June 29th 2007 is noteworthy for being the day Apple ushered in the biggest technology and business transition in history with the release of the iPhone.
And it looks like when we connect the dots in five to ten years time, April 12th 2016, will be a date that is just as significant.
If you’re wondering, April 12th was the day Facebook announced its roadmap for the next ten years, with particular emphasis placed on immersive technologies like virtual and augmented reality.
The shift from screens to environments
While many of us are still making the transition from paper to digital or PC to mobile the focus of companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Microsoft point to a future in which the lines between the physical and virtual worlds are completely blurred.
Images and objects, in environments such as offices, cities and homes, can now be overlaid with data to create distinctly new experiences.
On-demand platforms like Uber and devices like smartwatches have already made consumers demand more from their digital experiences, and for many, the customer experience is now more important than the product itself.
By creating almost infinite interface possibilities, immersive technologies not only allow brands to meet the challenge posed by experience-seeking customers, it gives them the power to make every interaction an opportunity to deliver something exceptional.
Building borderless, liquid experiences
As our world continues to become even more virtualized and sensor-rich, the constraints of a screen-based life will disappear, and with it, many organizations will have to re-frame how we compete at the level of experience.
The brands that succeed in this evolved business environment will need to remove barriers right across the customer eco-system.
Not just in relation to internal hierarchy and processes, but across differing touchpoints, locations, and even industries.
Only then can we create borderless experiences that wrap themselves around the lifestyle patterns of customers as they carry out day-to-day activities.
This mind-set is very different to what we see in organizations today; in which we map the interactions/journeys customers have with our brands in isolation.
In the near future, there should be no reason why I cannot ‘tap and save’ branded content and offers directly from a mobile ad to the relevant brand in my mobile wallet, and then have that same ad served up as and when I need it.
For example, when walking past Starbucks, I could receive offers via augmented reality, letting me know what offers were live in a particular store and whether a coupon I have saved was still valid.
Without even stepping into the store, I could then complete the payment transaction via gesture, voice or touch control, walk in, collect my coffee and leave.
Immersive, borderless technologies will make just these types of interactions possible, as they provide a digital overlay on the real world, to create completely new and integrated customer journeys.
Notice in the above scenario it was difficult to tell which brand was driving the engagement, or which was the dominant channel.
Was it the agency who trafficked the ad to my mobile device, was it my bank who used location awareness to remind me of the unused coupon sitting in my digital wallet, or was it Starbucks that offered me the coupon in the first place, based on past usage.
The rise of bots
To some, the above may sound like science fiction, but it is science fact.
And Facebook’s second big announcement regarding bots for Messenger is version 1.0 of an interface that will unlock the potential of not only mixed reality, but the internet of things (IoT) too.
While figures vary widely, it’s safe to say everyone agrees that the IoT and mixed reality will create trillions of dollars of economic value.
But despite the hype, the lack of interoperability and a unified frictionless interface, are hindering both the IoT and immersive technologies from scaling.
With an estimated 50bn objects connected to the internet by 2020, a world dominated by screens, text and images becomes impractical.
If your car, home and office are all smart, intelligent and most importantly interconnected (i.e. they speak to each other), the notion you would need an app (or mobile device) to interact with each of these objects in order to carry out habitual day-to-day functions just doesn’t scale.
Ideally, if you needed something you would just ask for it, and as computational power moves into the environments around us, I believe AI and virtual personal assistants (i.e Apple’s Siri, Microsofts Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Now) will be the most effective way to actualise this future.
Alexa, the VPA for Amazon’s Echo, already gives consumers the ability to check their bank balances, recite recent transactions, and control home appliances all using speech recognition.
And whilst early use cases are somewhat trivial, chatbots are just the first iteration of a much bigger play by the likes of Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft, as they use conversational elements to build the experiences of tomorrow.
What can brands do now?
Forward-thinking brands have always known that competing successfully in today’s environment has never been about devices, channels or platforms, but following the evolution of consumer behavior to the most granular of levels.
In this sense context always has been and will be King.
Our current obsession with mobile is well placed, but as highlighted by thought-leaders like Sergio Nouvel, it is a little more nuanced than we think.
The focus should be on mobility first, as opposed to mobile first, as value is now transmitted by a combination of devices, and soon to be interfaces, objects and platforms.
As we transition from a landscape dominated by screens to environments, the focus of attention must shift from inside to outside the organisation.
Technology has made our world so fragmentary and customer journeys so interwoven, that soon it will be almost impossible for one organisation to adapt to the countless needs and niches created by our hyper contextualised, sensor-rich world.
To thrive, organisations that once saw themselves as competitors, may need to start seeing themselves as complementors.
Asking the following questions.
- Where can we find opportunities to partner with third parties in order to optimize the customer journey across multiple devices and locations?
- Have we observed our customers in their natural real-world setting? Do we understand how they live, what they do, how they use things or what they need in their everyday or professional lives?
- Is our use of data limited to a particular channel, or are we using offline data to optimise the online experience and online data to optimise the offline experience?
Finding answers to the above, allows us to get closer to the customer than ever before, revealing new opportunities along the customer journey in which we can participate and add value.
Whilst relinquishing elements of control may bring with it (perceived) added risk, advantages such as faster innovation, greater barriers to entry and ultimately newer and richer customer experiences, far outweigh any drawbacks.
Besides are we really in control when one customer review can determine the fate of a brand?
The main players in the tech industry are all enhancing their value proposition because they view themselves as components in an eco-system of customer experiences, as opposed to isolated entities.
If we are to thrive in the age of environments, while finding new ways to reach and engage with customers, we will have to do the same.