I’m a product guy. Way back in the day I was actually a product marketing executive for a big tech company. I’ve shipped hundreds of products over the years. You always try to marry a need with a solution. Meet enough folks’ needs, and they’ll buy your product.
Generally, though, people have to think they have a need. Oh, sure, that’s what marketing’s about. Its job is to create demand where there might not have been any. Sometimes, it generates awareness. Sometimes, it generates leads by finding folks who might be a fit for a product. Sometimes, it just generates enough hype that the product takes off as a mere side effect of an intense hype machine.
How does this relate to Alexa? Back in 2014, Alexa seemed kind of weird. People couldn’t quite figure out why you’d want one. It didn’t fit any of the usual product marketing formulas.
It was a Pringles-can shaped device you could talk to. Why would you talk to it? Why would you spend a few hundred dollars for it 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 flip a switch. It couldn’t be any easier.
And for playing music? Well, we had stereos, our iPods or phones, and many other ways to play tunes. Sure, the intercom feature might be helpful. But who needs an internet-connected device listening to your every word?
But with Alexa, Amazon managed to capture lightning in a bottle…er…can.
I know this is subjective, but Alexa — more so than Siri or Google’s assistant — seems to have just the right balance between personality and helpfulness, between capability and functionality. Whether you’re setting a timer while cooking, performing a hands-free math calculation while writing, pausing whatever streaming service you’re watching on the Roku TV to ask a trivia or general interest question, Alexa is usually relatively helpful.
In 2022, Alexa is ubiquitous. A lot of families have one in practically every room.
There’s no doubt she’s a faceless AI front for a giant corporation, but she has generally always been a friendly, helpful faceless AI front for a giant corporation.
The times they are a-changin’
But that helpfulness seems like it might be about to change. Last week, Amazon announced it’s about to introduce vendor-supplied answers for common Alexa questions. Here’s how Amazon describes it:
The capability is called Customers ask Alexa, and it works like this: When customers pose questions to Alexa, including queries related to a product’s features or compatibilities, Alexa responds with helpful answers provided by brands from those product categories.
For example, a customer shopping for cleaning products on Amazon.com could ask, “How can I remove pet hair from my carpet?” A brand can now provide answers to such questions, along with links to its Amazon storefront.
Amazon says these are not paid ads. Vendors aren’t paying for placement. Instead, there’s going to be a new Customers ask Alexa feature in Seller Central, where vendors can see questions and answer them using “self-service tools.” Answers will then be moderated by an Amazon team tasked with such things. All answers will be attributed to the brand that answers them.
According to Rajiv Mehta, general manager of Alexa Shopping at Amazon, “Amazon recognizes brands as experts on 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 their purchase decisions.”
Yeah, there’s no way this could go wrong.
Playing to the algorithm for priority on the SERP (search engine response page) has already irrevocably changed editorial journalism. Most articles (mine included) go through an SEO review. Even if a headline would be enormously appealing to humans (or simply make the most sense), it might be nuked in favor of one that has higher Google juice.
Yes, you’re still getting valuable content (if I do say so myself), but SEO looms large in almost every editorial decision on almost every website. It’s just what everyone now has to do to keep the revenue stream (which is necessary to produce and run expensive publications) coming in. We all need good content, and we all need to pay our bills.
It’s not unreasonable to expect that vendors will vie for positional prominence in Alexa’s vendor-supplied answer system. It’s also not unreasonable to expect that sales pitches, even if disguised as oh-so-helpful responses, will invade those answers.
This “service” is not expected until October, so we don’t have any sample answers. But we can certainly expect questions like “Should I use scissors or electric clippers 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 brought to you by ManGroomer, the ultimate do-it-yourself hair cutting kit. Would you like me to send you one? It can be there in two days.”
Now, to be fair, the ManGroomer is awesome and did save me from considerable Zoom meeting embarrassment during the height of the pandemic lockdowns. But that’s not the point. Being pitched, even for products that work, spoils the helpful relationship many of us have developed with Alexa. No longer is she a trusted helpful friend, she’s yet one more door-to-door salesperson trying to sell you something — except she’s already inside the house.
We’ve all had that friend who got all caught up in a multilevel marketing scheme. Now, instead of talking about “how ’bout them Yankees?”, every other word is a pitch for some MLM product or another. It’s annoying, off-putting, and can eventually cause damage to the relationship.
It’s true that Alexa has already offered some items at random times before (Amazon Music comes to mind). We always answer with an annoyed “Ah, no. Nuh-nuh-no.” Sometimes she pops up with a yellow-ringed alert that’s a reminder to do something about an upcoming Subscribe and Save order. But these promos and notifications have, so far, not been specifically tied to third party vendors. They don’t give vendors a way to game the system for the best SEO answer results.
This is my concern for Alexa. Amazon’s engineers have managed to train Alexa for just the right balance of helpfulness and unobtrusiveness. But if she’s constantly trying to push an upsell at us, it’s going to get old. First it’s ads on answers. Then, perhaps, it would be ads in our timers.
“Alexa, set timer for 10 minutes.”
“Timer set for ten minutes. Would you like to buy Amazon’s Choice Classroom Timers for Teachers. A two-pack is only $6.95. Would you like to act before midnight tonight and place your order for neon-colored timing happiness?”
Or, perhaps they’ll put ads in our wake-up alarms.
“Good morning David. Perhaps you’d like to buy a box of muffins. I can ship them to you right now?
“How about more coffee pods? You know you want them.
“Ooh, I saw you watched The Grand Tour on Amazon Prime Video. Have I got a set of floor mats for you…”
Will nothing be sacred?
“Alexa, what’s 228 divided by 19?”
“228 divided by 19 is 12. Speaking of 12, can I interest you in a 12-pack of shoe storage boxes? Amazon’s Choice is now $37.95 and I can have them in your hot little hands by Thursday. All you have to do is say yes. Do you want them? Well, do you? Say yes. Go ahead. Say it.”
Okay, so that’s probably an exaggeration. But how many previously wonderful websites now seem like pitch 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.
A changing relationship
I’m sad about this. Alexa has been a fantastic (and frankly unexpected) boon to many of us. At this point, she’s practically a trusted member of the family. But if her essential nature is corrupted by an overreaching quest for yet more Bezos Bucks, it will be a real shame.
For example, I wouldn’t feel nearly as comfortable having Alexa in my elderly parents’ house if I thought she would be pressuring them with brand marketing. The same would go for having her around young children, or anyone with poor impulse control. It’s just too easy to say yes to a trusted member of the family. After all, how many times have you said yes to her helpful little queries in the past nine years?
For the record, I emailed Amazon PR to ask if there’s a way Amazon customers will be able to opt out of these potential upsells and how, beyond content moderation, Amazon can prevent Alexa from turning into an SEO-driven hype machine. I haven’t yet gotten a response. I’ll update this article if I hear back.
So, what do you think? Do you think Alexa is going to turn into an annoying upsell bot? Would you buy anything from Alexa if she pitched it as part of a question answer? Or do you think the world is just going to hell, and this is one more slippery stone on the slippery slope down? Let us know in the comments below.
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