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What brands can learn from Facebook’s gamble on AI, VR and mind-reading

By Harvey Cossell, head of strategy

April 21, 2017 | 5 min read

When day one of Facebook’s much-hyped F8 conference came to a close, we were left a little shellshocked. Traditionally these conferences will drip-feed bits of information, most of which is only relevant to developers, and save a few big announcements until the end. This time around, the news just kept flowing.

Facebook is developing mind-reading technology

Facebook announced ambitious moves on Facebook Messenger 2.0 and chatbots (or Messenger bots, as they would prefer you to call them). It is creating a virtual reality social platform, taking on Snapchat with AR filters, taking on Slack with Facebook Workplaces, and taking on hearing impairment using haptic feedback.

And the big reveal: Facebook wants to read your mind. Its secretive R&D lab is working on a brain-computer interface that can turn brain waves into text and user interactions.

In short, Facebook has made a play for all the hyped technologies du jour: artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality and neuroscience. And it has decided, rather boldly, to conspicuously go after all of these simultaneously.

It’s a punchy strategy. So will it succeed and what should brands be doing in response?

Changing consumer-brand interactions

Social media transformed the way we communicate with each other and with brands. What Facebook is hoping with these latest announcements is that it can replicate that original transformation in these new emerging spaces and dominate them.

For marketers, the key question is this: how will these new technologies change the way consumers interact with brands?

Facebook’s investment in brain-computer interfaces has enormous potential for new forms of communication. We haven’t seen much of it yet, but creating a seamless connection between human and machine will undoubtedly have benefits for brands in the future. If getting information about a product is as easy as thinking about it, marketing campaigns will have far greater impact and salience.

It’s also a question of creating new touchpoints for brand engagement. Take its new Discover tab for Facebook Messenger. Facebook is expanding its chatbot and third-party app integrations to cover earlier stages in the consumer-buying cycle.

Until now, its bots and apps have focused on consumers actively considering a purchase – you have to actively seek the brand out in order to interact with it. Discover’s launch allows Facebook to recommend branded bots and apps to those who are pre-consideration, or who have not yet had interactions with the brand. That’s a point of engagement that hasn’t existed until now, with meaningful benefits for brands to interact with customers in such a way that they have the potential to navigate them toward purchase in app.

Staying ahead of the curve on customer interactions will be a key consideration for brands, but it also comes with risks.

How hype can turn technology sour

Hype over emerging tech consistently disappoints as Gartner’s Hype Cycle will attest – and these technologies have been hyped to the max.

However, virtual reality is slowly getting there, but only when implemented well. Facebook Spaces could transform online social interaction, finally turning social networks into genuinely immersive and natural spaces for interaction. Or it could just get plain weird.

And judging by the slow sales of Oculus and HTC Vive right now, people may not be willing to take a punt on weird.

Artificial intelligence is one of the worst faring when it comes to hype. While commentators are fervently speculating about the opportunities and risks of AI, chatbots are still struggling to adeptly contextualise. It’s a promising development for the technology to have Facebook placing it smack-bang centre of a one billion-strong user base through the Facebook Messenger platform. But it could be seen as a gamble when the technology is still in its relative infancy, and one that could stall in its growth if chatbots cannot be useful quickly.

Some of these technologies, be they AI or mind-reading, are at risk of languishing in Gartner’s trough of disillusionment if they fail to offer an experience that is memorable for the right reasons.

Brands tempted to jump on the bandwagon need to do so with caution and with a clear strategy in mind. The key here is to ensure that if you are looking to harness any of these technologies, they need to help your brand to answer a relevant problem in your consumers’ minds. The worst thing you can do is to start with the technology being the answer and then working out the problem. You can’t just rush out a VR experience for your brand and expect your customers to flock to it or even notice it, and similarly a poorly-made chatbot that doesn’t have any utility won’t make a positive impression on your customers.

Facebook is clearly willing to take a gamble with these technologies, in the hope of dominating their emergence. But it’s still ultimately a gamble, and while brands should watch these developments with a keen eye, they would be wise to avoid wandering into this blindly.

Harvey Cossell is head of strategy at We Are Social

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