Characters on packaging sing and dance. Retail inventory "knows" where it is in the store and when it needs to be restocked. Invisible coupons can be snatched from the ether and mobile devices can lead shoppers to items that match pre-selected criteria (low-fat, gluten free, and strawberry flavored). Open the car door, and as the heat and engine automatically start, the seat slides to your preferred position.
The sentient world is not a radical future vision, it's our present reality. Readily available technologies such as smartphones, Google Goggles (and soon, Glass), augmented reality (AR), smart keys and fobs, and even laptops make it increasingly easy to apply layers of content, images, and information on top of objects, products, and places, and to view and experience these additional layers of content. Technology developments will soon enable more and more objects to become sentient, as Corning so elegantly depicted in its highly successful video, "A Day Made of Glass."
Brands, particularly those aspiring to a cutting-edge image, have embraced advertising and marketing in the sentient world. AR almost seems old hat when you start totting up brands that have tried it, including GE, Nestlé, Lego, Kellogg, Mercedes-Benz, and Tesco. Ben & Jerry's augmented ice cream lids. Starbuck's experimented with enhanced coffee cups.
An iPhone app created by Dentsu in Japan allows shoppers to see animated butterflies flitting by. Each butterfly contains a coupon for a nearby business. In-store smart kiosks are becoming popular, as are apps that facilitate shopping. IBM has developed an app that finds what shoppers are looking for by scanning the shelves with a smartphone's video camera.
The sentient world goes far beyond in-store and CPG applications, of course. Destination marketing creates enormous potential both for data and for marketing and advertising applications. Kia, for example, a US Open sponsor, put a layer of information over last year's event.
Unquestionably, as technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, as well as cheaper, and as consumer adoption of smart devices soars, the world of places and things will become increasingly sentient. This raises a number of questions marketers must begin addressing now, in order to intelligently introduce content -- literally -- into other dimensions.
Whose data surround your product?
From a marketing perspective, the sentient world fundamentally means "things plus places equals media." OK, but what content is appropriate for which things, and where? This is where content strategists and marketers face new challenges. Will they create it? Aggregate it? Allow users to contribute it? What are the parameters of the "what?" (The "how" comes later.)
How will user-generated content (UGC) be considered and handled?
It's already easy for users to add layers of content to the sentient world. How will brands cope with virtual UGC? As with social media, brands face a lack of control in many aspects of the sentient world. AR is something consumers can do already. Smart devices, such as keys, have been hacked. Negative sentiment is inevitable. UGC will soon literally spill out of the web and into, if not everything, many things that will affect brands.
What data should or could be layered on your product, service, or brand?
What information, images, data, and media should surround a carton of yogurt? A cinema box office? A hammer? What goes on the label, the package, and what constitutes an invisible but discoverable layer in the virtual world? Here, content strategy merges with merchandising, packaging, point of purchase, and other marketing functions in a highly complex interchange not yet informed with best practices and cases studies.
What's appropriate in line with marketing and content strategy, and makes sense for the target audience?
Currently, AR is the dominant channel for marketing in the sentient world (though technology developments could shift this paradigm, and quickly). AR is opt-in. It requires a call-to-action to impel a consumer to whip out a device, fire up an app, and experience the data layer. Will it be worth the effort? What's the payoff? What's the appropriate form of the call-to-action? There are more open questions that will only be resolved by extensive trial and error.
Data will be experienced in real time. Do you have real-time ability?
Real-time marketing and advertising are becoming commonplace for many brands such as Pepsi and Applebee's. Their marketers have always-on war rooms in which highly trained social media and analytics teams monitor digital sentiment and interaction 24/7, reacting and optimizing messaging in real time. The sentient world will rapidly become part of this intense, pressurized marketing function.
How will workflow be managed?
Whose job is it to oversee these virtual layers of data? As with other forms of content marketing, clear roles haven't yet emerged. The sentient world calls for developers, content creators, multimedia producers, strategists, creatives, and more. Staffing, relationships with vendors and outside agencies, and technology investments will all be affected -- and will require investments and ongoing budgets.
What metrics will be applied to the sentient world?
Interactions in the sentient world can be measured, but marketers have always had difficulty determining what to measure, particularly in new digital channels. Very little in this realm conforms to simple direct marketing metrics. Instead, more complex KPIs must be developed.
Who partners in this ecosystem?
Who will brands align with to leverage the possibilities of this new ecosystem? If your refrigerator tells you it's time to buy a fresh carton of milk, will the alert be accompanied by a coupon? When your car wants oil or fuel, will it recommend a preferred brand? Perhaps your phone will "know" there's a nearby McDonalds where you can recharge -- both the battery and yourself. Brands will soon explore newly-logical alliances.
What platforms matter now, and what must be accommodated in the future?
A tough but persistent question in mobile has always been around platform. iPhone? iPad? Android, Blackberry, other tablets? What devices will consumers carry, and how will they use them to interact with places and objects? Yesterday's cameras, MP3 players, and e-readers are consolidating into phones now. What will tomorrow bring -- and how will you bring your data to that platform?
After the first wave of doing it because it's cool, what's next?
As with all new technologies, the sentient world is a novelty now. Any reasonably serious brand initiative is almost guaranteed to have a novelty factor, PR amplification, and buzz -- the whole first-mover advantage package. More strategic brands will be asking themselves what comes next. How will we work, play, shop, travel, and interact with the sentient world when it's just another part of...the world?
Rebecca Lieb is research analyst, digital advertising/media at Altimeter Group.
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