Marketing in the Moments, to Reach Customers Online

lyft-skyy

From my New York Times story:

Moments are having a moment in advertising. Or at least a micromoment.

As people flit from app to app online, they have little patience for any interruption, especially a banner ad or, heaven forbid, a 30-second commercial. Moments, whether they come during a 10-second Snapchat video or Twitter’s new collection of real-time news bites — called, fittingly enough, Moments — increasingly are all companies have to market against.

Companies that buy and sell online advertising are taking aim at these fleeting instances. They are hoping that targeting people based on what they are doing on their mobile devices at a particular time might make them more receptive to the message.

Last fall, for instance, the spirits company Campari America targeted liquor consumers aged 21 to 34 while they were in neighborhoods with lots of bars and restaurants. Using Kiip, a San Francisco firm that places ads in mobile apps, Campari offered consumers $5 off from the ride-sharing service Lyft when, say, they checked a score on an app while at a sports bar. More than 20 percent redeemed the offer, a high rate for digital ads.

“The attention span of consumers today is, what, eight seconds?” said Umberto Luchini, Campari America’s vice president for marketing. “You get one shot.”

And an ever more brief one at that. …

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Why Google Is Doubling Down On VR (Hint: It’s Not Oculus)

gcardboard

From my Forbes blog:

More than a year and a half after Google introduced what still looks more like a mockup of a virtual-reality device than a real virtual-reality device, it’s finally getting real on VR. But not for the reason most people seem to think.

Today, Google confirmed that it has created a new virtual-reality group headed by Clay Bavor, a vice president for product management who has headed apps such as Gmail, Docs, and Drive–and Cardboard, the cheapo device that turns a smartphone into a crude but surprisingly effective VR headset.

The assumption by many observers is that Google is playing catch-up to Facebook’s Oculus, which just released its high-end Rift device, and other VR headsets such as the Oculus-powered Samsung Gear VR introduced last fall.

But the search giant is playing a rather different game than Facebook, in particular, and other makers of VR devices. …

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‘Unboxing’ Videos A Gift To Marketers

From my New York Times story:

One day last year, Jessica Nelson was surprised to find her toddler, Aiden, watching videos online in which people opened box after box of new toys, from Kinder Surprise chocolate eggs with trinkets inside to all manner of Disney merchandise.

“The next day we saw him watching more and more and more of them,” said Ms. Nelson, who lives in Toledo, Ohio. “He was pretty obsessed.”

She and her son, who turned 3 on Monday, had entered the world of “unboxing” videos, an extremely popular genre on YouTube where enthusiasts take products out of their packaging and examine them in obsessive detail. This year, according to YouTube, people have watched videos unveiling items like toys, sneakers and iPhones more than 1.1 billion times, for a total of 60 million hours.

The videos’ ability to captivate children has led toy makers, retailers and other companies to provide sponsorships and free toys to some of the most popular unboxing practitioners, who in turn can make a lucrative living. Hasbro and Clorox have ads that YouTube places on the videos.

Now, marketers are becoming even more involved. …

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Webrooming: How Mobile Ads Are Driving Shoppers To Stores

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Famous Footwear stores highlight highly searched products.

From my Forbes blog:

Showrooming, the practice of shopping in stores and then buying cheaper online, has long vexed physical retailers that fear they’re losing sales. No doubt they are, but a countervailing trend has been building for awhile now: webrooming, which is shopping online and then buying in the physical store.

That’s potentially a much larger opportunity because the vast majority of purchases still happen in physical stores. The holiday season that just began presents a particular opportunity for retailers that will grow as Christmas approaches and the time to order online before the big day grows short. But the benefits of getting people into stores, not just tapping online buy buttons, is more important regardless of the season, said eMarketer analyst Yoram Wurmser. “People are visiting fewer stores, so they buy more with each visit,” he said.

If getting people into stores to shop is an opportunity for retailers, it’s nothing less than a mandate for companies making coin from online ads. In particular, mobile ads, revenues from which are expected to surpass those of ads shown on desktop computers this year, are key as people increasingly use their phones to find products when and where they want–meaning here and now. “Smartphones have completely changed how we do holiday shopping,” Jason Spero, Google’s vice president of performance media, explained in an interview. “It’s now quick bites and micro-moments.”

No company stands to benefit more from proving its mobile ads work–or to suffer as much if it can’t–than Google, the world’s largest seller of ads. …

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Turkeys + Dinner Plates = Thanksgiving: Google Tries to Make Machine Learning a Little More Human

From my story in MIT Technology Review:

Google CEO Sundar Pichai told investors last month that advances in machine-learning technology would soon have an impact every product or service the company works on. “We are rethinking everything we are doing,” he said.

Part of that push to make its services smarter involves rethinking the way it’s employing machine learning, which enables computers to learn on their own from data. In short, Google is working to teach those systems to be a little more human.

Google discussed some of those efforts at a briefing Tuesday at its headquarters in Mountain View, California. “We’re at the Commander Data stage,” staff research engineer Pete Warden said in a reference to the emotionless android in the television show Star Trek: The Next Generation. “But we’re trying to get a bit more Counselor Troi into the system”—the starship Enterprise’s empathetic counselor. …

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Billions Of Online Ads Are About To Die A Well-Deserved Death

From my Forbes blog:

Businesses that run annoying ads on your smartphone and laptop are about to get a rude awakening.

Not only are online ad blockers quickly gaining in popularity, now two very big companies will soon offer us new ways to avoid in-your-face video and animated ads, pop-ups, and other intrusive ads that plague our online existence.

Today, Sept. 1, Google will start blocking ads that use Adobe’s Flash software, employed widely by video advertisers, in its Chrome browser. And as early as next week, Apple is expected to release its new mobile operating software for iPhones and iPads that will allow the installation of apps that keep ads from appearing in its Safari Web browser.

These developments suggest a new era in which you’ll finally be able to zap annoying ads like those in the video above. For a variety of reasons, it’s unlikely that ad blocking alone will cause advertisers and publishers a big problem. But the fact that the two biggest forces in mobile phones are both cracking down on annoying ads means the online ad business is about to change in a big way. …

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Behind The Would-Be Siri Killer Facebook M, A Battle Over AI’s Future

Facebook M

Facebook M

From my Forbes blog:

Facebook’s test release today of a digital assistant inside its Messenger app is a shot across the bow of the Internet’s biggest companies: Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.com. It’s also the latest salvo in a high-stakes battle over the ways artificial intelligence should transform the way we live and work.

Facebook M is intended to allow users of Facebook Messenger to pose any query or service request in natural language and get a personalized answer immediately. The key wrinkle that sets it apart from Apple’s Siri, Google Now, and Microsoft Cortana is that there’s a team of human “trainers” who will step in when the machines aren’t quite up to the challenge.

So far, it’s only available to a few hundred people in the San Francisco Bay Area, and its timing and scope are unclear. But judging from a brief post by VP of Messaging Products David Marcus, Facebook M is clearly a major bid in a quickening battle to be the virtual assistant of choice, taking on not only Siri, Google Now, and Cortana, but also a raft of upstarts such as Luka, Magic, and Operator.

And in the mobile age, virtual assistants could prove to be the key product that will define which companies dominate the next decade of online services, just as search was for the past decade. “Whoever creates the intelligent assistant will be the first place people go to find things, buy things, and everything else,” former AI researcher Tim Tuttle, CEO of the voice interface firm Expect Labs, said last week.

But what’s even more interesting in the bigger picture is how Facebook M plays into a longstanding, fundamental battle over how artificial intelligence should be employed–one that has recently come into sharper focus. … The upshot: Until and unless AI gets so good that machines can anticipate what we want, people will remain a key component of truly intelligent online services.

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Here Comes Wall-E For The Warehouse: A Conversation With Fetch Robotics CEO Melonee Wise

Fetch Robotics CEO Melonee Wise

Fetch Robotics CEO Melonee Wise

From my Forbes blog:

The little robot follows Melonee Wise around a makeshift warehouse as she picks up boxes of cereal and packages of soap and drops them into a crate atop the machine. Freight, as Wise’s startup Fetch Robotics calls it, may be a machine, but its careful tracking of her movements recalls nothing so much as a dutiful dog.

The robot, which Wise demonstrated in a mock warehouse in a corner of the company’s San Jose headquarters, is one of two wheeled models introduced by Fetch in April as a way to automate warehouses and manufacturing buildings. While Freight is intended as an aid to human workers, the namesake Fetch has a single arm that can pick items off a shelf and drop them onto Freight, potentially replacing people.

Wise’s company is one of several robotics companies betting that robots, which have slowly found homes in auto plants and retail warehouses, are finally ready to roll out in much larger numbers. The CEO says in an interview I conducted for a recent profile of the young roboticist and entrepreneur that smaller and faster computers, improvements in artificial intelligence, and cheaper sensors are all combining to make robots cheaper (in Fetch’s case, tens of thousands of dollars) and more capable.

Fetch is one of the most closely watched robotics startups thanks largely to Wise, a key contributor at the seminal robotics incubator Willow Garage, where she helped design and build several models, and a team of robotics veterans she has assembled. Fetch, which in June raised a $20 million round of funding from Softbank and previous investors Shasta Ventures and O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, has sold a few robots to pilot commercial customers. But Wise has bigger ambitions to create a platform on which software developers can create new applications. “They have a chance to create the backbone of autonomous robots,” says Shasta Ventures Managing Director Rob Coneybeer.

The blunt-speaking Wise, whose voice suggests a mellower version of the comedian Paula Poundstone, talked about how she got into robotics, what she hopes to accomplish at Fetch, how she aims to compete against Google and other companies snapping up robotics companies and talent, and the challenges of fulfilling her dream of a robot in every home. Following is an edited version of our conversation:

Q: How did you decide to focus on that particular area, given that you’ve been trying all along to build for pretty broad application, even in the home?

A: At Willow, we spent two years trying to figure out what the next thing in robotics would be. The first year we tried to understand if there was any play in the home. The answer was a resounding no.

Q: Why?

A: The expectations are too high and the price tolerance is way too low. So people would love to have a robot that would do their dishes or tidy their house, but they want all of that for $500 or less. Even when you challenge that notion by saying, well, you know the Roomba you bought last month was $850, they’re like, oh no, I bought that on sale.

There was this big hype about at-home telepresence. Everyone wants to put telepresence inside someone else’s home, like their mother’s, but no one actually wants it in their home. They don’t like the privacy challenges.

Q: What’s attractive about logistics and manufacturing?

A: We strongly felt that logistics and materials handling and manufacturing was very scalable. There’s a strong need for it. One of the things that sold me on it is there’s a 600,000-person job gap right now for logistics and manufacturing. They just don’t have enough people right now. Turnover is really bad. They also want to increase performance, and people have a rate limit. They get injured. There’s shrinkage. When you pile all these things up, there’s a great case for robots. …

Read the complete interview.

A Deeper Look At The New Google

From MIT Technology Review:

Before Apple’s Steve Jobs died in 2011, he told Google cofounder and CEO Larry Page that his company was trying to do too much. As Page later told the Financial Times, he replied, “If we just do the same things we did before and don’t do something new, it seems like a crime to me.” Yet Page also acknowledged that Jobs was right in one sense: he could manage only so many things before too many would get lost in the shuffle.

Those twin desires—to do new things regardless of how weird and unrelated they seem to Google’s core search and advertising business, and yet still find a way to manage them to fruition—explain Page’s surprise announcement Monday that he was creating a holding company called Alphabet. It will separate Google’s lucrative ad-related businesses, including Android mobile software and the video site YouTube, from the company’s wide-ranging efforts on self-driving cars, human longevity, Internet access balloons, the Nest connected-home devices, and more, each of which will probably become discrete subsidiaries.

But the move, while cheered by investors, is just the first step to fulfilling the company’s long-standing goal to “make Google a long term success and the world a better place.” In the view of several management experts, Alphabet will be successful only if the individual projects and companies can be successful enough on their own to be spun off into freestanding companies eventually. The new corporate structure enables that to happen, but it surely doesn’t guarantee it.

First, it’s important to dispel the assumption that Page and cofounder Sergey Brin have created something like the Berkshire Hathaway of the Internet, an updated version of Warren Buffett’s conglomerate. “The comparison is silly,” says Michael A. Cusumano, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Buffett, he says, invests in existing, undervalued companies, a bit like a mutual fund—precisely the opposite of Alphabet’s VC-style focus on risky new ventures like Calico, which wants to somehow fight aging. ….

Read the complete analysis.