Michael R. Solomon, Ph.D, Professor of Marketing, Saint Joseph’s University
Customers are eagerly awaiting new advances in marketing technology that will streamline their encounters with companies.Or are they?Recently a hitchhiking robot was beheaded in my city of Philadelphia (I’m so proud!), while a security bot in San Francisco was covered in a tarp and smeared with barbecue sauce.Even economists who advocate that automation will raise wages, productivity (and leisure time) are starting to question this assumption as they confront evidence to the contrary.
Clearly, we’re seeing a lot of ambivalence about the rise of the machines. On the one hand, we enjoy TV shows and movies like Blade Runner, Westworld, and Humans that focus on the civil rights of synths, replicants and androids. And Alexa and Siri are our new guardian angels.Worldwide sales of consumer robots passed $5 billion in 2018, according to a new forecast. More than 74 million consumer robots are expectedto be shipped in 2024. In Japan, SoftBank already sells Pepper, a full-scale humanoid home assistant.
On the other hand, lots of people just don’t like to deal with machines.First and foremost is the widespread anxiety about losing jobs to automated truck drivers, cashiers, or perhaps even CMOs.And, we know that even relatively simple technology (at least in retrospect) like ATMs is a challenge for some customers to accept.Over time, consumers (most anyway) will accept tech innovations so long as they believe they provide incremental value.But convincing them of that can be a struggle – we see this going on today with the somewhat sluggish adoption of computer wearables for example.
Still, there’s little doubt that the use of MarTech will continue to mushroom.Already, more than ½ of companies report that they use it, and we’re just seeing the calm before the storm.You’re either on the train or under it.
But does that enthusiasm in the C-suite mean that customers will happily adopt these innovations?Can marketers anticipate the objections they will surely encounter from consumers who are creeped out when they’re forced to interact with non-humans?
As shoppers increasingly interact with machines instead of people, there are huge ramifications for the way we think about sales interactions (in stores, call centers, etc.) and communications strategies.
Consumers (Luddites aside) at least so far seem eager to embrace these smart agents.One recent surveyreported that about half of the women it sampled want to use them when they shop for beauty products.
Sure, embrace the tsunami of automation that’s about to engulf us.But don’t do so without a life raft
Is it just the novelty factor that’s driving this? Perhaps, although many of us enthusiastically follow automated recommendations from Amazon and other vendors long after the newness has worn off.
Of course, it’s still early days, and we need to learn a lot more about the factors that will attract or dissuade customers from seeking a machine’s advice – and actually following it. Certainly, there are consumer variables such as gender, social class/education, and experience with a product category that will make some of us more likely than others to embracerobotic decision making.
There are many important questions that marketers need to address before they fall all over one another in the race to deploy robots or other forms of sophisticated MarTechthat will replace human service providers and salespeople. For one, we need to question our assumptions about what makes an attractive robot (if there is such a thing). How does the physical appearance of a robot or avatar sales advisor affect the likelihood that customers will trust and follow its recommendations about what to buy?As some companies scramble to create “lifelike” robots to interface with customers, they should bear in mind the “uncanny valley” phenomenon; the closer an artificial face comes to looking human, the more people like it – but this affection turns to revulsion when it is almost indistinguishable from a human’s.
We know that the characteristics of a communications source are a huge determinant of whether or not the receiver accepts the message. Two essential attributes that drive persuasion are a communicator’s perceived warmth and competence.There’s no question (based on over fifty years of solid research on the subject) that the exact same message delivered by two different sources can and will be interpreted quite differently. That’s why marketers spend millions on celebrity endorsers, and why successful fashion models command huge sums.Why do we think these factors won’t matter if the communicator is made of metal or silicon instead of flesh-and-blood?
There are many factors to consider before a company deputizes a robot to represent it.A basic but profoundly important one for example is the robot’s gender – and the customer’s gender as well.One study reported that women responded equally to requests from male or female robots, but men are much more responsive to a mechanical female (hold the snide comments please.)
And this is just the tip of the marketing iceberg.We know from decades of research on interpersonal persuasion that factors such as gesturing, voice and even height exert a profound impact on consumers’ willingness to change their minds.My own research shows that under different conditions customers prefer to interact with various kinds of characters – and sometimes they actually prefer an artificial character to a human!Indeed, already we know of a few recorded cases where humans have actually married robots (yes, you read that correctly)
There are several dimensions to consider when you design a MarTech interface, including:
• The realism of the character (see the uncanny valley)
• Whether the provider should take human form or that of an anthropomorphized animal or fantasy character
• The amount of movement and gestures the character makes
• The extent to which the character’s appearance is similar to the customer’s
• Whether the character’s voice inflections should match the emotional content of the customer’s
The moral:Sure, embrace the tsunami of automation that’s about to engulf us.But don’t do so without a life raft:Be as careful and rigorous about designing robot and avatar interfaces as traditional advertisers are when they select spokespeople.