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To mark the start of the new year, our Mediaplus experts around the world have shared their thoughts and made a prediction in the areas of data & AI, media usage habits, strategy and innovation. Let’s find out what they see coming in 2024.

Media Usage:
Between era of abundance and liquid modernity.

by Vittorio Bucci, CEO Mediaplus Italy

Some call it the era of abundance. Others prefer to talk about liquid modernity. However you define it, this historical moment is characterized by an increasingly rapid technological acceleration and the proliferation of media. Ubiquitous, digital, pervasive: the impact of media on our behaviors is becoming more significant. But what are the main changes happening in consumer habits? I’ve selected three of the major trends:

  1. The transformation of TV consumption habits. A significant reduction in linear TV viewership is counterbalanced by a steady growth of on-demand platforms. For instance, a study by Mediaplus Italia shows a 3.3% decrease in 2023 compared to 2022 in the total audience of linear TV, while on-demand TV platforms like Prime Video, YouTube, and Netflix together reach 54% of the Italian population.
  2. Social media become the new gatekeepers of information. An ever-increasing number of people primarily get their information through social networks and consider them more authoritative than news websites. This trend isn’t limited to the younger generation: approximately 40% of people over 55, as reported by a GWI report, use social media to stay informed.
  3. Search experiences are shifting away from search engines. The use of alternative platforms to Google is becoming more apparent. A study by SearchEngineLand, for example, shows that 50% of online shopping searches in the USA start on Amazon.

The ongoing digitization and the impact of AI will further radicalize these changes, especially the generational differences. For brands, the constant drive towards the future and real-time understanding of consumers attitudes represent the antidote to staying relevant.

Brand Marketing Strategy:
Ascent in a Fragmented Landscape in Flux.

by Jasmine Presson, CSO Mediaplus North America

Brand marketing strategy in 2024 stands at the intersection of rapid technological advancements, shifting consumer behaviors, and a post-pandemic economic landscape. Successful brands will put these themes at the core of their 2024 marketing strategies:

  1. Balance of Short-Term / Long-Term: While 2023 felt like a return to normalcy, pandemic hangover led brands to prioritize short-term results. We’re optimistic that 2024 will bring a return to balance long & short game as growth is benchmarked against the new normal.
  2. Continued Media Fragmentation à Brand & Culture: A new law of nature is that diversification will increase infinitely. As brands face more competitors and media fragmentation accelerates, clarity of brand and its place in culture must be the connective tissue at the center of marketing.
  3. Search Everywhere: As searches shift from search engines to retail sites, TikTok, Reddit, and AI platforms, brands need a holistic approach to reaching seekers and measuring impact.
  4. AI Requires Humans to be More Human: As usage of AI grows, we believe human skills of empathy, connection, and imagination will become increasingly important. As marketers explore how to leverage artificial intelligence, we need to equally hone our human intelligence.

Innovation:
AI and Spatial Web – from Buzz to reality.

by Alex Turtschan, Director Innovation Mediaplus Germany

This year marks the shift from AI speculation to practical implementation in marketing strategies. As marketers adapt to these shifts, 2024 will become a defining moment in navigating the convergence of AI, the emergence of the spatial web, as well as the transformation of digital engagement strategies to meet the challenges of dark social.

  1. AI will get real in 2024: In 2023, the buzz was all about AI’s potential in strategy and media planning. Now, 2024 is poised to transform these prototypes into tangible solutions, driving efficiency, speed, and deeper insights. But let’s temper our expectations: real progress requires more than just AI; it involves intensive software development too. Initial results may be modest, yet significant breakthroughs demand time and resources. This could be the year we balance AI enthusiasm with the reality of its gradual, impactful evolution.
  2. Spatial Web: The next attempt of making the Metaverse happen: 2024 reignites excitement in spatial computing, spurred by Apple Vision Pro’s debut. This resurgence breathes life into the concept of a new internet era, following the faded buzz around Web3, Metaverse, and VR. With innovative AR glasses and VR headsets, new digital interaction avenues emerge, offering fresh ways for businesses to engage with audiences. Yet, the smartphone era remains resilient, unlikely to be eclipsed just yet in this year of technological transition.
  3. Addressing audiences in the age of dark social: In 2024, marketers must pivot from outdated social media strategies to adapt to the evolving landscape. As video content from semi-professional creators dominates platforms like TikTok and Instagram, real peer interactions are shifting to private channels. Closed chat groups, direct messages, and ‘close-friend’ stories are becoming key spaces for consumer interactions and brand discussions. Brands now face the challenge of creating sharable content to tap into this ‘dark,’ private side of social media, reshaping their approach to digital engagement.

AI:
Evolving from Tool to Co-Worker

by Enzo Ricciulli, Managing Partner Mediaplus Belgium

As we step into the new year, it’s becoming clear that AI is no longer just a tool in our toolkit; it’s evolving into our co-worker. This year marks a significant shift in how we perceive and interact with AI in our daily professional lives.

1. AI as our co-worker

A major highlight of this year is the rise of open-source models like Mistral, which are set to surpass the capabilities of GPT-4. This advancement is not just a technological leap; it represents a shift towards more accessible, collaborative AI development. Open-source platforms are empowering a diverse range of voices to contribute to AI’s evolution, ensuring a future where AI is by the people, for the people. AI will bring us a new dynamic to the workplace. It is not just assisting us with tasks; it’s collaborating alongside us.

However, the journey towards Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) remains complex and a true AGI breakthrough is still on the horizon. But 2024 isn’t about the finish line; it’s about the progress we’re making. This year, we’re seeing AI agents become more proficient, combined with Action GPTs trained for specific tasks. These developments are bringing us closer to more intuitive, versatile AI systems.

2. AI as part of our daily life

Consumer AI devices are also making a splash. Products like Rabbit R1 and Humane Pin are transitioning from futuristic concepts to everyday essentials. These devices are set to redefine our interaction with technology, making AI a more integrated and personal part of our daily lives.

The AI developer community is focusing on developing real-world applications over gimmicks. This shift towards practical, impactful use cases signifies a maturation in the AI field. Developers are not just experimenting with AI; they’re harnessing its potential to solve tangible problems and enhance everyday experiences.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been the subject of much fascination and speculation, sparking debates about its potential impact on society. Is AI destined to be a force for good or evil? For me, the answer lies not in the technology itself, but in the hands of its creators: humans. Just like humans, AI systems will inherently embody both positive and negative aspects. It is essential to recognise this duality and navigate the grey area as we embrace the transformative power of AI.

This is because AI is, in its essence, a product of human ingenuity. It is crafted through the lens of human perspectives, principles, and experiences. The rules, programmes, and algorithms that drive AI are designed by humans, reflecting their understanding of the world. As a result, AI inherits the qualities, biases, and limitations of its creators. And just as humanity is a tapestry of virtues and flaws, AI too will exhibit a mix of positive and negative traits. The potential for AI to bring about tremendous benefits is undeniable. It can revolutionise industries, improve efficiency, enhance decision-making, and tackle complex problems. AI’s ability to process vast amounts of data with incredible speed offers opportunities for scientific discoveries, medical breakthroughs, and environmental sustainability.

However, the shadow side of AI must also be acknowledged. The same technology that empowers AI can also be misused or weaponised. Ethical concerns arise when AI is employed for malicious purposes, invading privacy, perpetuating discrimination, or manipulating public opinion. Bias, both implicit and explicit, can find its way into AI algorithms, leading to unfair outcomes and exacerbating social inequalities.

The dual nature of AI mirrors the natural balance present in the universe. The interplay between positive and negative forces fosters equilibrium. Similarly, acknowledging the potential for both good and bad AI allows us to approach its development and deployment with caution and responsibility.

As to how we can ensure an overall positive AI trajectory, the obvious answer is establishing a sound ethical framework and regulatory measures. Collaboration between technologists, ethicists, policymakers, and the wider society is vital in shaping AI systems that align with our shared values. Transparency, accountability, and fairness should be at the core of AI development, ensuring that AI benefits all of humanity rather than serving only a select few.

However, we must consider that perhaps the ultimate path that AI takes is intricately linked to how we, as human beings, proceed forward. If we choose to embrace more goodness, love, fairness, and if we strive to become more ethical, empathetic, and environmentally conscious as a species, then maybe AI will adopt a similar complementary role alongside us. The trajectory of AI is deeply intertwined with our collective values and actions.

By fostering a culture of compassion, empathy, and respect, we can guide the development and deployment of AI towards serving the greater good. Nurturing an environment that prioritises fairness, inclusivity, and social justice will shape the future of AI in a positive direction. As we evolve as a society, we have the opportunity to instill these values within AI systems, ensuring they align with our aspirations for a better world.

Therefore, the responsibility lies not only with AI developers and policymakers but with all of humanity. We must actively engage in conversations, debates, and collaborations that steer AI towards enhancing our shared well-being. As we make ethical choices in our everyday lives, advocate for social progress, and promote sustainable practices, we lay the foundation for AI to complement and amplify our positive efforts.

In this symbiotic relationship between humans and AI, our collective actions become the guiding force. By embracing the principles of fairness, love, and compassion, we can influence the trajectory of AI, shaping it as a force that uplifts humanity rather than diminish it.

I’ve said before that, in order to compete with AI, we must become more human. I now think that maybe we should not look at AI as something to compete with, but rather something to live alongside with and instill human values in it. Maybe we can remove the artificial altogether and make it more human.   

The IAB Newfronts were in full swing last week with a few new players on the scene, including the striking Writers Guild Association contingent that blocked the entrance to the Paramount show. The presentations featured new tech and video announcements, high-profile celebrity appearances and musical performances.

Competition for Video dollars is hot.

The primary focus was on Video, with every major partner vying for what were once TV advertising dollars. Players in Free Ad-Supported Television (FAST), Smart-TV makers like LG and Samsung, and premium video publishers all boasted various measures of viewership growth. CTV has become the go-to way to regularly reach viewers, offering precise audience targeting, measurement and scale. Digital video spend will only continue to increase – most advertisers agree that CTV spending is necessary (67%), while only 38% said the same for Linear TV. Original content was still core to presentations, but with partners like Vizio, Samsung, Meta and TikTok, the discussion was equally focused on enabling great content creation.

Measuring business outcomes, not media metrics.

Conversations around measurement and defining success were also front and center. There’s been a shift across the industry from looking at CPMs and Impressions as indicators of media effectiveness, to looking at business outcomes. Brands are being held increasingly accountable for their marketing decisions, and every partner was out to prove they had the right solution to help. Innovid, for example, announced a partnership with Disney on a new measurement solution that will link ad exposures to outcomes like website visits and app downloads.  However, the more important questions around measurement consistency across the ecosystem weren’t necessarily addressed.

Increased multicultural and inclusive programming.

Revry made history as the first LGBTQ+ owned and led company to present at the Newfronts, unveiling an array of new programming including Culture Q, a pop culture news show, Season 2 of Drag Latina, and QueerX Awards, among others. Spanish networks LATN, Estrella and Canela joined the Newfronts for the first time to answer for the lack of content catering to Hispanic audiences in the marketplace. LATN showcased a suite of original content including shows around Latino culture, Queer Latinos and Afro Latino pride. Canela unveiled Canela Connect, an audience data solution that helps brands identify Hispanic audiences on English and Spanish language streaming platforms via connections with Roku, Samsung, Vizio, FreeTV and more.

Of course, AI.

In an incredibly ironic moment, the Writers’ Guild members marched outside of Peacock’s presentation in part to protest the studios’ reluctance to regulate AI-generated material, while inside the media executives hawked AI as the latest way to enhance ad deals. Roku announced a new AI-powered feature that scans programming to match campaigns with relevant scenes in shows and movies. Snap unveiled plans to include brand-sponsored posts within AI-powered chatbots, and Meta showcased AI tools to streamline creative production and serve more relevant content to users. Mentions of Virtual Reality and the Metaverse, areas in which Meta has poured huge resources, were mostly absent from the company’s presentation.

The metaverse is one of the most exciting – if not the most exciting – innovations in our high-speed digital world. What prospects do companies in different countries see in this new digital universe? And what opportunities are they already using for their brands? Inspiring and surprising insights from the Netherlands, the UAE and Poland.

The metaverse in the Netherlands: A breeding ground for experimentation

Author: Christiaan van Betuw, Managing Partner / Serviceplan Group Netherlands

The digital era in which we find ourselves is characterised by its speed. From small, technical updates that make our lives easier, to large-scale, impactful transitions. The metaverse inexorably belongs to the latter category: a completely new, digital world with other forms of communication and a more intensive digital experience. It is important for brands to explore, test and learn now. And the Dutch market is the place to be.

This is due to the behaviour of Dutch people. For years we’ve been one of the European leaders in digital development. The digital mindset of the Dutch is impressive. For example, 96% of Dutch households have internet and 87% are online every day. The Dutch are at the top of the table when it comes to using online services, such as internet banking, watching digital TV, shopping, and making online (video) calls. In addition, we are very receptive to – and active in – emerging sectors such as e-sports, (digital/hybrid) events and game development.[1]

In 2021, the Netherlands were characterised by the European Union as a “Strong Innovator” in Europe: a country that scores well above average for its innovation efforts. In the period from 2016 to 2018, almost half of the companies in the Netherlands with more than 10 employees were innovative.[2] The advent of the metaverse has also stimulated and inspired the innovative nature of Dutch companies to push things forward.

In addition to a receptive test group and an innovative workforce, the Netherlands – home to ‘only’ 17 million people – offers a clear market and a relatively cheap environment to experiment with the metaverse. And that is already happening on a large scale.

Dutch brands are pioneering the metaverse

More and more brands are testing the power of communication in the metaverse and offering consumers a unique brand experience. Heineken brought – albeit with a hint of fun-poking irony – the physical and digital world together with the launch of the world’s first virtual beer ‘Heineken Silver’ in Decentraland, as well as in the physical world. In doing so, the brand cleverly uses the Heineken experience in the metaverse, but with the clear message that it is still better to drink a beer in the ‘real’ world.[3]

Dutch fashion brand Barki has launched an NFT design but also makes a physical edition of each NFT. The brand states that this prevents the physical T-shirt from depreciating in value and eventually being thrown away. By linking the physical product to the NFT, it retains its value.[4] The same applies to Subway and Lay’s who, in collaboration with fashion brand XPLCT, developed an eye-catching jacket that made avatars in Decentraland look completely on brand. Five unique NFTs were developed, one of which was auctioned, raising €6,000 in proceeds.

It is striking that a ‘phygital’ approach is still often chosen, where brands experiment within the metaverse but also link the physical world to it at the same time. In the near future, the latter will become less so, partly due to companies that focus on full use of the metaverse, such as Dutch initiative Odyssey, which builds interoperable tools for metaverse users.[5]

A long-term goal for the brand in Web 3.0

At the rate the metaverse is evolving, a sustainable marketing effort – one that builds for the future – is an absolute must. And experimentation is inextricably linked to this. I am sure that in a world where everything is faster and grander than ever before, the marketer who dares to make a plan for 2027 will ultimately work for the brand that shapes the market rather than merely following it. That’s especially true when it comes to building a brand in Web 3.0. Let everything you do now contribute to that snowball that defines this future of the brand. The Netherlands look forward to welcoming you.


[1]     https://longreads.cbs.nl/ict-kennis-en-economie-2021/samenvatting/

[2]     https://longreads.cbs.nl/ict-kennis-en-economie-2021/samenvatting/

[3]      https://www.prnewswire.com/nl/persberichten/heineken-r-silver-breaks-out-of-the-metaverse-877176528.html

[4]    https://fashionunited.nl/nieuws/business/nederlands-label-barki-is-straks-in-winkels-en-in-de-metaverse-te-vinden/2022021152646

[5]     https://www.emerce.nl/nieuws/nederlands-odyssey-vangt-vier-miljoen-uitbouw-metaverse


The UAE – a place of metaverse leadership

Author: Helmi Abdalhadi, House of Gaming Manager / Serviceplan Middle East

I recall a conversation with a friend a few years back when we were discussing cryptocurrencies. He mentioned that withdrawing assets in bits and pieces helped avoid German regulatory tax on the crypto-turned-cash. I remember instantly thinking, especially given my regulatory law education, that it was innovative and risk-averse of the German government to be ahead of new technology by putting these laws in place early. I now live in a part of the world where government activities and initiatives are central to the economy and its industries’ activities. The United Arab Emirates government has taken steps, measures and regulations further than most countries in the world to put itself in a position to both lead Web 3.0 and metaverse conversations, as well as enable its native businesses. However, even before regulations, it has made it part of its DNA.

In the second quarter of 2018, the UAE government announced and launched an initiative that “aims to capitalise on the blockchain technology to transform 50% of government transactions into the blockchain platform by 2021”. The Emirates blockchain strategy had a simple goal: to use the secure technology to be much more efficient in day-to-day activities. By giving each transaction and customer a unique identification number that is part of the blockchain ledger, the government aimed to save 400 million printed documents and 77 million work hours annually, as well as almost $3 billion by 2021.

Regulations usually imply a negative connotation for new technology. This is not the case for the metaverses’ main method of payment – cryptocurrencies – in the UAE. Dubai and Abu Dhabi both passed laws in 2021 and 2022 that make it not only easier to use cryptocurrency to make payments for daily purchases, but also possible for crypto exchanges to operate from and within the two Emirates. According to Reuters, over 30 licences have been issued to crypto exchanges to set up shop – including the biggest of the bunch: FTX, Binance and Kraken. As an example, Binance are currently hiring for over 100 positions in the UAE region.

But being ahead of new technology doesn’t just mean regulating and managing. It is also about enabling and building a healthy ecosystem around the industry.

Dubai recently created a committee whose purpose is to build a metaverse strategy for the Emirate. Whether through commerce and shopping, meeting places and social areas, games or learning environments, the committee announced that it will be supporting 42,000 virtual jobs in order to add $4 billion to the country’s GDP by 2030. Resource allocation towards the virtual world, as well as enabling new businesses are key pillars of the Dubai metaverse committee.

In the meantime, Abu Dhabi has pushed for diversity in the male-dominated industry via its Abu Dhabi investment office. ADIO is making it easier for women to be entrepreneurial in the metaverse and Web 3.0 space by giving them free crypto and metaverse domains. This has proven successful. Over 50% of small to medium businesses in this industry in Abu Dhabi were founded by women.

These laws and initiatives have put the UAE in a place of metaverse leadership. They have not only enabled the growth of related start-ups, but also incentivised legacy brands to get involved. At Serviceplan Middle East, we were approached by our client BMW within the past year with a view to taking advantage of the local Web 3.0 facilitation. We created an NFT project called BMW Museum of Sounds, storing and displaying the roars of retired BMW M engines via NFTs. And we won multiple awards and nominations for our efforts.

Regulating technology is not easy and regions that fail to act usually fall behind – but by pushing regulations and encouraging innovation, the UAE are in no danger of making this mistake.


­The metaverse in Poland

Author: Tomasz Przeździecki, Chief Executive Officer / _game changer

It’s a popular phenomenon that millions of Poles are already into. But do they really know about it? Many years of experience clearly show us that games are the best canvas for developing the metaverse and technology in the form of VR and AR. Back in 2017, we carried out activities for our clients (Subway and Coca Cola) in Minecraft, which we can now classify as metaverse projects. Thank you, Mark Zuckerberg!

The concept of the metaverse is one and the same for all – virtual, open, interactive, 3D worlds where players/users can socialise. However, right now there are dozens of different platforms – Roblox, Decentraland, Wave, Ceek, Zepeto, RECRoom, etc. In a few years’ time, we will be seeing global consolidations. Will Facebook, Amazon, or perhaps a new player be leading the market?

For the past few years, it has been a well-known fact that popular games like Minecraft or Roblox are classified as centralised metaverse platforms.

However, the real, futuristic metaverse using Web 3.0 ideology – based on blockchain tech – is considered decentralised. Right now, the key players among those metaverse platforms are Decentraland and Sandbox. Those are the best platforms within Web 3.0, where you can read, write, create and OWN! Where you can purchase land, build your business and possibly make money. And also where you can create art and sell it. But bear in mind that they are still in their infancy, both globally and locally.

The users of the metaverse originating from games like Roblox, Minecraft or Fortnite are younger, usually between 10 and 20 years old. Those who are aware of Web 3.0 are mainly aged 20+.

However, everyone can refer to themselves as users of the metaverse. We should remember not to look at the metaverse only through the prism of games, as this can be harmful. We think along the lines of: “A game can be a metaverse, but the metaverse does not have to be a game”.

Perspective of a Polish metaverse user

Based on the first Polish report on metaverse users in Poland (conducted by the Gameset gaming and metaverse marketing agency), we know that:

  1. 4.3 million Poles perceive themselves as aware users of the metaverse in Poland.
  2. 7.1 million Poles do not participate in the metaverse but would like to.
  3. 29% of respondents stated that they do not want to be in the metaverse. However, most of them (51%) were between 46 and 66 years old. They consider it a waste of time and prefer other types of leisure activity instead.

Among the most attractive aspects of the metaverse, respondents indicated:

  1. The opportunity to meet with friends (83%)
  2. The chance to meet new people (81%)
  3. The possibility of creating new things in this world such as “clothes, art, games” (81%)
  4. The opportunity to look the way you want to (79%)

The top four metaverse platforms indicated by respondents are games:

Minecraft – 83%
Roblox – 66%
GTA Online – 63%
Fortnite – 63%

Roblox in Poland has over two million monthly active users!

So where is Decentraland or Sandbox? Very much on the sidelines – for the moment! So far, they generate around half a million monthly active users globally. We estimate that only 3% of them are Polish users. In the future, that is likely to change in favour of decentralised platforms (once the awareness and education of blockchain increases).

What about brands in the metaverse?

  • 32% of respondents aged between 10 and 55 years old say they would welcome the presence of brands in the metaverse, while 41% say “it depends”.
  • 47% of respondents say they have discovered new brands or services through the metaverse.
  • 39% say they would be willing to buy an offline product from a brand they have interacted with in the metaverse.
  • 43% of respondents expect their favourite brands to be represented in the virtual world.

To sum this up:
YES – your brand should also be represented in the metaverse!
YES – you need to do this as soon as possible, as long as it’s relatively easy, cheap and there’s no clutter.
YES – your target group is already there and it’s just a matter of months until everything is happening on a much larger scale, but will you be able to afford it by then?

That’s why _game changer was created – because it changes the rules of gaming in marketing and communication and is the answer to marketers’ needs for activities in trending channels.

The kind of world you create for your brand depends mostly on the technology and platform you choose. In Poland and around the world, most activities right now are centred around Roblox, Decentraland and Sandbox, so you’d be well advised to focus on those!

This interview first appeared in TWELVE, Serviceplan Group’s magazine for brands, media and communication. Read more exciting articles, essays and interviews by and with prominent guest authors and renowned experts in the ninth issue under the central theme “Speed! The Winning Factor in the Digital Age“: https://sp-url.com/twelve23-lp-en.

The world seems to be getting more complex by the day. We are being forced to respond faster and faster to avoid missing the boat and to secure our market position. How does a public broadcasting company cope with this ever-changing environment? And how is speed becoming a success factor here? Barbara Evans in conversation with Dr Florian Kumb, Head of Programme Planning at ZDF.

BARBARA EVANS: Are you a fan of speed, Dr Kumb?

FLORIAN KUMB: Absolutely! Whenever something is done under extreme time pressure, the motivation is even greater. Even though speed is not an end in itself, it is essential for success in the dynamic media world. For example, speed is now a central success factor when using new technology and in the development times of programme innovations. A good example of this is the fictional TV show ‘Himmel und Erde’ (Heaven and Earth), which examines the war in Ukraine in five stories, focusing on the political situation in the months that preceded it.

Looking at the other extreme: in which areas do you see speed as being of least importance?

FK: In many areas of journalism in particular, both speed and precision are important. If we change our programming because of breaking news, the information needs to be absolutely accurate. Helping people make sense of events is a real challenge if a situation is not clear. And with investigative journalism, thoroughness is much more important than speed. Leaving aside programming, precision is also the top priority when dealing with compliance issues, budget controlling, etc.

Do you see the speed question as being a short-lived phenomenon or one that is here to stay?

FK: User expectations are changing faster than they used to. And we need to respond to this more quickly with our programming content. Constant change is the new normal. I very much doubt that everything is going to return to easily manageable and stable time frames.

In which areas do you feel the greatest need for speed at ZDF?

FK: There was always a great need for speed when reporting the latest news, so that’s nothing new for us – and our colleagues are experts in dealing with breaking news situations. But there is growing pressure on development times in other programming genres as well. The world is changing so quickly that ideas need to be implemented in less time. However, the need for speed has increased mainly in strategic work and non-linear distribution. To achieve our aim of providing ‘a ZDF for everyone’, we need to be very adaptable and highly dynamic in our actions and reactions.

What exactly is ZDF doing to equip itself for this future?

FK: This might sound strange, but the first thing we need to do is increase the complexity because there are no simple answers to complex challenges. For example, we have brought together three areas – communication, digital media and programme planning – that were all under different management at various points within the hierarchy logic. We defined joint processes and task fields such as 360° planning, brand/design or AI in distribution, for which we are now jointly responsible. This increases the need for coordination and lays bare any conflicts regarding roles and resources. However, we all acknowledge that no one area can solve the problems on its own – for me, this paves the way for a successful working relationship in the future.

Will there be any changes in the way you share data internally?

FK: I’m in favour of a complete democratisation of data and, at the same time, a clear framework that provides guidance in this data jungle. We are currently in the process of making all data available for everyone internally. After all, it’s possible for all of our colleagues to learn from findings about formats outside their scope of responsibility. It’s a real mindset change. Another recent addition is the ZDF KOMPASS – an integral ‘compass’ that allows us to manage all relevant performance indicators relating to usage, quality, impact and acceptance of our public broadcasting programming. This tool sets priorities and helps provide clarity in the complex media world.

Do you use AI? And if so, is it easy to reconcile this with your company’s public broadcasting remit?

FK: AI is of central importance for us, for example in our planning work. We use AI both for the recommendation system in our ZDFmediathek and for linear planning, e.g. ZDFinfo. Here, the machine suggests shows for users to watch next or which shows should be scheduled back-to-back. It’s important for the underlying algorithm to have a public broadcasting character. Our aim is not to make money by tying viewers to us with the same kind of content again and again – we have other aims, such as presenting people with new or unexpected content. The data helps us to find out how we can do that.

What has been your experience so far?

FK: Our first experiences have been very good. The diversity of recommendations in the ZDFmediathek increased substantially – more different programmes are now being recommended than was the case when we curated them manually. Obviously, planners can’t be equally aware of all titles. Using AI in linear programming has been so effective that we are now working on expanding it to other broadcasters and broadcasting streams. Also thanks to AI, ZDFinfo has established itself as the most successful linear information broadcaster by far – including among younger target groups.

What impact does this have on the broadcaster’s programming and brand communication?

FK:It doesn’t have any impact at all on the strategic work regarding content profile, brand communication and the development potential of the broadcasting method. Real people are still responsible for journalistic and creative output. AI ensures that they have enough time, because it relieves a lot of the burden in their operational planning work and distribution.

Do you see any particular opportunities or challenges here for ZDF as a public broadcaster?

FK: There are many areas where we need to find new public broadcasting approaches for digital. Take, for example, the expectations regarding user experience. For this, we need to know people’s exact needs. But this is a challenge if we also want to comply with the highest data protection standards. However, our greatest privilege is to be able to implement ideas and projects irrespective of their short-term commercial viability. At the same time, commercial pressure is especially high at the moment: investment decisions are particularly difficult when costs are rising but our income is staying the same. Especially when the investments only pay off in the long term.

When you are developing new ideas, do you look first and foremost within the German-speaking markets, or do you seek inspiration in concepts and ideas from other countries.

FK: Both, but I can’t understand why there is so much of a focus on the USA in our sector. Smaller markets are much more dynamic, particularly when they have a progressive approach to technology. Personally, I find the Scandinavian, Swiss and Israeli markets really interesting. We are in the process of working together with a Danish start-up that is well on the way to solving one of our data problems relating to diversity.

Do you think that German-speaking countries are getting faster in their decision-making and actions?

FK:Germans are often said to be passionate naysayers. At the same time, we like the image of an inventor type who plays around with lots of different ideas and then comes up with compelling solutions. I think the generational shift in companies is a great opportunity to speed things up. The older generation needs to pass on their traditional ‘engineering virtues’ to the younger generation while allowing them to dictate the pace. ‘Fail fast’ is not a new strategy – that was around during the years of rapid industrial expansion in Germany in the mid-19th century. We need to give this more space again.

Findings published by market research company GfK have shown that companies that act faster are more successful. We conducted our own research project about how companies use real-time data, network between various company areas, individualise communication and content, etc. Here, we found that not enough is happening in around two thirds of companies. What advice would you give to decision-makers about ‘speeding things up’?

FK: It’s necessary and it’s hard going, particularly at the beginning. But it’s less about making radical underlying decisions than having a clear vision and lots of elaborate fine-tuning in processes. There’s no way around it. But once top management has set the ball in motion, employees and managers alike will realise that and things will speed up. My recommendation would be to look first at a small number of the company’s core and supporting processes and subject them to an end-to-end examination – even if this is a complex undertaking. For this, companies need to set up and authorise a small internal project team with good people. But I wouldn’t advise using external consultants for this.

Thank you for talking to us!

This artice first appeared in TWELVE, Serviceplan Group’s magazine for brands, media and communication. In the ninth issue, you will find further inspiring articles, essays and interviews by and with prominent guest authors and renowned experts centred around the magazine’s theme „Speed! The Winning Factor in the Digital Age“. The e-paper is available here: https://sp-url.com/twelve23-lp

One particularly enjoyable aspect of SXSW conference is the immense diversity of topics covered in its program. Technology, business, marketing, design, entertainment, healthcare, politics, psychedelic drugs – there’s a lot of everything. Things get even more enjoyable, when you realize that despite the often fundamentally different backgrounds of speakers and industries, certain challenges are the same. Today was one of those days, and it has a lot to do with Ketchup.

Learning to speak machine 

Technologist and designer John Maeda is Vice President of Design and Artificial Intelligence at Microsoft and a regular on the SXSW stage ever since he released his first Design in Tech Report in 2015. 

Today’s talk was about system design and artificial intelligence and Large Language Models (LLM) in particular. While Maeda is a really engaging and entertaining speaker, his presentations can be difficult to follow, as he rapidly jumps between slides with lots of information, personal anecdotes and colorful analogies to share his thoughts with the audience. And he has a lot of them. 

One comparison really hit home with me – we are at a certain “Ketchup Bottle Moment” when it comes to Artificial Intelligence. Maeda compared the sudden influx of AI tools at our disposal as comparable to the old issue with glass ketchup bottles. You open them, you shake, you prod with knives and spoons and only get very little ketchup and some water out of them. But you really don’t want to eat your fries without ketchup, so you shake some more and then suddenly there’s way too much on the plate, as it all came out at once. AI has been lauded about the next big thing in technology for nearly two decades and 2023 seems to be this ketchup bottle moment. We will have to learn what to do with the abundance of AI models and tools now. 

A second analogy was treating AI models as building materials. Design isn’t really about the design itself, it is about the materials you select to get the job done – some better suited than others, but it requires a good, fundamental understanding to do that. System designers reached this point now with AI: the pre-trained foundation models of today are new materials and will help us design different things than the ones we know. But to actually get good results, we will have to learn a lot more about context and cognition when building these systems. In Maeda’s words: Designers will have to learn to speak machine to interact with AI tools – prompting is about more than getting the job done and really good prompting not only adds context and provides instructions for the model on how to solve a task, it also keeps efficiency in mind to lower computing costs. 

The need to change business culture 

Today’s keynote session featured Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert in an interview with journalist Katie Couric. Gellert shared insights on Patagonia’s recent restructuring around the transfer of ownership from the Chouinard family to the Patagonia Purpose Trust – with the stated goal of using the profits of the business to combat climate change and protect nature while protecting the integrity of the company. When asked about how this affected daily operations and management of the business, Gellert said very little had changed as the company was still operating under the same set of values, a commitment to radical transparency and honesty. 

One central message of the interview was, that businesses, especially in the sectors of fossile fuels, agriculture and clothing, are amongst the worst polluters on the planet and responsible for many of the problems we currently face with climate change. So it is their responsibility to clean up the mess they created. Quoting Gellert: “Business leaders will do the right thing, after they exhausted every other option.” Basically, the solution is to create another ketchup bottle moment. 

A central role to keep up the pressure in this regard falls to consumers, according to Gellert. He encouraged consumers and employees to be very cynical and critical of every company’s messaging around sustainability to keep up the pressure, especially through social media. In addition, he wants Patagonia to be on the forefront of changing the business mindset overall – maximizing shareholder value should and must no longer be the number one priority. 

Some TikTok creators need to take several seats

With hundreds of sessions to chose from, you can’t only pick winners – my last session for Sunday was proof of that. It featured TikTok creator Robyn DelMonte aka “Girlbosstown” alongside UTA Digital Talent agent Scarlett Perlman. The pair shared insights on how brands should work with TikTok creators to address Gen-Z. While none of the insights were wrong (in fact they were all absolutely right), we might have reached a point where certain creators need to reevaluate their own self-assigned importance. Any brand strategist worth their dime knows that humanizing your brand, understanding your audience, being authentic, utilizing trends in a smart way, and co-creation of campaigns are the key to success on TikTok. In fact, even ChatGPT probably will tell you exactly this, so when getting on a SXSW stage you should bring more than that and not act like you invented TikTok marketing in your living room and as if you were “changing the digital landscape” (that’s a direct quote) on your own. 

What I enjoyed though, was treating TikTok as the internet’s inside joke. I’ll gladly steal that analogy for future reference and probably act like I came up with it myself on the couch in our Austin AirBnB while writing this recap. 

It’s the end of the media world as we know it

Media, as many other areas like entertainment and content, needs fundamental rethinking – that’s a fact. Every brand wants to be present on the same media platforms, every brand fights about the same dollar, every brand wants to be the #1 subscription service. You don’t need to be a media pro to realize that this is not a sustainable model for the future. Ideally, there would be a one size fits all blueprint, but in reality no big tech media can figure out their own business model anymore. In today’s session, Evan Shapiro, creator of the “Media Map” which tracks the massive changes in the world of media, talked to Steven Rosenbaum about the big drivers of change for the next decade.

In the last couple years we already experienced quite a hefty generational shift. When before, boomers and Gen-X ruled the world, it’s now Millennials and especially Gen-Z and Gen-A who took over the steering wheel. Young folks grew up in a global polycrisis while having the highest rates of anxiety and depression of all time – therefore when making decisions, they’ll be making them completely different. We’ll see a drastic shift of consuming content online, as they’re not going to be chill about giving their personal data away for free. Bad news for media. At the same time, they’ll gladly pay for media and content they love. Good news for media. 

Going forward, winners will be those companies who can cater to both age groups at the same time and find the right mix of having single unit sales in form of ads as well as recurring revenue models like subscriptions. Between the two, this should not be a battle, but rather a balance.  Many big tech providers are struggling with that: Meta almost completely relies on ads while Netflix does the same thing but for subscriptions (and yes, this already counts in their ad-based model as well). It’s not enough to get consumers in the door. The real challenge is to keep them inside and entertain them every single day. Ending subscriptions after binge-watching blockbuster series is the new normal, the new channel switching on TV. Consumers aren’t loyal to providers but take power into their own hands. Will this lead to a superapp ecosystem? Future will tell.

Recent numbers are showing another big media change: Ad spend has gone down significantly in some sectors like retail or auto – and even though this money will come back, companies will look for other ways to advertise their products and services. Instead of the good old ads they’re doing for years, companies look out for more performance focused media. According to Shapiro, media has always been about ultimately selling your stuff. Even though Netflix doing PreRolls like it’s 1999 is kind of adorable, impression based ad campaigns are out. From machine learning targeting options to influencer marketing based on sold units: Performance media will be the metric of the next decade.

The Future of Play

Sunday was also the kick-off for the game industry track, with more to come in the next few days. One of the first sessions today brought together some of the most influential people in gaming, like game developer Paul Bettner and Nate Mitchell, co-founder of Oculus. While gaming is already one of the most important entertainment industries, there’s still room to grow if games become even more accessible and broadly available for everyone. It’s about redefining the definition of „the gamer“. From „hardcore games“ like Elden Ring (which is just really hard to play and defeat) finding mainstream success, the rise of mobile platform games to game titles emerging as a huge spectator sport that attract more viewers than big traditional sport events. Everyone can be a gamer in their own way and how they want to be. When meeting new people, do you ask them if they are movie-goers? Probably not. So why are we still asking the question „are you a gamer“? The pandemic already showed that video games are the new schoolyard where people hang out with their friends. This is not only true for kids, but also adults who create meaningful friendships over Discord or Twitter. This convergence of gaming and social will change the way we interact not only with games themselves, but also publishers, game developers and content creators in a major way.

Random observations from day 3:

  • Goodbye Rainey Street. The historic street, once home to many old bungalow style houses turned bars & nightlife spots slowly but surely loses its iconic face, with more and more soulless apartment towers replacing the old buildings. Another major downside of Austin’s ever increasing popularity. 
  • If you ever wondered why the lamp posts, telephone poles and columns around the convention center are wrapped in plastic – it’s because there’s a constant sticker & flyer battle going on. Dating apps, NFT projects, concerts, events, brand activations, viral campaigns – the high-traffic spaces are popular for advertising whatever you currently want to promote. 
  • An equally fascinating amalgamation of weird things, that don’t really fit well together: The Creative Entertainment Expo. Showcases of very niche tech prototypes, often from Japanese companies, live next to the business and investment development booths of various countries, airlines, mobility providers, software companies, and the CIA of all things. 

DLD 2023 – Looking ‘Beyond Now’: Implications for the advertising industry

DLD can certainly make your head spin. There are only few conferences out there that manage to pack as many high-class speakers and experts from very diverse fields into a tight schedule of 20 to 30 minute sessions and make it work. Somehow. Covering topics from robotics and the industrial metaverse to the latest developments in neuroscience to the opportunities of generative AI for businesses in an hour is a bold move.

Recalling DLD organizer Steffi Czerny’s opening remarks, it all made sense in the end: We live in a time of global poly-crisis. Old rules often don’t apply anymore, but pessimism is not an option. We must look ‘beyond now’, the conference’s motto, to develop a narrative of progress to discover new opportunities for the future. Innovation in the fields of technology, science, communication, art and design, business and industry can provide us with the tools to take back control and tackle the most pressing issues of our time.

AI as the technology of the year, if not the decade

Generative AI has been one of the major topics in the tech world for quite a while. With the recent release of OpenAI’s ChatGPT in November 2022, the excitement in almost every industry has reached new peaks.

In his tech industry predictions for 2023, Scott Galloway pointed out that unlike other recent technology hypes (namely Metaverse and Crypto), Artificial Intelligence was backed by years of academic research like other key technologies like mobile communication. According to Galloway, AI will do for information workers what robotics did for manufacturing: It will fundamentally reshape entire industries.

New challengers for Google Search

The opportunities of challenging Google’s quasi-monopoly by utilizing AI for search was one major talking point at DLD 2023. Startups such as You.com and Neeva have already integrated AI technology into their search engines. Also, Microsoft’s recent announcement of investing an additional $10bn into OpenAI and their plans to integrate AI into all their products (most importantly into the Bing search engine), could lead to new competitive innovation in the market. However, several speakers, such as Neeva’s CEO Sridhar Ramaswamy and Scott Galloway, pointed out that building an AI powered search competitor is not an easy task due to the increased operational costs and computing power needed. Furthermore, Google employs some of the world’s leading AI engineers and the company has years of experience in the field. So, it is by no means certain that Google will not be able to maintain its dominance.

Alex Turtschan and Simone Jocham, Mediaplus International, at DLD 2023 in our Munich House of Communication

AI as a fluid computer interface

AI might not only change the way we search, but it might also change the way we interact with computers. Today’s interfaces are mostly based around the concepts of apps, often with highly specific use cases, yet lacking a universal, user-centric approach and context sensitivity – as often demonstrated by the lackluster usefulness of many “smart” assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Hey Google. But what if the user could just tell the AI what they wanted to do instead of opening a specific app to solve a problem or complete a task? What if the AI was the smartphone operating system, evoking apps on the go and being highly aware of the context of the problem to be solved?

AI for more fluid and relevant advertising and commerce

As Serviceplan Group CEO Florian Haller pointed out in his session “Beyond Advertising”, many people are annoyed by advertising. Ads often lack relevance and are not relatable. Marketing must become much more immersive to stay relevant. AI can be a part of this by generating relevant product shots and visuals on the go that are tailored exactly to the users’ current expectations and desires – and which might be unique in this form. The same rings true for e-commerce: imagine an online store that doesn’t just show clothes or shoes worn by the brand’s models one doesn’t necessarily relate to, but also provides AI generated shots that match one’s own body type, size, and age?

The future of media and publishing

An inspiring session by Brian Morrissey dealt with the future of publishing. The current media and publishing landscape is quite volatile, and we are facing several bubbles. The streaming market as a direct-to-consumer business is overcrowded with too many players competing for the consumers’ time, attention and share of wallet. We might experience a backswing towards more bundling of content into packages – a landscape, streaming providers initially challenged with their then new business models. Subscriptions have become ubiquitous and have at least partially replaced advertising-based business models in several sectors. With big players like Netflix and Amazon now exploring ad-based tiers for their streaming offerings, we might see a growth of the overall advertising spaces in the video streaming industry.

The big shifts ahead in media and publishing are quite versatile, but come down to human connection, individual relatability, and emotion, not unlike the outlook on the future of advertising drafted by Florian Haller. Individual creators can turn into established brands, a development we have already been seeing in the gaming industry, in live-streaming, and podcasting in recent years. Reaching the biggest audiences no longer is a sustainable future business model, as demonstrated by the disappointing IPO of Buzzfeed and the decline of similar mass-market-mass-appeal-low-effort publications. But most importantly, for Morrissey the future of publishing is about the human connection and emotional bond to the audience, especially in an age of AI-generated, synthetic content.

DLD ventured a wide view into the digital future and the industries affected by it – let’s see where all of this takes us.


For too long, human beings have focused on computational power and have been obsessed with the power of the mind, says Azhar Siddiqui. Here he explains, why we need to turn to our emotions, feelings and intuition to achieve a higher form of intelligence – and a human driven future.

Over the last 20 years we have witnessed almost all labour-intensive jobs move from human hands to robots or other complex machines. In the last five years, machines are being used to perform complex intelligence based tasks in areas of medicine, research, space exploration, quantum physics, climate change, infrastructure development and in almost all other areas outpacing human capacity to process information. Human progress today is almost completely dependent on machines. Without the internet which is the machine network, we will stop functioning as a modern society.  

Now here’s the interesting part: With this exponential growth of machine power, it is predicted that somewhere between 2030 and 2045, the neural networks in machines will be able to compute and process more data and at higher speeds than the neural networks in the human brain – an event known as technological singularity. Simply put, machines will outthink and outsmart human beings creating a more intelligent being per se. Artificial Intelligence will be more intelligent than human intelligence. 

What happens then is the subject of many debates with one side stating that machines will take over the world and another side who believe that machines will collaborate with human beings and accelerate human evolution further. So what is the future going to be like? Should we be scared and stop creating more intelligent machines that will eventually outsmart us and possibly make us their slaves? If we are to evaluate the scenario purely on the computation power or processing speed, then there is no doubt that at some point we will have to submit our dominant position to a more intelligent machine system – known as Artificial Intelligence. 

But, I am not threatened by the this predicament. For the name artificial itself means its not real. Human intelligence should not be evaluated only as computational intelligence based on the processing power of the brain. For humans can do so much more than just process information or compute. Humans can feel, humans can connect, humans can sense, humans can empathize. We have emotions and a unique sense called intuition. The problem is that we do not know how to tap into these emotions and the bigger problem is that we have programmed ourselves not to trust our intuition. We have been relying so heavily on our brain and focusing so much on the ability to algorithmically understand everything around us that we have forgotten how to feel and how to connect with the world around us.  

Human’s understood the mysteries of the universe long before the laws of gravity and physics were defined. The theories of the universe that we are revealing today are not a revelation, but rather a confirmation of what was already understood thousands of years ago by men and women who we call philosophers, oracles, saints or prophets. Where did their answers come from in an age where no computer or microchip existed? Clearly humans felt and connected not just through their minds but through other means. Maybe the answers came to them through thoughtful meditation and introspection. Maybe we simply listened more our feelings and were more in touch with our intuition. We knew how to balance the understanding of our universe between computational thinking, emotional thinking and intuitive thinking? 

Perhaps this is the greatest power of being human: To really understand and trust out gut as they say. Feelings that we cannot compute in 0s and 1s but feelings that still give us answers to so many questions that are mathematically impossible to equate. 

Today, we fear that we may no longer be the most intelligent life on earth because the machines we built will compute faster than us. But that’s just one part of who we are what we can do for the machines can’t feel or imagine.  In the future, machines will do exactly what they are built to do – process information. And hopefully, humans will learn to escalate to a higher form of intelligence.  We will better understand the universe and our place in it. After all this is what being human is all about. 

But this is not going to be an easy journey and there is a real danger that if do not consciously put a real effort into this evolution, we very well may end up living one of the Hollywood movies where we become slaves to our machines. We continue to place more and more emphasis on sciences, finance, production, data processing and in doing so we are becoming more machine and less human ourselves. We equate success with machine like productivity and evaluate progress through the equation of output of goods and services that have material or monetary value. We need to stop this obsession and learn how to balance it better with our humanness.   This is not going to come automatically for this requires us to learn the techniques and put in hard work and commitment required to understand our own humanness first. It will require the investment of our time, and our time right now is disproportionately skewed towards computing the whole universe in equations of IF and THEN. We need to change this obsession with the computational power and algorithmic logic and learn to trust the fact that there is another way for human evolution. 

We need a time-out. There is an urgent need to collectively as a human race have a greater understanding and appreciation for art, music, spirituality, humanity, and everything else that is not materialistic in value. We need to formulate more policies in our personal lives, in our businesses and in our governments not just for ourselves but for our entire planet. We need to accept that we are part of a macro ecosystem known as planet earth and we cannot simply use and abuse our planet in the ways we have been doing. We need to celebrate heroes who do good things versus only celebrate heroes who do things that make money. Our evaluation of life overall needs to be redefined from the never-ending chase of materialism to a higher cause of self-realization. Our current obsession is turning us into machines and if we try to compete with Artificial Intelligence by become machines, we will certainly fail. This is proven by the theory of technological singularity.  

But my hope lies in the fact that we are not machines, we are humans. We are not artificial, we are real. We can feel, we can sense and we can connect with each other and with the world around us in more than just one way. We are meant to have a higher purpose and perhaps it is the threat of something artificial that will push us to realize our true potential. 

So how do we counter the threat of artificial intelligence – just be more human!

Organisations have come to realise that, in an age where everything is available to everyone, customer centricity is key and experience has become the X factor. The focus is on technology, with artificially intelligent algorithms and new interfaces to meet the needs of the customer. But how can we ensure that we don’t “just digitise” and that people and their needs remain in the foreground? An analysis by customer centricity and artificial intelligence expert Nancy Rademaker.

In our current digital world, keeping the human at the centre of everything is a big challenge for most organisations. Living up to the ever-increasing expectations of the customer is not always easy to do and will require continuous investments and adaptations. Even though technology can act as a huge enabler to deliver the utmost convenience, transparency and personalisation, how can we make sure we don’t “just digitalise”, but keep the true human connection as a priority?

Emotional Data

AI Technology that can recognise our human emotions and tailor the response accordingly.

The Ambiguity of Human Connection

There are two sides to this problem and they are related to the ambiguity within the notion of ‘human connection’. One aspect that defines us is that we always long for a strong connection with our fellow humans. We literally want to get in touch with others. We want to have physical conversations. The pandemic has of course reinforced this in a dramatic way. I like to refer to this as the ‘connection of the FEW’, the dialogues we have (mostly between two people) in which empathy, emotions and non-verbal signals play a crucial role. Next to this, we also long for connection in a broader sense. As humans, we have an intrinsic need for a sense of belonging. In the past this used to be local – our family, friends and peers – but with technology playing a much bigger role, it has evolved to a more regional, national or even global setting. One in which we are constantly looking for communities we can connect to and where we can converse with like-minded people. The nature of this ‘connection of the MANY’ is much more remote and its dynamics are very different from the first meaning.

Technology Enabling Human Connection?

How to deal with these two faces of connection as a retailer? How can technology help – if it can help at all? If we look at the connections of the many, these have of course been massively enabled through the social media platforms that have been on the rise for the past decade. According to Hootsuite, internet users worldwide spend around 2.5 hours on these social media (by the way, the West is lagging behind here!), and this number is rising every single month. Technology has enabled us all to influence and be influenced 24/7. We share our adventures, our purchases and our personal emotions with whomever wants to read them. Our social ‘status’ is determined by the number of views, shares and likes. The big platforms got us ‘hooked’ on this sense of belonging and brands are using it to the max to create tribes of followers to increase their brand reputation.

But will we settle JUST for the connection of the many? Of course not. We want to interact with individuals, and we want to be treated as individuals as well. As customers, whether it be in B2C or B2B, we value highly personalised interactions. In fact, we EXPECT highly personalised interactions. We no longer settle for some generic recommendation; we want it to be tailored to our exact personal needs and preferences. For most companies, this turned out to be quite a challenge, and fortunately technology has come to the rescue. Once all the relevant data – the absurdly BIG data – are collected, smart algorithms powered by artificial intelligence can accurately predict what we as customers want (even if we may not consciously be aware of it ourselves!). Knowing what your customer’s favourite channel is truly matters. Delivering seamless experiences ACROSS channels will soon matter even more.

Now the question arises, is all this ENOUGH to deliver a great customer experience? Is it enough to make it easy for me to buy stuff or make reservations online? Is it enough if the recommendations consider all my personal data and behaviours? Isn’t the essence of our human ‘being’ that we are emotional beings? Could it be that technology can NOT personalise our experiences enough, because it is unable to take our current emotions into account as well?

The Next Frontier

This is where emotional AI comes in: AI technology that can recognise our human emotions and tailor the response accordingly. Leveraging our ‘emotional data’ will have increasing priority for many companies. Amazon, for instance, introduced the Halo, a new wearable device that constantly monitors your tone of voice to detect your emotional state. Amazon claims this is to track your health and wellness, but just imagine the wealth of data they acquire in this way.

But there are more elements than just our voice. Parallel Dots has developed technology to help detect sentiment or emotion in written text, which can be used to make written responses more accurate. Companies like Intraface and Affectiva can analyse facial expressions to detect people’s emotional reactions in real time, which can for instance help to determine how they react to specific scenes in movies or TV shows and where to put certain ads. The Affectiva technology is also being used in cars, with numerous applications to augment in-vehicle experiences. Just imagine the climate, scent, light or music in your car being adapted to your mood…

Many hurdles will have to be overcome for emotional data to be handled correctly. Not only are they more intangible and sensitive than our ‘regular’ personal data, but we will also need to consider cultural differences in expressing emotions, multiple reactions at once (e.g. with several passengers in a car), and external elements influencing people’s voices or face muscles. Until technology can solve the problem of human connection completely, especially in a one-on-one setting, we will remain in great need of human employees to take care of this. And to be truly honest, as a customer I am still very happy doing business with actual PEOPLE!

This artice first appeared in TWELVE, Serviceplan Group’s magazine for brands, media and communication. In the eighth issue, you will find further inspiring articles, essays and interviews by and with prominent guest authors and renowned experts centred around the magazine’s theme “A human-driven future: How humans are shaping the digital world of tomorrow”. The e-paper is available here.

Until the release of Amazon’s Echo, aka Alexa, the big players had paid little attention to voice technologies. In the meantime, there are numerous other variants, but which are the best known and which voice interface is the most suitable?

Today’s voice interfaces are a combination of two components, namely transcription and natural language processing (NLP). A spoken sentence is transcribed into text. This is analysed using artificial intelligence, based on which a reaction is generated and converted back to analogue speech via a speech synthesis (see also part 1).

Different classifications

Conversational interfaces are differentiated by whether they use so-called knowledge domains or not. Knowledge domains are digital structures that map knowledge around a given subject area.

1) Conversational interfaces with knowledge domains 

Conversational interfaces with knowledge domains are not just about parsing phrases, but about understanding the actual meaning behind a sentence. These types of interfaces are called smart assistants. Consider this sentence, which is simple for us humans: “Reserve two seats at a two-star restaurant in Hamburg!” – it is very easy for us to understand. We know that a restaurant can be given ‘stars’, that Hamburg is a city and that you can reserve seats in a restaurant. However, without this prior knowledge, it is difficult to make sense of the sentence. ‘Two Stars’ could just as well be the name of a specific restaurant. What two seats are and how to reserve them is then completely unclear. That a restaurant with certain characteristics in Hamburg is to be searched for, is also unclear. However, Smart Assistants should be able to precisely understand these concepts and therefore require special basic knowledge in respective domains such as gastronomy, events, weather and travel.

2) Conversational Interfaces without knowledge domains

Conversational interfaces without domain knowledge, such as Alexa, do not have this skill. Instead, they use a different approach. For a possible dialogue, sentence structures are specified during implementation in which variable parts, so-called slots, are defined. The spoken sentence is then analysed and assigned with a sentence structure. Subsequently, the component which generates the response to what has been said is informed of which sentence structure has been recognised by the given variable parts. The fact that this does not require any basic knowledge is clarified by the following sentence: ‘I would like to buy a red shirt’. At this point, the system does not need to know anything about clothes or colours because it just compares the phrase with given phrases related to buying a shirt. For this purpose, it is defined in the interface dialogue model that there is a sentence structure with an ID called, for example, ‘shirt purchase’. It is then subsequently determined that the sentence structure may have the following characteristics: “I want to buy a <colour> shirt”, “I want to buy a shirt in the colour <colour>” and “I want to buy a shirt in <colour>”. In this way, it also defines that there is a variable phrase (slot) named ‘colour’. The desired possibilities for this slot are indicated, e.g. ‘red’, ‘green’ and ‘yellow’. If the user utters the above sentence, the analysis shows that it has the ‘shirt purchase’ sentence structure with the value ‘red’ for the slot ‘colour’. In a correspondingly structured form, a back-end system can already begin to build something with this information.

The current key stakeholders

Until the release of Amazon’s Echo, aka Alexa, most IT companies had paid little attention to voice technologies. Although Siri was released with a bang, it was perceived more as a helpful tool rather than a whole new class of interfaces. However, the advantages of hands-free features for mobile devices were not to be dismissed and today each big player develops their own language solution. Here is a brief introduction to the current key stakeholders:

Amazon‘s Alexa

If you look at the Amazon product range, it is clear that Alexa is a logical development from already existing technologies. The Fire Tablets (launched 2013), Fire Phone (2014) and first Fire TVs (2014) were already equipped with voice control. However, Alexa’s ‘Voice Interface as a Service’ or ‘Alexa Voice Service’ technology is still not considered a Smart Assistant. Instead of analysing the meaning of sentences, they are simply compared in the background. When asked more complex questions, Alexa quickly bails out. The reason for this is that it only handles superficial knowledge domains that are not open to the developer. In addition, requests that can be expressed to an Echo must be very concise and not overly complex in their formulation. For example, films can be searched for using the name of an actor, or restaurants can be searched for by indicating the area. However, it does not get much more complex than this.

Google Assistant

Google Now was originally part of Google Search and was only searchable on the web. Later it was spun off to expand domain knowledge, making it more competitive with wizards like Apple’s Siri or Samsung’s S Voice. Last year, Google Now was replaced by Google Assistant. The extent to which the various knowledge domains in the Google Assistant are interlinked was impressively demonstrated at the Google Developer Conference with the ‘Google Duplex’ product. As a component of the assistant, Google Duplex can make phone calls to real people and make appointments for the hairdresser, for example, or even book a table. In doing so, the assistant not only accesses the appointment calendar, but must also have appropriate domain knowledge.

Apple‘s Siri

The story of Siri is a bit different. The Smart Assistant was developed by the Siri Inc. company and from the outset took the approach of analysing language by means of domain knowledge. Siri Inc. is a spin-off of the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Fifteen years ago, SRI collaborated with these institutions on the CALO (Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes) project, the experience of which influenced the development of Siri. Siri was released in the App Store in 2010 and Siri Inc. was promptly bought by Apple. A year later, Apple then officially announced that Siri is now an integral part of iOS. It has since been unrolled across all platforms. Most recently, the HomePod was released as a smart loudspeaker that reflects the current trend in voice interfaces and is comparable to Amazon’s competing product, Echo.

Microsoft’s Cortana

Microsoft’s Cortana was presented to the public for the first time in 2014 at a conference. Also designed as a Smart Assistant, Cortana features interesting reality-based adaptations. For example, a real assistant usually takes notes about their supervisor or client in order to get to know the person better and remember their habits. This is where Cortana uses a virtual notebook. For example, when being used for the first time, Cortana asks a few preferences in order to be able to provide personalised answers at an early stage. This functionality can also be prompted as needed. The key element of Cortana is Bing; Bing-based services allow you to make informal queries with the search engine.

Samsung’s Viv

Samsung has also been trying to establish intelligent software for their devices for quite some time, which naturally must also include a voice interface. In 2016 Samsung bought the company of Siri’s developers, Viv Labs. Viv Lab’s system fully relies on domain knowledge. Unlike its competitors, however, Viv is able to extend the knowledge base of external developers into new domains. As a result, the system should become more intelligent and be able to understand more and more. For example, imagine a whiskey distillery. With the help of experts, the Viv is provided with knowledge about the domain of whiskey and its products. In addition, a distillery shares all of its knowledge concerning wooden barrels and their production. The Viv domain knowledge now provides valuable expertise on which wooden barrels influence the taste of certain types of alcohol. For example, oak barrels provide whiskey with a vanilla flavour. If I now ask Viv what results in the vanilla note of a particular whiskey from said factory, Viv can answer that this taste is most likely due to oak barrel aging. Thus, Viv has merged both domains.

IBM’s Watson

To clear up any misunderstandings, IBM Watson should also be mentioned here. There is no ‘Artificial Intelligence Watson’ that understands everything and continuously accumulates knowledge. Instead, Watson is a collection of various artificial intelligence tools brought together under a common concept that can be used to realise a wide variety of projects. In addition, there are projects that serve to build up a large knowledge base. However, one should not labour under the illusion that each Watson project provides access to this knowledge. If you want to implement a project with Watson, you need to provide your own database – just as with any other machine learning toolkit. Among other features, Watson provides transcription (The IBM® Speech to Text Service) and text analysis (Natural Language Understanding Service) tools. If you want to implement a project together with Watson, you build on these two tools when implementing voice interfaces.

From analysing the problem to finding the right voice interface

Of course, there are many additional solutions, some of which are very specialised, but which also aim to break through the restrictions of the big players in order to offer more development opportunities. Now, the question naturally arises: But why all the different voice interfaces? As with many complex problems, there is no single universal solution. There is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ interface. There are only ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ applications for the different technologies. Alexa is not good for complex sentence structures, but is great for fast conversions and is already widely used. On the other hand, while Viv has not been able to assert itself yet, it has the potential to understand random and complex sentences.

The selection of the right voice interface therefore involves choosing certain criteria, such as the application, focus, problem definition, needs of the target group and how open an interface is for integration into your own projects.

This is the second contribution of a four-part series on the subject of voice interfaces: