Wednesday 24 August 2011

"The Internet of Things" is the new Sorcerer's Apprentice

Mickey mouse in fantasia 492

In Disneys Fantasia, Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer's Apprentice brings to life everyday objects such as brooms and buckets to help him with his tasks of cleaning - what starts as a good idea though ultimately ends with terrible results as he fails to be able to control them.

Whilst Mickey may have gotten out of his depth, this thinking of everyday objects being brought to life isn't just a fantasy.

Obviously not in the literal sense we see in the Sourcers Apprentice (although that would have been great!), but more in the sense that previously inanimate objects can now start to record their activities. Termed the "Internet of Things" this was discussed in part by a talk at DICE by Jesse Schell about gamification and how this may extend into everyday items and tasks. (The video is really worth watching if you haven't previously seen it)

What Jesse discussed in terms of earning points for brushing your teeth has now been enabled by start-up Green Goose. Using a combination of intelligent stickers or product add-ons, Green Goose claims to be able to track any activity, from cleaning your teeth to drinking a class of water. The system utilises a base station linked to your internet connection to allow the different tags to communicate activities wirelessly and for these to then be tracked centrally. Each device/sticker includes a 1 year battery making them truly untethered and so there is no syncing required, you just use them (or not) and see the updates online.

There are obviously implications for this within industries that care if you do these activities, whether that's a tooth paste manufacturer or a dental insurance company. If the Green Goose solution gains traction and most importantly open standards then we could easily see products in the future including these kinds of monitors as part of the manufacturing.

Already the car insurance industry is using tracking products within cars to provide more cost effective insurance for young people or low mileage drivers based on when they use their car and how they drive it. Green issues aside (lets assume it's a hybrid/electric car) - imagine if that technology could also be used by the car manufacturer or tire producer to track the miles you drive and to reward you for that, giving you feedback on how to get the best from your purchase, when it needs to be renewed/serviced and discounts off your next purchase.

Internet of Things pioneer, Kevin Ashton said of this:-

The problem is, people have limited time, attention and accuracy—all of which means they are not very good at capturing data about things in the real world. [...] If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things—using data they gathered without any help from us—we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost

But it's not just waste, loss and cost in terms of the tasks we're tracking, but also the marketing budgets of the companies we purchase from. Knowing who uses the products, how often and for how long can enable targeting of spend and offers to customers based on their current and potential behaviour.

Originally Green Goose was positioned more as an energy monitor, letting you track time spent in the shower, riding your bike versus taking the car or turning the thermostat down rather than up. The idea was to track these little decisions in real-time as well as the potential financial savings you accumulated so that these add up to a "nest egg" value which provides a nudge to do more.

Great in terms of saving my money, but not necessarily great in unlocking savings from companies who provide the products and services.

Their new positioning suggests a movement to tracking wider activities including many they haven't even thought of. Opening this up to developers (which they have) means more solutions and more ways to commercialise it. Companies wanting you to use their products and use them more often will soon be able to tap into a continuous stream of data about how and when people are consuming them bringing in a wealth of information and requiring new ways to reward and recognise this.

The challenge for both brands and consumers however will be the same as that faced by the Sorcerer's Apprentice - once we start providing/collecting this information, can we keep control of it, manage it and get the best benefit from it... or will it simply overwhelm us.

Mickey mouse sorcerers apprentice wrong

(images copyright Disney)

Monday 1 August 2011

The future of customer interactions is yesterday


One of the interesting aspects of the rise in mobile devices is how these are reinventing established ways of doing things.

Things that we've been used to for decades have suddenly been made accessible and interactive by being combined with mobile devices like a smartphone.

Take the payment cheques for example.

This was a technology waiting to die. The thought of filling out a piece of paper to make a payment to someone else that then took days to transfer between accounts was an idea rooted in the last century. We're much cleverer now - allowing payments via a tweet or a simple bump of the phones. One of the most popular innovations however is remote deposit of cheques whereby customers can pay in a cheque simply by taking a picture of it. Banks such as US Bank, Chase and USAA have introduced it, with USAA originally pioneering this back in 2009 and now introducing the service to the iPad2. Having processed nearly $4bn transactions in just 2 years, this reinvention of an old technology has proved a hit with customers.

Taking this one step further, start-up have introduced a solution which allows a customer to make a payment by simply taking a photo of their payment card.

Another innovative use of the smartphone was demonstrated by Tesco in Korea when they transformed outdoor media from being passive to interactive. Recognising that people didn't always have time to visit a store, but had to make time to stand, waiting for a train, they decided to bring the store to them. Using outdoor media within the station platforms that mirrored store shelves, customers were able to add goods to their virtual basket by taking a snap-shot of items they wanted. These were then delivered that day so that orders made on the way home could be enjoyed that evening. With sales reportedly increasing by 130% and registered users up 76%, this cross-over from old school media to new media struck the right note with customers.

This can also be applied to loyalty interactions between customers and a brand.

Startup Punchd is looking to change how traditional paper-based punch card promotions work. Moving the card to the smart-phone and replacing the punch with a QR code - and in the process they are revitalising punch card loyalty programmes. Recently purchased by Google, this start-up is offering retailers a cost effective (free) solution for tracking and rewarding customer frequency. Better still, they are then utilising this data to provide retailers with reporting and the opportunity to target communications, something the paper based solution alone could never provide.


Another start-up has done the opposite of Punchd and used a paper based solution to create a cutting edge loyalty programme. Blitzly uses paper cards with unique codes on them to let retailers reward customer purchases. Aiming to create loyalty for smaller retailers who don't have the POS infrastructure in place, the Blitzly solution is both simple and elegant. Each retailer is given a set of cards which are uniquely linked to them, this then allows Blitzly to track customers by retailer, providing reporting and insight for the business and ensuring that only points earned at that retailer can be spent there.

It's not just silicon valley start-ups however they are using the mobile phone to augment traditional customer interactions.

Within the Nectar programme for example, the standard paper coupon has been moved onto the smartphone. This not only allows customers to see all of their coupons in one place but also provides a means of having more up to date coupons based on current behaviours. The usage of coupons is further simplified by not requiring the customer to present them at the time of purchase and instead, simply opting in when they see it.

Sears are currently testing the integration of QR codes with traditional catalogues to let customers get more information such as product videos. This combination of offline media with online content is something loyalty programme catalogues could also utilise.


Although some solutions such as QR codes or Punchd need an app installed which typically isn't there by default, this doesn't deter many customers. In a campaign run by Australian product coupon specialist Letterbox Deals, they reportedly saw 25% of customers using a QR code to submit their entry for a deal - for a campaign that went to 1.3m Sydney households. Even more interesting, 60% of customers who entered via the QR code downloaded a QR reader for the first time.

Sometimes using offline solutions, whether it's printed catalogues, unique printed codes or paper punchcards can be the most effective choice to reach customers. However, combining these with online technologies such as smart-phone/tablet technologies can bring a different angle, increase speed of response and allow ongoing tracking of those interactions.

Article first published as The future of customer interactions is yesterday on Technorati.