Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Self-Aware Marketing Engines

suellen in warbySuellen recently bought a pair of eyeglasses from Warby Parker, the online retailer. To get an idea of how they would look, she uploaded a picture of herself and tried the glasses on virtually. She “tried on” several models, picked the most flattering one, ordered it, and received it within a couple of days.

Suellen’s glasses are stylish but dumb. They don’t know what they are, where they came from, or how they got to Suellen. Within five years, I suspect that products from Warby Parker (and similar purveyors) will not only be stylish but also self-aware. In fact, let’s call them Self-Aware Marketing Engines or SAMEs.

A Self-Aware Marketing Engine knows what it is and how to sell. An embedded chip carries its identity. A SAME knows:

  • What it is – the chip carries information on model number, date of manufacture, serial number, etc.
  • Who owns it – Suellen’s Warby Parkers will know her name and contact details and perhaps other things such as her Facebook address, Klout score, birthday, maybe even her husband’s name and contact details.
  • How to buy – the chip carries information on how to order similar products.
  • How to talk to other devices – probably using Near Field Communications (NFC).

Essentially, SAMEs automate the word-of-mouth process. Let’s say that Suellen’s girlfriend, Laurie, sees the glasses and admires them. Laurie taps her NFC-enabled smart phone on the glasses and learns how she can buy similar glasses and what they cost. She also learns she can upload a photo of herself to see how the glasses look on her.

Laurie uploads a picture to the Warby Parker website and “tries on” various models. The website can tell that Laurie’s visit resulted from Suellen’s influence. It sends Suellen a thank-you note and perhaps a small discount on her next purchase.

Laurie finds three models that she really likes but can’t decide which one to buy. Warby Parker’s website asks how it can help. Laurie explains her dilemma. The website has a solution. With Laurie’s permission, the website loads images of her wearing each of the three different styles to Laurie’s Facebook page. It also sends a “Which style do you like best?” query to all of Laurie’s Facebook friends. It also links to Suellen’s Facebook page so she can follow (and influence) the process.

Laurie waits a day and counts the votes, but then gets distracted by a visit from her friend, Mary Kay. The Warby Parker website notes that nothing has happened for a few days and sends Laurie an e-mail with a small incentive to order soon.

With Mary Kay’s help, Laurie decides to order the Hippie @ Sixty frames (Model 6060/CBGB).  Warby Parker’s factory encodes Laurie’s information in the frames – creating another Self-Aware Marketing Engine – and sends them to her. With Laurie’s permission, it also posts the “winning” selection to Laurie’s Facebook page. It also notes that Suellen has influenced the sale and sends her another thank-you note and a larger discount on her next purchase.

Laurie perceives that she has bought some stylish frames. Warby Parker perceives that they’ve sold a Self-Aware Marketing Engine that will generate more sales in the future. For Laurie, it’s a solution to her eye care needs. For Warby Parker, it’s the gift that goes on giving.

Could it happen? Devices are getting smarter all the time. Many devices today are already aware of their own location and orientation (which way they’re pointed). Why not incorporate additional self-awareness that enables products to sell more products? It will happen soon. The only question is who will get there first.

(By the way, though I took a different angle, much of the inspiration for this post came from an article in the April issue of the McKinsey Quarterly: “The Coming Era of ‘On-Demand’ Marketing“)

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