It's not about devices for Amazon and Alexa, it's about attention

The new devices got all the attention at last week's event, but Amazon is more interested in getting your attention.
Written by Brent Leary, Contributor

I really thought about writing some of my initial thoughts right after the series of bombs Amazon dropped last Thursday at its "Alexa Everywhere" event. So, I decided I'd better take a couple of days to really process things and try to put it all into perspective. And, after taking that time to analyze as much I could, my initial impression of it all still holds the same: Damn.

Must read: Meet Amazon's new Echo devices and Alexa hardware: Prices, features, release dates

George Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars couldn't have dropped the bomb better than Amazon did last week. Because the way it did it -- basically coming from out of left field -- along with the number announcements it threw out there turned it into must-see TV; except it wasn't televised or even live-streamed. But there was something about following the live-tweeting from the folks invited to attend the event that made it exciting and kept my attention for the whole hour, because you kept saying, "And there's more... Wait, there's more... And...," you get the point.

That "keeping my attention" theme is really what this is all about -- way more so than the many varieties of things Amazon announced. Yeah, Amazon rolled out an assortment of devices, including:

  • The next generation Echo Dot, Echo Plus, and Echo Show (already got my preorder in).
  • A new Echo for the car (signed up for the invite to buy it).
  • New companion devices Echo Wall Clock, Echo Input, Echo Sub, Echo Link, and Echo Link Amp.
  • A new companion DVR, called Fire TV Recast (you know I'm getting this).
  • New smart home devices under the AmazonBasics brand (Microwave and Amazon Smart Plug... Yeah, I don't care what you think. I'm getting the microwave, too).
  • New Ring devices: Ring Stick Up Cam Wired and Ring Stick Up Cam Battery
  • And Alexa Partridge in an Alexa Pear Tree (just kidding, I think).

And if that weren't enough to get your attention, there's also new Alexa features, like:

  • Smart home and home security features (Alexa Guard, Hunches, and Ring Access Control)
  • Location-based reminders
  • Email and Skype integration
  • Video service integrations

OK you get the point; there's no way I'm going to list all that went on last week. You can find that on other articles here on ZDNet. But, needless to say, it was a relentless attack on our attention. It was an exciting attack on our attention. It made the Apple event seem boring -- and that one was live-streamed. But it didn't come close to being as interesting as Amazon's. Because we knew what was coming from Apple: More phones and watches. But Amazon surprised us with an onslaught of news that captivated the tech world, and, more importantly, the tech consumer -- long after it announced the 1000th new thing of that day. And it was designed to keep our attention long enough to want these things and to use these devices in a variety of ways to gain even more attention from us, and to convert that attention into interactions, trust, and transactions.

Who Needs Phones When You Have Microwaves and Wall Clocks

One of the things I was reading and hearing about was that some were surprised at the silence from Amazon on two things: Smartphones and voice shopping. I'll discuss the voice shopping thing in a bit, but for now, I'll stick with the smartphone thing, because we do all have them, which is probably the main reason why we may never see Amazon try and go that route again.

Also: 5 new Alexa security tricks to watch over your smart home CNET

It's not even about how things ended the first time around, although the flameout was unprecedented. I think it's more because the leadership positions with phones are entrenched. Even the smartwatch may be too tough to gain major traction in at this point. And, Amazon, in my opinion, is smart to focus on creating new smart device categories, as well as doubling down in the categories it already leads. Doing this, and creating compelling content that can enhance the interactions between devices and their owners, allows Amazon to create more expansive and extensive attention ecosystems around its customers to take full advantage of time they spend with those devices. Tying those devices to its multitude of subscription services (Prime, Music Unlimited, Video, Meals, Audible, etc) allows Amazon to take up more of the available attention customers have, which in turn makes it harder for competitors to get enough attention to build those deep connections needed to move beyond transactional relationships.


It also appears that the more devices people have, the less concentrated their interactions with smartphones are, according to an NPR/Edison Research study of smart speaker owners from early this year. Thirty-four percent of them say they are replacing time they spent using their smartphones with their smart speakers. That's why, to me, it may be smarter to invest in something like the FireTV Recast, because it lets you watch and record over-the-air TV at home or on-the-go with no monthly fees; it's an attention keeper that can convert content watching time from smartphones, or enhance your use of smartphones through an Amazon app on the phone.

Also: Here's what was missing from Amazon's crazy event this week CNET

Not wasting time on playing catch -- even on something as ubiquitous as smartphones -- when you can take leadership in new categories may be a better investment at this time. And leading in multiple secondary categories may end up being as good for Amazon and Alexa as leading in one dominant category. Some of these devices may fail, but the ones that don't Amazon can be the trendsetter and they can connect to the overall attention ecosystem. And I'm still getting that microwave...

Attention for its Digital Ad Platform

More devices, more features, and more subscriptions equals more attention. And more attention is good for advertising, which if the advertising is compelling, should lead to more attention. And kind of in sneak mode, Amazon will by the end of the year be the third largest digital ad seller in the US, according to eMarketer. Now, it is way behind Google and Facebook, but it is the fastest-growing of the big digital ad sellers, and that was before last week. These new devices and features can accelerate Amazons ad platform growth even more, and potentially change the way digital ads work in a world where more and more interactions humans have go through voice-first devices. And ads, recommendations, ratings, and reviews will all have to change from their current text-driven orientations in order to work in a voice-first world, which, again, plays into Amazon's hands if ir can use these devices to grab more attention and drive mindshare and own the mindshare/thought leadership position.

With Attention Comes Great Responsibility

Speaking of mindshare, there's no doubt that Amazon has it and through its actions does not intend to give it up. They seem hungrier than ever to grab as much of it as it possibly can. But it have to be extremely careful about what it does with all this attention we're giving these devices. Because, the more we use them, and the more variety of things we ask them to do for us, provides Amazon a lot info on what we do, how we operate, and in some ways, how we think. And having that kind of information means -- implicitly and explicitly -- a lot of trust is being put in Amazon to handle this information with the utmost privacy and security. And just one major slip up can put millions of people's data at risk and destroy all the good will Amazon has built with its customers in the blink of an eye.

Also: All the new Echo devices and more TechRepublic

From another perspective, and to a lesser extent, Amazon is also responsible to partner ecosystem. I bought an Alexa-enabled Roav VIVA car adaptor that allows me to ask Alexa for things while I'm driving. And after using it for a bit, I thought this might be something Amazon either acquires or makes on their own at some point. Well, we know what happened last week. And the partners that made Alexa-enabled speakers, car adapters, clocks know what happened. And other Alexa-enabled device makers will now have to wonder when Amazon will big-foot them.

So, the stakes will only grow as Amazon pushes more devices out and rakes in even more attention from its customers.

First Comes Interaction, Then Comes Transactions

Earlier on I mentioned that some folks were interested in the fact that there wasn't much mention (or possibly no mention at all) of voice shopping during the event. I'm not surprised by that. I was surprised when there was no mention of it in the Prime Day results press release. But it stands to reason that right now the voice shopping numbers are probably low enough to make industry predictions look ridiculously high. So, even if the numbers were substantial, if they didn't come close to the expectations, poor Alexa would continue to get clowned about it.

But according to Adobe's State of Voice Assistants report that came out earlier this month, while there may not as many transactions being executed via voice, customer journeys are already being impacted by Alexa and her voice assistant contemporaries. The report found that 25 percent have placed one-time orders via voice shopping, with another 21 percent re-ordering frequently bought items via voice. Beyond that, however, smart speaker owners are doing the following activities with their speakers:

  • 47 percent conduct general product search and research
  • 43 percent create shopping lists
  • 32 percent do price comparison
  • 28 percent research store information
  • 27 percent check for deals and promotions

These numbers illustrate that more and more of the shopping experience goes through voice assistants, as people get comfortable using voice-first devices. People graduate from asking what the weather is or to have a song played, to other kinds of activities like checking the news and doing online searches. And, eventually, the move to "emerging" use cases like shopping and ordering items. So, it's logical to think that with these other device types that Amazon is rolling out, there will be an increased amount of interactions taking place, more experiences taking place, a higher comfort level reached and somewhere down the line an increased amount of transactions being handled.

Also: No, Alexa isn't spying on you TechRepublic

The bottom line is that it takes a great deal of attention today to change consumer behaviors at scale. And to keep that attention long enough to build and extend relationships with customers whose attention spans are shrinking as more things come at them. But if you are able to get that attention and turn it into enough positive interactions, you can create meaningful relationships that can last a while. And if those interactions come from clocks, TVs, cars, or even microwave ovens, that's just as good as it coming from a smartphone. Because Alexa will be glad to spend some time talking with you from whatever device you have. And you will have her undivided attention.

First look: Here's every Alexa-enabled device that Amazon revealed today

Previous and related coverage:

Amazon's slew of new Echo, Alexa devices obscures new developer tools, features

Developers will have a bevy of Amazon Alexa smart home, smart screen and personalization tools to use.

Skype calling coming to Amazon Alexa devices later this year

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Yes, Amazon, I've always wanted to talk to my 1980s microwave

Some of Amazon's newest gadgets are wonderfully infantilizing, showing humans just how useless we are.

New Echo devices and more: Everything Amazon announced

Wall clock? Microwave? Amazon expands its line of Alexa-enabled devices while refreshing its smart speaker lineup.

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