Snap introduces group video calls for up to 16 people

Snapchat has today introduced a new group video chat feature, letting users chat with up to 16 of their closest friends. If users need more people in the chat (which, for those of us who have large conference calls, sounds awful!), Snap  is also offering group voice calls with up to 32 participants.

The feature is relatively simple. Just tap the video icon in a group chat to get started, or start up a call with a few people and invite new friends to join.

As one might expect, Snapchat’s crown jewel filters will also be available to use within a group video chat.

Folks that aren’t camera ready can easily toggle between voice and video to just voice.

Snap first introduced group chat and video chat in 2016, looking to give people new ways to communicate on the image-first platform. Snap says that the community is making millions of calls a day since launch.

That said, it’s worth wondering about the timing of this new feature, which comes almost two years after the company announced video chat. It’s possible that Snap wants to take advantage of the #deletefacebook movement offering people as much functionality as possible to connect on their platform instead of the incumbent’s.

It’s also worth noting that Snap’s 16-person group video chat is strikingly similar to Houseparty, the video chat app launched by the founders of live streaming app Meerkat.

Alongside the introduction of group video calls, Snap is also bringing @mentions to the platform. Users can now tag each other in their snaps and Stories by simply typing @ before their user name. Users who have been tagged will be notified when they appear in their friends’ Stories.

What you need to know about Facebook’s data debacle

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Facebook (FB) is under intense pressure to answer these questions — and more — after it admitted that a company linked to President Donald Trump’s campaign had accessed and improperly stored a huge trove of its user data.

The controversy erupted as UK media and The New York Times reported that data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica tried to influence how Americans voted using information gleaned from millions of Facebook profiles.

Read the full article here. 

Google opens its Slack competitor, Hangouts Chat, to everyone

After months of testing, Google is opening its business messaging platform, Hangouts Chat, to everyone. The Slack-like service for team communication is now open to all of the company’s business customers who use its G Suite services.

Hangouts Chat, first unveiled nearly a year ago, is a lot like Slack in that teams can communicate in group chat and one-to-one messages. It also supports integrations with third-party apps and bots.

Google is a relatively late entrant to the business-messaging software game. At this point, Slack and Microsoft, with its Teams app, both have significant head-starts. But there are a few areas where Google is hoping to differentiate itself from the competition.

 

By being directly integrated into all the Google services businesses are already using, like Drive and and Google Calendar, Hangouts Chat can streamline tasks like file sharing and scheduling meetings. For example, Google’s meeting-scheduling bot will be able to automatically schedule team meetings based on each person’s calendar.

Google has a total of 25 bots available on Hangouts Chat today — far fewer than the thousands that Slack has — but that number is likely to rise now that the service has reached general availability.

Hangouts Chat is available now to all G Suite users on desktop and iOS and Android in 28 languages.

Big Consumer Brands Don’t Have an Answer for Alexa

Big brands would rather shoppers not ask Alexa.

The growing popularity of voice-search assistants poses a threat to the biggest makers of household staples. Already grappling with upstart rivals, changing consumer tastes and the rise of e-commerce, personal-care and packaged-foods makers have yet to figure out how to leverage the technology.

Unlike in stores or online, where an array of brands get plenty of exposure, voice-search assistants like Amazon.com Inc.’s AMZN 1.46%Alexa often steer shoppers to a single product, usually selected by an algorithm with no input from the sellers. That isn’t a big problem now, as voice searches account for a sliver of purchases. But it could be.

In the next five years, half of searches on the web will be done via voice, estimates Sebastien Szczepaniak, a former Amazon executive who now heads e-commerce for Nestlé SA, NSRGY 0.93%the world’s biggest packaged-foods company. Consulting firm Capgeminisays voice-assistant users will spend 18% of their total expenses via voice assistants in the next three years, up from 3% currently.

“Of all the disruptions that are taking place in all the things technology is bringing into our space, voice is among the most disruptive,” said Graeme Pitkethly, chief financial officer of Unilever PLC. “In digital investment this is our biggest focus.”

For decades, the makers of packaged-food, personal and home-care brands have bought shelf space at retailers like Walmart Inc. and Costco Wholesale Corp. that guarantee them nationwide exposure. They have poured billions into branding to make their products instantly recognizable.

Selling on websites offers some of those same advantages: Brands can pay for placement on a webpage and display their packaging and logos.

Voice shopping, which currently offers customers just one or two product options, could chip away at that tried-and-tested model.

“When it comes to voice search you go first position or you go home because beyond the first or second place there is no future,” Mr. Szczepaniak said.

In a test conducted in October, Bain & Co. found that for customers making a first-time purchase without specifying a brand, over half of the time Alexa’s first recommendation was a product from the “Amazon’s Choice” algorithm, which implies a well-rated, well-priced item that ships with Prime. Bain also found that in categories in which Amazon has a private brand, 17% of the time Alexa recommends the private-label product first even though such products make up just 2% of volume sold.

Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant has made its Echo smart speaker a hit with consumers.
Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant has made its Echo smart speaker a hit with consumers.PHOTO: LUKE MACGREGOR/BLOOMBERG NEWS

“Amazon’s Choice is just our recommendation, and customers can always ask for specific brands or products if they choose,” said an Amazon spokeswoman.

Amazon doesn’t disclose the formula it uses to make product selections. A person familiar with the Alexa algorithm said it won’t always offer an Amazon product even if one is available, noting the selection depends in part on whether the item being requested is one that the shopper has purchased on Amazon before. The algorithm uses a machine-learning model to identify what matters most to customers for each product request so that recommendations improve over time, this person said.

For now, brands can’t pay Amazon to offer their products to customers in response to a generic request for a product, like detergent or paper towels.

Procter & Gamble Co. , maker of Tide detergent and Pampers diapers, would be interested in paid search were it an option, said Vedran Miletic, P&G brand director of North America fabric-care delivery.

Without that paid-search option, P&G has been tinkering with ways to get noticed by shoppers using voice assistants, such as a Tide-branded Alexa app that doles out advice on how to clean over 200 strains but doesn’t suggest Tide products.

“We do not want to overwhelmingly push our brands on consumers. We want to be agnostic and hope they choose us,” said Randy Limes, a digital and e-commerce executive at P&G.

Unilever, owner of Hellmann’s mayonnaise and Domestos toilet cleaner, has developed Alexa apps that give free recipes and cleaning tips that may or may not incorporate Unilever brands. Unilever sees the apps as a way to market its products by offering customers useful information when they need it most.

“It’s a new model of marketing since we’re moving to something that’s less about interrupting you like TV advertising does,” said Mr. Pitkethly.

Alexa dominates 70% of the U.S. smart-speaker market, according to Bain. There are other options to voice shop including Google Assistant, which for instance lets people buy things on Walmart.com using the Google Home speaker. It offers shoppers brands based on previous purchases made in store and on Walmart’s website.

Some executives predict voice search could help the biggest brands by encouraging shoppers to gravitate to products that are top of mind, or entrenching existing preferences. Once customers purchase a specific brand, Alexa usually picks the same brand going forward.

“The guy who will win is the guy who will have iconic brands and products,” said L’Oréal SA’s Chief Digital Officer Lubomira Rochet, who is working to figure out how to get L’Oréal’s products chosen by Amazon’s algorithm. “I believe voice is as big as the internet—and Google—when it came.”

Why Scannable Shelf Tags Could Improve the Retail Experience After Beacons Failed

shelf-tags-450-2018.jpgOnce upon a time, beacons—Bluetooth-powered devices that can push messages to smartphones—offered brands an opportunity to connect with consumers in physical retail locations and gather data about them. For brands, beacons promised an expanded and expansive conversation at the shelf. Companies spend a lot of money trying to get consumers to the store and in front of their products, only to lose out on a sale because the item next to theirs is discounted.

“Beacons have offered this kind of communication point at the final moment of truth for brands, and they’ve always been excited about it,” said Steve White, vice president of commerce strategy at digital agency SapientRazorfish.

But retailers don’t want every brand they carry shouting at customers as they walk down aisles. They want to control the store environment, White said, and avoid a “screaming match inside the store.” Retailers also disliked beacons from an operational perspective, as products aren’t always locked into the same location in the store.

Another problem, consumers had to have an app on their phone open in order to receive brand messages. And in the real world, consumers are picky about what apps they download, and they have higher expectations about how—and when—they want brands to engage with them, said Manolo Almagro, managing partner at tech consultancy Q Division.

“Agencies saw beacons as a media play—they thought it would be great to push an offer out to a consumer,” Almagro said. “Sure, we could limit the number of times we’d blast them with a message while they were shopping, but—ultimately, companies like [location marketing company] InMarket turned the whole thing into a media platform as it had the fastest ROI and it was sold as scale plus impressions/reach. But they had to pivot because of the lackluster responses of their multi-retailer beacon networks.”

Beacons still have a time and a place in single-brand environments, like museums. Both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim installed beacons in 2015, for example, and the Guggenheim at least is still using the technology to power the Near Me feature in its app.

Scannable shelf tags could be the answer to beacons’ problems, providing brands with the in-store interactions with customers that they desire, but it will be up to the consumer to choose when they hear from brands. According to White, the widespread availability of near-field communication (NFC) chips in mobile phones, NFC-enabled shelf tags—scannable, high-tech versions of traditional shelf tags can provide shoppers access to additional information.

“Imagine the potential. If I tap it and I’m a loyalty member, it can show me a price specific to me for that item and when [another] person walks by, it’s a different price,” White said.

Instead of shouting all at once, brands using NFC-enabled shelf tags tell consumers, “We’re here when you need us,” and retailers don’t have to worry about a flood of unsolicited messages. And, anecdotally at least, White said he saw an uptick in NFC shelf tags and interactions at a recent National Retail Federation event. NFC chips can trigger messages on phones without a user having to turn on Bluetooth, so there’s a lower barrier to entry. But, as it stands, White said this is conjecture and he was unaware of any real-world examples of NFC-enabled shelf tags in action.

Kroger, however, recently started rolling out a digital shelf technology called Edge, or Enhanced Display for Grocery Environment. A rep said Kroger has Edge prototypes that feature NFC, but the brand has also built an NFC-like technology that’s been incorporated into other prototypes.

She said Edge allows Kroger to more quickly and accurately set prices, to activate instant promotions and price changes and to display dynamic advertising, as well as videos and information about nutrition and allergies. It also serves as an auditing tool for store associates to help manage inventory levels and can be programmed to offer sale prices to customers as they pass by if they’ve indicated they’re interested in a given product and have downloaded the associated app.

Edge is being tested in approximately 20 stores and will roll out to about 150 this year, she said.

“My prediction is that NFC will take over for [beacons] in those usages—NFC wasn’t available in iOS when beacons came out. Now, NFC is ubiquitous and cheaper than beacons and serves the same purpose,” White said. “The days of beacons in their current form as far as I see it are probably waning.”