Monthly Archives: June 2016

Mary Meeker points to a hands-free, zero-screen future

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Wouldn’t it be ironic if in our rush to adopt media technology, we all decided to ditch computer hardware and screens altogether?

It’s starting to happen. Several years ago Disney Research created a Touche interface that turns any surface into a digital input device. By tracking the vibrations you make when you sit on a coach, or tap on a tabletop, or even splash your hand in a bathtub, Touche would signal electronic devices to take action. Lie down on the sofa, and your living room lights would dim. No keyboard required.

We thought of that innovation recently reading Mary Meeker’s influential “2016 Internet Trends” report. Meeker, one of the top analysts in the first 1990s Internet boom, is now a consultant for the VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, and her annual late-spring slide show on media trends is one of the most anticipated pieces of content in the marketing industry. This year’s report had some typical, predictable findings (mobile ad spend is still out of sync with mobile share of eyeballs!), but one intriguing new section on … hands-free device inputs.

Meeker expends several of her slides on voice-recognition trends: the use of technologies such as Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa to understand commands and respond with actions. Philips, for instance, now sells Hue “personal wireless lighting” bulbs that can be given individual names and controlled via voice, partnering with Siri on an iPhone. “Reading light, please dim” will now make your reading light dim. Home Depot sells Bluetooth wireless locks that open with a tap, no key required. Belkin offers electrical outlets that turn on triggered by motion, so your coffee maker can boot up when you stroll into the kitchen each morning.

Meeker notes that this trend toward hands-free, screens-free user interfaces on electronic devices is rising fast, thanks to a few factors:

  • Voice accuracy is improving. Google’s voice systems now clear 91% accuracy in recognition of tens of thousands of words. What used to be difficult, getting a gadget to understand a voice command, is now easy.
  • Consumers are tired of the plethora of touch-screen-oriented apps. While the typical U.S. smartphone user has 37 apps on her phone, she uses only 3 of them — Facebook, the Chrome mobile web browser, and YouTube — 80% of the time.
  • Simple tasks, after all, don’t need keyboards. Consumers are recognizing that voice just works better for short commands. 55% of voice searches are done while driving a car or “on the go,” with top commands including “navigate home,” “call Mom,” or “call Dad.” (Sadly, moms get twice as many calls from kids as dads, but that’s another story.)

The use of hands-free computing interfaces is rising fast; only 30% of U.S. consumers reported using voice commands with technology in 2013, while by 2015 that portion had jumped to 65%. With augmented vision devices such as Magic Leap soon replacing video displays, thanks to their ability to beam hi-def images of screens into the air like a Tony Stark Iron Man hologram, keyboards and computer monitors may become a thing of the past.

The irony of this rush to control the Internet of things via the air is some device-makers may put themselves out of business. When your couch controls your lights, and your TV screen floats in front of your augmented eyeglasses, will we need solid screens or keyboards at all?

Why marketers play with price

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When advertising agencies brainstorm client solutions, pricing rarely comes up, because “price” is perceived as both dangerous and boring. Dangerous because get it wrong, and sales will plummet. Boring because, hey, who cares about pennies when we could be discussing brand positioning?

So when a friend recently asked us whether an airline-related client should adjust price, we dug into the research — and realized, yes, this lever is critical. Here are two frameworks for price strategy: One based on logic, the second tied to emotion.

Economic logic: The price elasticity of demand

The “price elasticity of demand” is a classic model that rekindles visions of boring Econ 101 classes, but it is fascinating when put in human terms. Think of this fancy phrase as how elastic, or stretchable, demand will be if you change the price. If you lower your price, will demand “stretch” up much higher, with many more people clamoring for your service? Or is demand inelastic or “unstretchable,” with shifts in price barely moving sales?

This elasticity concept is important for marketing, because it tells you whether you can justify a high price. Consider our friend’s question:

“I’m working for a travel-related service, and they charge about $80 for a unique [service offering X]. The client wants to know, should they lower the price by a few dollars to spur more sales?”

At first, the puzzle seems unanswerable. But the theory of price elasticity of demand has an answer: Demand will respond most to price changes if the product and service has (a) readily available substitutes or (b) if it is a big chunk of the buyer’s income. Demand fluctuates least if your offering is (a) unique and (b) a small part of the buyer’s income.

Consider milk and houses. Milk is an example of a product with many brand substitutes — if one brand charges $2.10 a gallon and the other brand in the store cooler costs only $1.90, consumers will readily shift from Acme Farm Milk to purchase the cheaper Beta Farm Milk. Same product perceptions; lots of substitutes; thus a price shift makes a change in demand for a given brand. 

Houses are an example of something that’s a big chunk of your income. If you are moving to a new city and find one home priced at $500,000 and another similar house for $490,000, you’ll go for the lower price — even though the difference is only 2%. Same product perceptions; high share of your income; thus a price change also makes a quick shift in demand.

But let’s think now of this unique travel service. It’s only $80 and the service is unique. Should the marketer drop the price to say, $75? Nope. A small change in price would do zilch to stimulate demand. There are no substitutes, and it’s a small part of a frequent traveler’s annual budget. To back up our recommendation, we researched how airlines charge for other up-selling services and found that, indeed, travelers pay $38.1 billion annually in surcharge fees to U.S. carriers for things as odd as more legroom, booking by phone, changing flights, or bringing extra bags. Apparently, in the crush to get on a plane, people will pay something for almost anything that makes the trip easier.

Behavioral emotion: Playing with price framing

That’s the logical way to look at price changes. But, as our election debates show this year, consumers are often illogical and emotional, too. In 1980, Richard Thaler wrote the landmark paper on behavioral economics outlining how consumers often use a “mental accounting model” to decide if prices are good or bad. Thaler’s central argument was that shifting a price point is not the only way to stimulate demand; instead “framing” the perception of price could be more effective.

Consider, which offer is more appealing?

1. A dress that costs $60.

2. A dress that costs $70 marked down from $140 (50% off sale).

Thaler noted, in several studies, that choices such as No. 2 above are often preferred by consumers, when in reality, the second dress is just more expensive. His explanation: People are inherently bad at judging value, so use “reference points” see if they are getting a benefit or loss. Because in option 2, the dress is positioned as being far below the “real” price of $140, it feels like a better deal. This illogical-but-compelling mental accounting is why most retail stores offer goods “on sale,” or why candy at movie theaters that costs $5.00 comes in oddly shaped boxes. We feel great when we get something that looks larger than usual, or is bundled with other things, or is “marked down” in price, when the reality is each of these experiences is a bit of manipulation from a marketer creating an artificial reference point.

So there you have it: With logic, moving a price point makes sense if there are few substitutes or the total cost is a low overall risk to the buyer. With emotion, you can keep prices as is, and even increase them, by positioning the cost against a “reference point” that makes the buyer feel better about her or his mental accounting.

We all want to win. Prices are numbers that, if used carefully, can make every buyer feel a winner. Sorry if this sounds manipulative, but we have to run — there’s a great sale at the hardware store we want to hit on the way home.