Irish Examiner: Human robots prepare to take on customer service

With robots able to gobble up data and spit out answers more quickly than humans, they have already been hired to take up roles in customer support.

A study by Oxford University and Deloitte found that UK jobs in customer service were one of the top 50 occupations at risk of becoming automated by robotics.

But even as bots break into the mainstream, humans are still needed to deal with customers, according to Liam Keegan, a content marketing specialist at XSellco, an Irish company that offers help desk and repricing technology to online retailers.

“At the moment, bots are good at cutting out the really basic, low-hanging fruit in customer support… Basically, bots are just a fancy version of automated responders on telephones,” Mr Keegan says.

They are good at dealing with mind-numbing, repetitive customer queries. Where they fail is in their ability to process empathy and “the human stuff”.

If the customer is angry, an automated response is not going to appease them for long.

Add any degree of complexity and automated responders won’t work, Mr Keegan explains.

“There are a lot of semantic technologies being developed to make machine learning better, to make artificial intelligence better, to understand human language. But we’re nowhere near that being applied in a business situation,” he says.

Humans are still much better at dealing with complex queries. It’s likely to stay that way for some time. Large companies are, however, investing heavily in the potential for ‘chat bots’.

Facebook rolled out a bots service in its Messenger app earlier this year. And Mr Keegan believes that smaller companies will also dabble in “bot life”.

These firms could be a testing ground because the bots could work for them in dealing with repetitive tasks such as maintaining a presence on social media.

If bots work for firms at this level, they could start using them more widely across their business.

The process is likely to be slow, however. “Once we have a template that works across the board, I think you’ll see it become more prevalent across small and medium sized businesses,” Mr Keegan says.

Tom Richards, group product manager at Intercom, the Irish tech start-up that creates live chat and marketing services, says using bots will not necessarily replace human interaction.

Bots could help humans to put their “best foot forward” and resolve issues more quickly.

“I think that interactions with customers can be a really complex workflow. Before you have any of theses interactions or while you’re trying to juggle loads of them at once in a customer support context, you have to learn a lot about the things that are happening in that customer’s life that leads them to the question they have. Bots are going to be great at being able to set that context for humans,” Mr Richards says.

“They’re going to be able to give humans a real leg-up inside the support tools they use while talking to customers, so they can focus on the conversation rather than the administrative tasks,” he adds.

Professor Barry O’Sullivan — the director of the insight centre for data analytics at University College Cork and the incoming vice-chair of the European Association for Artificial Intelligence — says that though artificial intelligence is developing at a fast pace, the process is still slow.

“One of the very early innovators in artificial intelligence and winner of the Nobel Prize, Herbert Simon, once said that ‘Machines will be capable … of doing any work a man can do.’ I believe that Simon was right, but we’re several decades away from this,” Prof O’Sullivan says.

There are already a number of systems able to carry out many semi-professional and customer-facing jobs.

But he warns to expect “a fundamental change in the nature of work over the coming years”. The social effects will need to be carefully assessed.

This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner on August 2, 2016.

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Irish Examiner: Ad blockers offer opportunity to online publishers

Imagine a web without ads: No more intrusive page takeovers, no more irrelevant pop-ups, and no more bizarre, third-party banners promising a septuagenarian’s secret to wrinkle-free skin.

For millions of media consumers around the world, this commercial-free utopia is a reality.

Ad-blocking has been a major concern for digital publishers and advertisers for a number of years, with consumers migrating to mobile, where the uptake in ad-blockers is greater.

PageFair, a Dublin-based company that provides media organisations with ad-blocking analytics and which creates anti-ad blocking technologies, published a report last year in conjunction with Adobe. It found that 200m desktop users have installed ad-blockers in their PCs and laptops.

A second report, focusing on mobile ad-blockers, was published last month. It found that 419m mobile users have installed ad-blockers in their devices.

“We’ve had 20 years of the online advertising industry, and it has gotten itself to a point where it faces a cul-de-sac that is self-destructive,” said Johnny Ryan, head of ecosystem at PageFair.

“Ad-blocking is like the remote control for TV, invented in the 1950s. It might have taken a few years to land on your couch, but it was inevitable that it would eventually do so. I think it is possible to slow the spread of ad-blocking, but I suspect that the genie is out of the bottle,” he says.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau — IAB — a non-profit group that promotes best practice for online advertisers and publishers, has strongly condemned companies that create ad-blockers.

Recently, the IAB published the results of a small survey on ad-blocking, quizzing 1,300 desktop users and 201 mobile users in the US.

It found that 26% of desktop users and 15% of mobile users avail of ad-blockers. A further 17% of the sample, who do not currently use blockers, are “at risk of starting to do so”.

Similar to PageFair’s research, young respondents were the most likely to block ads, particularly young males who play data-heavy online games.

The reasons for using blockers are varied: over-populated ad spaces are distracting for consumers, ads sometimes intrude on content, and interactive ads consume a lot of data — a reason why many readers in emerging markets use blockers.

Mr Ryan says the rise of ad-blockers is also because of digital advertisers’ over-use of personal data.

“Advertising has evolved into a position where the industry is preoccupied with the notion of monitoring your behaviour to build a profile of you.

“It’s a mistake, because advertising worked just fine before the web. It was based on the idea of context,” Mr Ryan says.

The over-reliance on data has also led to inaccurate counts of genuine readers viewing advertisements online.

However, the problems created by ad-blocking and poor online advertisements have given publishers the opportunity to reimagine online advertising.

Mr Ryan, who is author of the book, A History of the Internet and the Digital Future, sees the problem of ad-blockers “as being one of those historical milestones”.

One proposition is to simply reduce the quantity.

Ads would cost more for advertisers and give readers an uncluttered space.

Suzanne McElligott, CEO of IAB Ireland, which in September will publish a Red C study on ad-blocking in Ireland, predicts that “we will see more engaging, more creative, better-quality advertising served in a more user-friendly manner”.

She thinks publishers will have to educate online users about the purpose of ads.

Harry Browne, a journalism lecturer at DIT’s School of Media, said he likes and uses ad-blockers.

But he warns that “it breaks the 200-plus-year-old, traditional media business model more surely than the mere provision of free content online ever did.”

This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner on August 1, 2016.

Irish Examiner: Marketing gurus catch a ride on Pokémon Go craze

Marketers will have to catch ‘em quick if they want to capitalise on the Pokémon Go craze.

Savvy retailers have already taken advantage of the game’s augmented reality function, where digital graphics are viewed in the real world through a smartphone camera.

In a bid to entice gamers to congregate at their shopfronts and boost footfall, businesses can use “lures” to increase the number of Pokémon characters in an area for a set period of time.

But simply dropping lures and hoping for the best is not enough for small businesses, according to Ellen Ryan, managing director of Yellow Machine, a communications firm specialising in the 18 to 35-year-old demographic.

“Create a bit of a buzz in your store with an event. You might have discounts around the store and have some goodies to give away. There is a small spend through the app, but you can really leverage that yourself and drive it to the next level by doing these incentives.”

Other brick and mortar businesses could use the game to attract attention and showcase their services too, she suggested.

“There are an awful lot of brands looking to capitalise on it,” said David Hayes, director of social search and performance media at digital agency, In The Company of Huskies.

“A lot of people want to just piggyback on something to make themselves look relevant. It’s like any major event. People will see through that.”

He argues that because Pokémon Go is a location-based app, brands that are somehow connected to mobility, such as businesses in the leisure, tourism or retail sectors, will benefit the most.

“One of our clients is Fáilte Ireland. We would be suggesting proactive pieces around [the game] because we think it is applicable to tourism.”

The Youth Lab, part of Thinkhouse youth marketing agency, has also explored opportunities Pokémon Go offers to brands, especially those looking to reach the coveted millennial market through “nostalgia culture”.

Speaking to the Irish Examiner, Claire Hyland, director of insights at The Youth Lab, explained young people have this sense of sentimentality “because we’re in such a fast-paced, instant, everything-now world.

“Things are fleeting in so many ways that young people can actually have a nostalgia for something that happened six months ago or a year ago.”

She said that Pokémon Go’s ability to project the game into real-life scenarios makes it similar to the image messaging app Snapchat, which is largely associated with the youth market.

For advertisers, in-game promotions are certainly not a new concept but has largely consisted of pop-ups, that tend to irritate players.

It is hoped augmented reality will help solve this problem: Snapchat recently filed a patent for an ad-overlay system that turns messages into ads. For example, if a user takes a picture of their latte, a coffee brand’s logo will appear as a suggested filter.

With Pokémon Go and other augmented reality games, big brands should look to reach people using similar techniques that don’t intrude on the overall experience.

“The key thing is that [advertisements] don’t take away from the game,” said Eddy Danielsson, Gamestop’s director of merchandising, marketing and e-commerce for Northern Europe.

This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner on July 25, 2016.

Irish Examiner: Cork has potential to deliver growing space for startups

Co-working has become an attractive alternative to traditional offices, but entrepreneurs say that there is a need for development of the practice in Cork City.

Daniel Ramamoorthy— founder of The Treehouse, an organisation that offers co-working space and advice to entrepreneurs in Dublin— helped set up the Revolution Workspace in the Penrose Wharf business centre.

“Cork is actually a hotbed of incredible innovation,” Mr Ramamoorthy said, and “is leading the charge in Ireland in areas like synthetic biology, in particular.”

Mr Ramamoorthy, who advised the former government on policymaking for entrepreneurs, said that “there is a need for more co-working in Cork” to capitalise on these innovations.

“I get emails from people all the time who are in Cork and want to move to Dublin because they believe their business will grow faster there,” he said.

“I think it’s because they don’t see a good landing space in Cork. I think that if there was a more visible landing space for startups, more Cork startups would stick around because there would be a resource for them to continue growing.”

Without a major co-working hub, a number of smaller spaces have opened across the city. Fergus Murphy, manager and founder of the Plus10 space, became a co-worker by accident.

“Myself and another crew were developing a travel software site,” Mr Murphy said.

“We needed space for a couple of programmers. When we went looking, all that was there was very expensive stuff for short-term [use].”

Mr Murphy had access to a building on South Main St and decided to make it his base. After a while, one of the developers on his team suggested opening up the space to other startups.

“It just kind of grew from there, to the point where we have 17 desks occupied most of the time,” he said.

‘Cork is behind the curve. The culture is different. The startup scene isn’t as vibrant.’

One of the benefits of operating out of a co-working space, Mr Murphy said, is discipline.

“The idea of working at home is very practical initially,” he said, “but it’s very hard to work in isolation.”

The social side of co-working helps entrepreneurs avoid being “captured by your comfort” and overlooking flaws in their business, he said. The open space allows them to bounce ideas off other workers and share problems or worries.

“There’s a pool of different talents and skills there,” he said.

Mr Murphy, who spoke at last year’s Co-working Europe Conference in Milan, believes Cork lags other European cities in development of co-working spaces.

“Ireland is a bit behind the curve,” he said. “Cork is significantly behind the curve. The culture is different. The startup scene isn’t as vibrant.”

Mr Ramamoorthy agrees, but believes Cork could become one of the top 10 startup cities in Europe.

“Ireland in general ranks very high as a startup hub,” he said. “Cork as a city is not yet. But I think it’s fast on the heels of becoming that, specifically because of the collaboration between investors, accelerators, the local enterprise office and the universities. I think that network is absolutely important in building a good startup ecosystem.”

But it is not just startups that are attracted to co-working. Established companies have learned that the practice is not just about physical space, but a culture that promotes entrepreneurship and creativity.

“We have mature practices that have been much bigger in the past and had to scale down,” said Patrick Creedon of Magee Creedon Kearns architects, which set up Gate Design House on North Abbey St.

“They’ve discovered now that they don’t have to have the big overheads of taking on a whole space by themselves and yet they have a sense of scale in terms of the shared space.”

Both Gate Design House and Plus10 have been approached by large organisations, some of which already have substantial offices in Cork, looking to rent their spaces.

“I’ve had cases where big companies have been working on a project but maybe they wanted some lateral thinking,” Mr Murphy said.

“They want to come out of the office environment and into a more creative environment.”

As work becomes more flexible, Mr Creedon predicts a rise in demand for co-working. “One or two individuals can do so much more now than five or six individuals could do in the past,” he said.

Companies “don’t want their hard-earned cash going into bricks and mortar. They do want to be in an environment that is pleasant and attractive and buzzy.”

This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner.