March 16, 2017
Today several users of Google Home — Google's competitor to Amazon Echo with its Alexa intelligent agent — reported that Google was inserting Beauty and the Beast movie promos into their conversations. Read The Verge's account of the details and see the tweet from user @brysonmeunier below:
— brysonmeunier (@brysonmeunier) March 16, 2017
It's surprising that Google is already testing this kind of interruption model for a couple of reasons. First, it's playing catch up to Amazon's much more mature intelligent speaker product and rocking the user boat with something so blatantly counter to the value of the category so soon feels foolhardy. That said, this will hardly cause a backlash so if it shows that Google is willing to test and refine its value proposition more rapidly than Amazon, that's not a terrible thing.
The main reason this is surprising is simple to express: It's a bad idea. Though I encourage testing and iteration and all that, this is not a hard one to predict in advance. People won't like it. They will feel hijacked. Their time and attention will feel hijacked and their trust will be eroded. That is not the way to lead consumers into the future of intelligent agents we are about to experience.
For the record, I am not reflexively anti-advertising. I taught advertising at a top-five ad school at Syracuse. I work with major ad clients and agencies all the time. I once got a call from Pandora co-founder Tim Westergren because he read me quoted in a major national newspaper predicting that Pandora would launch ad interruptions within a year. He pleasantly insisted that I was wrong. I told him I wasn't criticizing, merely pointing out that radio advertising is a format where ads are expected and would not cause consumer ire. And, after all, I explained, Pandora needed a revenue model. They added ads within the year as predicted. I also defended YouTube's decision to add advertising nearly a decade ago, saying that no backlash would occur and that it would be easy to add pre-roll and display ads to the YouTube interface without penalty.
All this to say that I'm not one of those advertising-is-bad guys. Instead, I'm a proponent of interruptions that make sense, advertising that gets the job done. Interrupting Google Home with unrequested verbal advertisements doesn't make sense and it won't get the job done. I think Google knows this because the company is denying that the ads are, in fact, ads, according to The Verge.
The future of this conflict between voice-based intelligent assistants and interruption-based advertising is a big and important question to resolve. We are currently working on a report that addresses this exact issue, making Google Home's attempt at advertising timely, to say the least. The short answer is simple: intelligent assistants don't invite interruptions, they invite intelligent, conversational relationships. That's a bigger thing to pull off, but it's also more worthwhile for the marketer and consumer alike. Stay tuned for more soon.
James McQuivey, Ph.D., is a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester. In his career he successfully predicted the commercialization of the Internet, the rise of online retail, and the arrival of Amazon Echo. He is also the author of Digital Disruption.