Sunday, June 18, 2017

Amazon Buys Whole Foods: It's Not About Groceries

Most of the comments I’ve seen about Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods have described it as Amazon (a) expanding into a new industry (b) continuing to disrupt conventional retail and (c) moving more commerce from offline to online channels. Those are all true, I suppose, but I felt they missed the real story: this is another step in Amazon building a self-contained universe that its customers never have to leave.

That sounds a bit more paranoid than it should. This has nothing to do with Amazon being evil. It’s just that I see the over-arching story of the current economy as creation of closed universes by Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple, and maybe a couple of others. The owners of those universes control the information their occupants receive, and, through that, control what they buy, who they meet, and ultimately what they think. The main players all realize this and are quite consciously competing with each other to expand the scope of their services so consumers have less reason to look outside of their borders. So Amazon buys a grocery chain to give its customers one less reason to visit a retail store (because Amazon’s long-term goal is surely for customers to order online for same-day delivery). And, hedging its bets a bit, Amazon also wants to control the physical environment if customers do make a visit.

I’ve written about this trend many times before, but still haven’t seen much on the topic from other observers. This puzzles me a bit because it’s such an obviously powerful force with such profound implications. Indeed, a great deal of what we worry about in the near future will become irrelevant if things unfold as I expect.

Let me step back and give a summary of my analysis. The starting point is that people increasingly interact with the world through their online identities in general and their mobile phones in particular. The second point is a handful of companies control an increasing portion of consumers’ experiences through those devices: this is Facebook taking most of their screen time, Google or Apple owning the physical device and primary user interface, and Amazon managing most of their purchases.

At present, Facebook, Apple, Google, and Amazon still occupy largely separate spheres, so most people live in more than one universe. But each of the major players is entering the turf of the others. Facebook and Google compete to provide information via social and search. Both offer buying services that compete with Amazon. Amazon and Apple are using voice appliances to intercept queries that would otherwise go through to the others.

Each vendor’s goal is to expand the range of services it provides. This sets up a virtuous cycle where consumers find it’s increasingly convenient to do everything through one vendor. Instead of a conventional “social network effect” where the value of a network grows with the number of users, this is a “personal network effect” where the value of a vendor relationship grows with the number of services the vendor provides to the same individual.

While a social network effect pulls everyone onto a single universal network, the personal network effect allows different individuals to congregate in separate networks. That means the different network universes can thrive side by side, competing at the margins for new members while making it very difficult for members to switch from one network to the other.

There’s still some value to network scale, however. Bigger networks will be able to create more appealing services and attract more partners, The network owners will also provide sharing services that make it easy for members to communicate with each other (see: Apple Facetime) but harder to interact with anyone else. So the likely outcome is a handful of large networks, each with members who are increasingly isolated from members of other networks. Think of it as a collection of tribes.

Even without any intentional effort by the network owners, members of each network will have shared experiences that separate them from outsiders: try asking an Android user for help with your iPhone. The separation will become even more pronounced if the network owners more actively control the information their members receive – something that’s already happening in the name of blocking terrorists, bullies, and other genuinely bad actors. Of course, people who prefer a particular world view will be able to form their own networks, which will be economically viable because the personal network effect with outweigh the social network effect. These splinter networks might be owned independently (it’s easy to imagine a Fox News tribe) or owned by a bigger network that just gives each tribe what it wants. Either way, you have a society whose tribes that are mutually unaware at best and actively hostile at worst.

Let’s put aside the deeper social implications of all this, in the best tradition of “other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” My immediate point is that marketers and technologists should be aware of these trends because they help to explain much of what’s happening today in our industry and help to prepare for what might happen tomorrow. Here are some things to keep an eye on:

- Growth of Voice. As I’ve already mentioned, voice interactions are an alternative to conventional screen interactions. What’s important is the voice interaction often happens first: it’s easier to ask Alexa or Siri to do something than to type that same request into Google, Facebook, or Amazon. This means whoever owns the voice interaction can intercept customer behaviors before anyone else. So pay close attention to voice-based systems: far from a gimmick, they could be keys to the kingdom.

- Owning the Pipes. Network owners want above all to keep their customers’ data to themselves. This will make them increasingly interested in owning the pipes that carry that data and in blocking anyone else from tapping those pipes. Don’t be surprised to see the network owners take an interest in physical networks (cable and phone companies) and alternative connections (community wifi). Also expect them to argue that physical network owners shouldn’t be allowed to use the data they carry (an argument they just lost in Congress but will likely resurrect on privacy grounds) and that they should be able to buy preferential access (the “network neutrality” debate they are now winning in that same Congress). Could a pipe owner grow its own network? The folks at Verizon apparently think so: that’s why they bought AOL and Yahoo!

- Data Motels. It goes pretty much without saying that network owners are eager to take data from other companies, but stingy about sharing their own. So they’re happy to import other companies’ customer lists and serve them ads, conveniently getting paid while gaining new information. But they’re less interested in exporting data about those same common customers. It’s the information version of a roach motel: data checks in but it can’t check out.

- Expanding Services. We’ve already covered this but it’s so important that it bears repeating: network vendors will continue to extend the services they offer, tightly integrating them to increase the “personal network value” of their relationships. Watch carefully and you’ll notice each new service gives customers a reason to share more data, gives the network owners still more information to better personalize customer services. Everybody wins, although the networks win more.

- The AIs Have It. The networks’ ultimate goal is to handle all their members’ purchases. The best way to do this is to have members delegate as many decisions to the network as possible, starting with things like subscriptions for restocking groceries and on-demand transportation. This saves the effort of making individual sales and, more important, eliminates opportunities for members to leak out of the system. Delegation requires the members to trust the network to make the right decisions on their behalf. Gathering more data is one key to this; artificial intelligence to make good decisions with that data is another. So if you’re thinking the networks are investing in AI only because they’re nerds who like science projects, think again.

- Trust. Arguably, trust is the result of experience, so making good decisions for members should be enough to earn permission to make more decisions. But in practice it will be impossible for consumers to know if the network is really making the best possible choices. So building trust through conventional branding and relationship management will be critical skills for the network marketers, especially when it comes to recruiting new members. (Of course, with network usage starting somewhere around age 2, membership is likely to be more hereditary than anything else.) Data and AI systems will help network marketers know the best way to build trust with each individual, but human marketing skills will also be needed – at least for now.

- Marketing to Networks. If the networks really do take control of their members’ commercial lives, the role of marketers at non-network companies is much diminished. This is already happening: every dollar spent on pay-per-click search or social advertising is essentially a dollar the network spends on the owner’s behalf, based on data only the network possesses. Today, non-network marketers still set budgets, write copy, and select keywords. But those tasks are well on their way to being automated and it won’t matter much whether the automation runs on a machine at the network or the non-network company. The role of the non-network marketer in this world is to market to the network itself. This is already a reality: search engine optimization is really marketing to network search algorithms. It will be even more important when the member isn’t directly involved in the purchase process. No doubt there will be a certain amount of “incentivizing” of the network to pick a particular product, some of it under the table. But there will also be competition to build products and services that best meet member needs and to create brands that members are pleased to have chosen on their behalf.

- Whither MarTech? Marketers at non-network companies will still have jobs whether or not they sell directly to their customers. But martech vendors could face a threat to their existence. Simply put, if the networks capture all direct customer interactions and don’t share their data with outsiders, the market for customer data platforms, journey orchestration engines, predictive analytics, content management systems, and other martech mainstays will vanish. This probably overstates the problem: presumably companies will still interact directly with people after have made a purchase, even if the purchase itself is managed by the network. But the majority of marketing technology is used for customer acquisition, and much of that could become obsolete.

- Alternate Routes. Like Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Future, I’m only showing you what might be. Non-network marketers have a strong incentive to preserve direct access to their current and future customers and many suppliers have ways to help. Non-network advertising media are first in line, of course, although they’ve been losing ground at an alarming rate. But many other companies are finding creative ways to capture customer data and attract customers’ attention. Location data and mobile apps are especially contested territory because they let firms reach customers directly in ways that customers find highly valuable. The lowly mobile wallet, if it remains outside the networks’ control, could be an alternative channel for reaching a mass audience. Telecommunication providers, with their deep pockets, broad reach, physical access to mobile devices, and vast government relationships, are probably a better bet. Of course, the telcos would probably rather join the network oligopoly than break it. But the broader point is there are still many players in the game and the outcome is far from decided. I hope this helps you make a little more sense of what's happening on the field.

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