I am a productive man. Back in the day, I was actually a product marketing executive at a big tech company. I’ve shipped hundreds of products over the years. Always trying to marry out of need of a solution. Meet enough people’s needs, they will buy your product.
In general, though, people should think they have a need. Oh, sure, that’s what marketing is all about. Its function is to create demand where there may not have been any demand. Sometimes, awareness is born. Sometimes, it generates potential customers by finding people who might be a good fit for a product. Sometimes, it generates just enough noise that the product is taken as just a side effect of the intense noise machine.
What does this have to do with Alexa? Back in 2014, Alexa looked kinda weird. People couldn’t figure out why you wanted it. It didn’t fit into any of the usual product marketing formulas.
It was a Pringles box device that you could talk to. Why are you talking to him? Why spend a few hundred dollars doing what any calculator app would do? Why let it take up space just to be a great alarm clock? And the lights…just flip the switch. It couldn’t be easier.
And to play music? Well, we had stereos, iPods or phones, and many other ways to play tunes. Sure, the intercom feature might be useful. But who needs an internet-connected device that listens to your every word?
But with Alexa, Amazon has managed to catch lightning in a bottle…er… can.
I know this is subjective, but Alexa – more than Siri or Google Assistant – seems to have the right balance between personality and assistance, between ability and functionality. Whether you’re setting a timer while you’re cooking, doing hands-free math while typing, or pausing any streaming service you’re watching on your Roku TV to ask a trivial question or a general question, Alexa usually comes in relatively handy.
In 2022, Alexa is everywhere. A lot of families have one in almost every room.
There is no doubt that it is an anonymous AI interface for a giant company, but it has always been a friendly and helpful anonymous AI interface for a giant company.
The times they change
But it looks like this help may be about to change. last week, Amazon announced It’s about to provide seller-provided answers to Alexa FAQs. Here’s how Amazon describes it:
This capability is called Customers Ask Alexa, and it works like this: When customers ask Alexa questions, including inquiries about product features or compatibility, Alexa responds with helpful answers provided by brands from those product categories.
For example, a customer shopping for cleaning products on Amazon.com might ask, “How do I remove pet hair from my carpet?” The brand can now provide answers to such questions, as well as links to the Amazon storefront.
Amazon says these are not paid ads. Sellers do not pay for placement. Instead, there will be a new Alexa-requested feature in Seller Central, where sellers can see and answer questions using Self-Service Tools. The answers will then be moderated by the Amazon team tasked with such things. All answers will be attributed to the brand to which you are answering.
According to Rajiv Mehta, General Manager of Alexa Shopping at Amazon, “Amazon recognizes brands as experts in their products. With this new capability, we have made it easier for brands to connect with customers to help answer common questions and better inform purchasing decisions.”
Yes, there is no way it can go wrong.
Algorithmic manipulation to get priority on the SERP has already irreversibly changed editorial journalism. Most articles (including mine) are subject to SEO review. Even if the headline is overly attractive to humans (or simply makes too much sense), it may be missed in favor of one with higher Google juice.
Yes, you still get valuable content (if I do say so myself), but SEO looms large in just about every editorial decision on just about every website. It’s what everyone has to do now to keep revenue flowing (which is essential to producing and running expensive publications). We all need good content, and we all have to pay our bills.
It’s not unreasonable to expect sellers to compete for prominence in the Alexa Seller Answer system. Nor is it unreasonable to expect that sales offers, even if disguised as very useful responses, will invade those answers.
This “service” is not expected until October, so we don’t have any typical answers. But we can certainly expect questions like “Should I use scissors or electric scissors to cut my hair” might result in something like, “Never pay for a haircut again with this new cutting edge design and look your best without the help of others. This answer was brought to you by you.” ManGroomer, the best DIY haircut kit. Do you want me to send you one? It could be there in a couple of days.”
Now, to be fair, the ManGroomer awesome and Save me from the embarrassment of the big Zoom meeting during the height of pandemic lockdowns. But that’s not the point. Promoting, even for successful products, spoils the beneficial relationship that many of us have developed with Alexa. You’re no longer a trusted helpful friend, but another door-to-door salesperson trying to sell you something – except that it’s already inside the house.
We’ve all had that friend who’s all engaged in a multi-level marketing plan. Now, instead of talking about “how” do we eat up the Yankees? ‘, every other word is a promotion for some MLM product or other. It’s annoying, edgy and can ultimately damage the relationship.
It’s true that Alexa has already shown a few items at random times before (Amazon Music comes to mind). We always reply with an annoyed kind of “Ah, no. Noah no.” Sometimes it pops up with a yellow chime alert that’s a reminder to do something about your upcoming subscription request and save. But these promos and notifications, so far, have not been specifically linked to third-party sellers. They don’t give sellers a way to tinker with the system to get the best SEO answer results.
This is my concern for Alexa. Amazon engineers have successfully trained Alexa on the right balance between helping and not being hacked. But if she’s constantly trying to get us to sell, she’s going to get old. First, it’s ads on the answers. Then, perhaps, ads will be on our timer.
“Alexa, set the timer for 10 minutes.”
“The timer is set for ten minutes. Want to buy Amazon’s Choice Classroom Timers for Teachers. A pack of two costs just $6.95. Want to act before midnight and place your order for a happy timer in neon colors?”
Or maybe they put ads on our alarm clocks.
“Good morning, David. Maybe you’d like to buy a box of cake. Can I ship it to you now?”
How about more coffee capsules? You know you want them.
“Oh, I saw you watching The Grand Tour on Amazon Prime Video. Got a set of floor mats for you…”
Would there be nothing sacred?
“Alexa, what is 228 divided by 19?”
“228 divided by 19 is 12. Speaking of 12, can I trust you with 12 shoe storage boxes? Amazon’s Choice is now $37.95 and I can have it in your little hands by Thursday. All you have to do is say yes. Is You want them? Well, do you want? Say yes. Go ahead. Say it.”
Well, this may be an exaggeration. But how many great websites that used to now look like presentation machines due to monetization and SEO? So what makes us think Alexa won’t go down the same dark hole? Perhaps the revenue stream is too tempting to ignore.
I’m sad about this. Alexa has been a wonderful (and frankly unexpected) boon to many of us. At this point, she is practically a trusted member of the family. But if her basic nature is spoiled by her excessive pursuit of more Bezos Bucks, it would be a real shame.
For example, I would almost never feel comfortable having Alexa in my elderly parents’ home if I thought it would pressure them with brand marketing. The same is true of being around young children, or anyone with poor impulse control. It is very easy to say yes to a trusted family member. After all, how many times have I said yes to her small, helpful inquiries in the past nine years?
For the record, I emailed Amazon PR to ask if there was a way Amazon customers could opt out of these potential hikes and how Amazon, other than content moderation, could 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 back.
What do you think? Do you think Alexa will turn into an annoying annoying robot? Would you buy anything from Alexa if you offered it as part of an answer to a question? Or do you think the world is going to hell, and that’s another slippery stone on the slippery slope? Let us know in the comments below.
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