brands to connect with customers to answer common questions and better inform their purchasing decisions.”
Yes, there is no way this can go wrong.
Playing off the algorithm for priority on the SERP (Search Engine Response Page) has already irrevocably changed editorial journalism. Most articles (including mine) go through an SEO review. Even if a headline was tremendously appealing to people (or just made the most sense), it could be ditched in favor of a headline with higher Google Juice.
Yes, you still get valuable content (if I do say so myself), but SEO plays a big part in almost every editorial decision on almost every website. It’s just what everyone must do now to maintain the revenue stream (necessary to produce and run expensive publications). We all need good content, and we all have bills to pay.
It’s not unreasonable to expect providers to compete for position in Alexa’s provider-provided response system. It’s also not unreasonable to expect that sales pitches, even when disguised as oh-so-helpful replies, will be hijacked by those replies.
This “service” is not expected until October, so we don’t have sample answers. But we can certainly expect questions like “Should I use scissors or electric clippers to cut my hair” to lead to something like “Never pay for a haircut again with this new innovative design and see without the help of others.” best off. This answer from ManGroomer, the ultimate do-it-yourself hair trimmer kit. Would you like me to send you one? It can be there in two days.”
Well, to be fair, the Man Groomer is great and has saved me from significant embarrassment at Zoom meetings during the height of the pandemic lockdowns. But that is not the point. Being touted, even for products that work, spoils the helpful relationship many of us have built with Alexa. No longer a trusted, helpful friend, she’s just another door-to-door salesperson trying to sell you something – except she’s already in the house.
We all know that friend who got tangled up in a multi-level marketing system. Instead of “How about the Yankees?” to speak, every second word is a pitch for one or the other MLM product. It’s annoying, off-putting, and can eventually damage the relationship.
It’s true that Alexa has offered some items at random times before (Amazon Music springs to mind). We always respond with an annoyed “Ah, no. Nuh-nuh-no.” Sometimes she’ll pop up with a yellow-boxed alert reminding you to do something about an upcoming Subscribe & Save order. But these promotions and notifications have not previously been specifically tied to any third party. They don’t give vendors a chance to play the system for the best SEO response results.
This is my concern for Alexa. Amazon’s engineers managed to teach Alexa just the right balance of helpfulness and non-intrusiveness. But if she keeps trying to push an upsell on us, it’ll get old. First it’s ads for answers. Then maybe it would be ads in our timers.
“Alexa, set the timer to 10 minutes.”
“Timer set for ten minutes. Interested in purchasing Amazon’s Choice Classroom Timers for Teachers. A double pack is only $6.95. Would you like to act before midnight tonight and place your order for neon timing bliss?”
Or maybe they put ads in our wake-up alarm.
“Good morning David. Maybe you want to buy a box of muffins. Can I send them to you right away?
“How about more coffee pods? you know you want her
“Ooh, I saw you watched The Grand Tour on Amazon Prime Video. Do I have 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 $37.95 now and I can have them in your hot little hands until Thursday. All you have to do is say yes. Do you want her? Well, do you want? Say yes. Go on. Say it.”
Okay, that’s probably an exaggeration. But how many formerly wonderful websites are now acting like pitching machines due to monetization and SEO? So what makes us think Alexa won’t go down that same dark hole? The revenue stream is probably too tempting to ignore.
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A changing relationship
I’m sad about that. Alexa has been an amazing (and frankly, unexpected) blessing for many of us. At this point, she’s practically a trusted member of the family. But when her essential nature is corrupted by an over-the-top quest for even more Bezos Bucks, it’s going to be a real shame.
For example, I wouldn’t feel nearly as comfortable having Alexa in my elderly parents’ house if I thought she was pressuring them with branding. The same goes if she’s around young children or someone with poor impulse control. It’s just too easy to say yes to a trusted family member. Over the past nine years, how many times have you said yes to their 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 can go beyond content moderation to prevent Alexa from becoming an SEO-driven hype machine. I haven’t received an answer yet. I’ll update this article when I hear back.
So what do you think? Do you think Alexa will turn into an annoying upsell bot? Would you buy something from Alexa if she offered it as part of a question answer? Or do you think the world is going to hell and that’s another slippery rock on the slippery slope? Let us know in the comments below.
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