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Virtual assistants advance: Are consumers ready for more invasive experiences?

The mobile device as a virtual assistant is not a new idea, but players such as Google and Foursquare have new features intended to make the services more useful and contextually relevant. Opportunities exist for marketers as long as consumer do not perceive the new generation of virtual assistants as too invasive.

Apple?s voice recognition application Siri made a big splash when it came on the scene a couple of years ago but did not live up to the hype although Apple continues to refine the technology. A growing number of virtual assistant programs hope to make it even easier for users to find what they are looking for, receive contextually-relevant expert advice and manage their entire digital life from a single location.

?We are truly in this always on, always connected world,? said Dan Israel, Atlanta-based strategy lead for mobile practice at SapientNitro. ?Mobile in particular is an essential component of this.

?For brands, I think we are still early days, because I think that the jury is still out on how much people want this,? he said. ?I think Foursquare makes sense because it has been around for a few years, people understand how it works and the brands that are involved know how to take advantage of it.

?For some of the news ones emerging, EasilyDo and even Google Now, it is still kind of new and you can very easily screw up. This is why people are sitting the sidelines."

Better user experiences
Virtual assistant user experiences continue to improve.

While with Siri, users have to push a button to access the service, with the Galaxy SIII, users do not even need to push a button ? the device recognizes their voice and automatically turns on.

The Moto X goes even a step further and has voice recognition technology always running in the background.

There are also a growing number of services looking to provide contextually-relevant information to mobile users to enhance their day-to-day lives that do not necessarily involve voice recognition.

For example, Foursquare is testing a way to deliver reviews and tips for restaurants and merchants as users walk around.

The app does not even need to be running, users will simply receive a notification about how good the fries are in the restaurant they just walked into and that they should try them.

Divulging personal information
EasilyDo leverages users? social networks, calendars and other information to inform them when to leave for a meeting, get directions and other tasks.

Google Now leverages Google services such as Gmail and search to deliver information that users might find useful.

?With Siri, you as a consumer are seeking that out,? Mr. Israel said. ?Foursquare is the second tier, which is you have opted into, and you want to get information, but it still doesn?t require you to divulge everything about your personal life.

?Then you have EasilyDo, which has you integrate your Facebook, integrate your Yahoo, Evite, your calendar, contacts ? it is really getting into everything,? he said.

?It is much easier for everybody to play in the first two ? that has been validated in the marketplace. The third tier, it is still a little bit creepy for folks.?

Entrusted advisor
Marketers are working with some virtual assistants.

For example, Apple?s Passbook app, which is along the same lines as EasilyDo but not as invasive, has been well received by users and merchants so far.

American Express is also working with Foursquare on its new venture.

However, when it comes to more invasive apps such as EasilyDo, marketers are waiting on the sidelines to see if consumers are going to be comfortable with them.

For brands to be able to take advantage of the opportunities with virtual assistants, it means that they need to have programs in place to ensure customers are providing feedback on digital channels and making that content available to the virtual assistants.

?From a brand perspective, how do you position yourself through the virtual assistants to be an entrusted advisor, because you are providing them with something that is not just, 'Hey buy me', but 'Here is why I am able to provide value to your life,'? Mr. Israel said.

?It is not going to be about creating new content, it is going to be pulling existing information and using these virtual assistants as new distribution channels,? he said.

The Star Trek promise
Going forward, the bigger opportunity could be around virtual assistants that leverage speech recognition technology.

The technology has advanced significantly in the past couple of years to the point where it is starting to meet user expectations, which will start to drive higher use rates.

?Now with sensory technology, you can wake up your phone with just your voice, you don?t need to push a button,? said Michael Morgan, analyst at ABI Research, New York. ?You can say, 'Hey Galaxy, what is the weather like today?'

?That is starting to deliver on the Star Trek promise,? he said.

?The Moto X is always listening. That is actually a very big leap in speech recognition and mobile technology, that they have gotten it to be so low powered that your phone can always be listening for your voice.?

Easier searches
Mr. Morgan expects virtual assistant use to grow and as they begin to help users accomplish certain tasks more efficiently.

However, speech recognition is not for use in all situations.

For example, users in a library will not be using Siri.

Since voice-enabled virtual assistants are going to be mostly about search, this means marketers need to ensure they are subject matter experts so that they become a trusted source for information related to certain queries.

However, because voice recognition users will most likely be reviewing fewer Web pages, marketers may need to revise their advertising strategies.

Voice recognition technology could drive opportunities for marketers if users end up searching more.

?If the answer they are looking for is on a Web site, they are eventually going to look at a site and if your ad is in that place, it is still a benefit,? Mr. Morgan said.

?Voice and speech recognition can increase the number of searches someone is willing to do because it lowers the effort barrier,? he said. ?You just have to make sure that you are on landing page for the answer.

?It is has the opportunity to change the game somewhat by making it important to get yourself closer to the search result.?

Customer service
One of the opportunities for marketers with virtual assistants is in customer service, as users increasingly expect to be able to ask questions and solve problems through self-service.

Gartner forecasts that 50 percent of customer service interactions will be conducted via virtual assistant by 2015.

?Mobile is the largest opportunity for virtual assistants right now primarily because the smaller form factor requires a different customer service experience ? a single right answer is going to be much more preferable to sifting through hundreds of search results or FAQs,? said Mike Hennessy, vice president of marketing at IntelliResponse, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

?Consumers are used to interacting with Siri and Google now, so they?re increasingly receptive to and requesting similar virtual assistant experiences in their interactions with corporate apps,? he said. ?The ability to use data from other mobile apps to help personalize the user experience is a huge asset to providing the best customer service experience.?

Final Take
Chantal Tode is associate editor on Mobile Marketer, New York