Alexa Serves Up User Data

Imagine asking, “Hey Alexa, how do I remove a mustard stain?” This tells Amazon that a consumer is both washing clothing immediately, and might be interested in stain removal products (and might even like mustard). Alexa search data offers Amazon more insight into consumer behavior than ever.

Photo of Amazon Echo smart speaker.
Amazon Echo smart speaker. Photo by Frmorrison.

An Arms Race

I have discussed before the arms race that AI equipped assistants are as engaged in to get them access to user behavioral data as they are to serve their owners, and this is no surprise. A recent article commented on how Amazon will leverage data collected through interactions with its assistant Alexa.

Sweeping Up Data

Let’s take a step back to Amazon’s earlier foray into extending a feeler into users’ lives: the Dash button. Sure, it made restocking easy, with the ability to place the button at the point of use, perhaps the washing machine for the Tide button. The characteristics of the products associated with the Dash buttons important. They are usually bundles of individually used items (e.g.: laundry detergent pods), at a low unit cost, used over several weeks. At first it seemed that they were purely a matter of convenience, but when they rolled out the Trojan Dash button something leapt out. The products tied to the buttons have another similarity in that they often have a pattern to their use; same time of day, same time of the month, etc. With a point of use button, which the consumer would reasonably push immediately upon using the last, or one of the last, products in the container, Amazon has an opportunity to peer into these use cycles with incredible specificity. The Dash button is all about the data. (The Dash button is for sale, currently $4.99, but conveys an equal credit toward purchases of the tied products, making it effectively free; on the internet, when the product is free, you are the product.)

Photo of Amazon Dash button.
Amazon Dash button for Tide laundry detergent. Dash buttons offer one press product purchases. Photo by Alexander Klink.

Back to the condoms. Upon seeing these buttons on offer, I realized that their use patterns, either alone or in concert with other product purchase trends, could tell the company how often, when, and where consumers engage in sexual activity. Amazon may use this data to infer changes in relationship status and/or a decision to have kids. Foolproof? No, but it furnishes more insight. Similarly, maybe Amazon uses laundry detergent data to estimate household size. We can’t know, but it stands to reason that Amazon might.

The Amazon Advantage

Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant are competing toe to toe, with Assistant winning search interactions and Alexa winning purchase transactions. Both companies are search engines that put products before consumers, with different methods of doing so. Google must understand its consumers so that it can deliver their eyeballs efficiently to advertiser content. Amazon, likewise, must know its customers’ likes so as to serve them the most desirable product listings. Because Amazon sells directly to consumers, it is well situated to monetize Alexa interactions, both through the purchase transactions as well as indirectly through insights gleaned from search queries. Thinking back to the hypothetical mustard stain query, Amazon might respond to a request to order stain remover by ranking one ideally suited for mustard at the top of the list. Google could learn the same facts from our hypothetical search through Assistant, but must take additional steps to generate revenue for the company.

We can be sure than Amazon will continue to exploit the troves of data it gathers through Alexa interactions in ways we haven’t imagined.

© Peter Roehrich, 2017


Author: Peter Roehrich

I'm a railroader, business analyst, and trained scientist.

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