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The futurist: When things sell themselves

What you want to buy knows all about you


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What if the things you were thinking about buying already knew you were considering a purchase? Much like going on a date, where the person you were dating wanted to look their best for you, what if the product went through a similar process, primping its hair and donning an inviting smile to present itself in the best possible light?

Welcome to the Internet of Things, where our intentions always precede us.

The simple act of inspecting a product, or weighing its potential, will cause 10 times as many sensors and emotion-analyzing algorithms to peer back. Your prospective product will be inspecting you far more thoroughly than you’ll be inspecting it.

Yes, this kind of reverse surveillance has traditionally been done in the digital world, where our search history and traffic patterns become fodder for marketing gurus everywhere. But physical products are in no way immune from these kinds anticipatory algorithms.

In their own conniving ways, future “things” products will use a variety of tools to position themself in a better light. Much like the lone Snickers bar that always manages to work its way to the edge of the shelf and say “pick me, pick me” when you’re most vulnerable, ingenious new products combined with smart merchandising will manipulate everything from viewing angles, to lighting, ambient sounds, smells and subtle but attention-getting music, all for the sole purpose of pushing you a millimeter or two closer to that all important wallet zone.

Every consumer comes with a complex bundle of wants and needs. As a casual observer, it’s rare that someone could pick up on the miniscule visual cues given off by most buyers. But we are constantly emitting information. Tons of it.

The same micro-gestures that make us bad at the game of poker, make us infinitely more readable, and consequently infinitely more impressionable, than we would ever suspect.

Unlike data junkies that rely on activities from the past to predict future purchases, “things” products will be able to tell what we’re thinking now, and even anticipate what we’ll do next.

Welcome to the world where our products are smarter than we are and the marketing professional of the future becomes the all-knowing strategy wizard lurking behind the proverbial curtain.

The Unfair Seller’s Advantage

The Internet of Things is all about objects talking to other objects. In the past, being a salesman was hard work. It was typically a numbers game where talking to enough people and making enough house calls would inevitably pay off.

But over the coming years, the simple act of stepping into a retail store will instantly trigger tens of thousands of simultaneous conversations where the clothing racks and jewelry displays will talk to our belt buckles, earrings, shoes and purse, and those conversations will be instantly relayed to our refrigerators, cars, closets and televisions.

Even before we reach the first clothing rack or jewelry counter, the store will have constructed an elaborate customer profile and sale strategy, setting off a series of imperceptible little signals that will cause us to wander into the areas of the store with the highest potential for sales.

Much like an under-floor magnet that controls the movements of a rolling steel ball, consumers will be coaxed, coerced and prodded with a series of hyper-personalize sensory queues that let us feel like we’ve still in control even though we’re not.

To avoid any possible allegation that we’re being overly manipulated, marketing professionals will be quick to assure us that we won’t be buying a single item that we don’t already have an underlying desire and predilection towards.

Similar to going to a pet store and having adorable little puppies furiously wagging their tails to get your attention, future products will do their best to emulate the puppy-buying experience.

When Robots Sell Themselves

In the past, great product designers knew how to create something that would elicit an emotional response. Everything including color, style, shape, utility, purpose and packaging all formed the basis for how we think about that product. But products are no longer confined to the physical space they occupy.

Consider the following scenario.

The year is 2035, and you need a new robot to help out around the home. Buying robots online is never the same as buying them in person, so you decide to go down to the nearby Robots-R-Us retail store and see what they have in stock.

Unlike most retail stores, there are no humans that work in this store. Unbeknownst to you, the Robots-R-Us sales system started tracking you the very moment you decided to visit the store. Every burp, butt scratch, fleeting glance and foot fidget is logged and calibrated to optimize your in-store experience.

As you enter the store, the first robot to approach you is the one you’ll feel most comfortable being greeted by, but it won’t be the one you’ll end up buying.

Since they know you pride yourself on making calculated decisions, the sales process will involve introducing you to a series of increasingly capable machines, knowing all along the exact amount you’ll eventually spend, and the exact machine you’ll be buying. It’s a sales grooming process, and robots know far more about playing human games than people know about playing robot games.

Robots, however, are not one-size-fits-all machines. Future robots will be morphable, resizable and have a personality that continually readjusts itself to mesh with yours. Not only will it exhibit its own form of puppy-dog cuteness to get you to lower your guard, but it will incorporate the touch and feel, vocal qualities and facial gesture you find most appealing.

In the future, products that don’t have the ability to transform their touch and feel experience to mesh with yours will feel lifeless and foreign. It will only take one buying experience with the next generation of the Internet of Things to get totally hooked on it.

Final Thoughts

Yes, this may be a frightening scenario: Humans gradually giving up control, one purchase at a time, to tomorrow’s super smart products and their subversive marketing algorithms. I won’t even get started on the potential for “things” products to blackmail us into purchasing them, but very likely next-gen hackers will be all about pushing our most-embarrassing-moments buttons to make us do their bidding.

Contrary to the way problems have been solved in the past, simply writing new regulations and policies will have little effect on conversational networks where the actual criminals will be ten steps removed from any actual crime.

At the same time, our profit-driven businesses will likely embrace early generations of this type of marketing. Since it’s still all about profits, those who master the fine art of coercion will invariably come out on top.

I realize that this column has deteriorated woefully from and an inspired look at how marketing could evolve during the coming Internet of Things age to a depressingly bad set of options over the years ahead. But I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Where are the silver linings in these scenarios? Are we really destined to become victims of our own marketing? What kind of controls will we need to prevent abuses with this technology?

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Thomas Frey

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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