Innovation and survival Covid-19
May 20, 2020
7 MIN READ

During COVID-19 Innovation and Survival Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

By Shanna Walia

Innovation is often borne out of crisis. As COVID-19 threatens the global populace, tests the capacity of global, national and local medical systems, and severely endangers the lives of front-line healthcare workers, we’re beginning to see innovative solutions to pandemic-era problems pop-up across verticals, all over the world. While the economic strain of the pandemic is undeniable, it is key for public and private sector organizations to structure their budgets in a manner that prioritizes investing in emerging trends, especially those that were already well underway prior to the pandemic.

Scott Galloway, a Clinical Marketing Professor at New York University, recently said of COVID-19, “Things won’t change as much as they will accelerate. While other crises reshaped the future, COVID-19 is just making the future happen faster.” That thinking is ringing true in many instances thus far, from the further digitization of retail to the scaling of a remote global workforce. And all signs point to COVID-19 being an accelerant of the adoption rate of voice technology, on both the enterprise side and for consumers. 

“Things won’t change as much as they will accelerate. While other crises reshaped the future, COVID-19 is just making the future happen faster.”

Scott Galloway, clinical marketing professor at New York University

A revolution in consumer behavior

With a steady growing rate of voice-enabled devices being sold per capita, voice technology was already poised to proliferate the market prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is no longer a matter of “if” but “when” we will begin to see these new normals sprout up everywhere. Voice and other AI technologies are poised to be part of the solutions that help shape that new normal.

Understanding that the underlying fear and anxiety around disease transmission will remain in society long after the shelter-at-home measures have been lifted will be key. Up until now, some brands have been asking “Why voice?” – an entirely justified question when considering the resources needed to invest in any new form of technology.

Understanding that the underlying fear and anxiety around disease transmission will remain in society long after the shelter-at-home measures have been lifted will be key.

But, when this pandemic is over voice technology is likely to experience what is widely recognized as the “Amazon-effect.” When Amazon Prime came to the market in 2005 and offered 2-day shipping, as opposed to the then standard “5 to 7 business days” it revolutionized consumer behavior. So much so, that when they shopped at other e-tailer websites long shipping waits became a significant contributor to cart abandonment rates. Now 48% of e-commerce deliveries in the US are made within 2-3 days, because consumers began asking “Why can’t I get this sooner?”

Innovate now to meet future consumer needs

Companies that are currently investing in voice technology, and those that already have been, will likely see an increase in ROI during and post-pandemic. The desire for contact-less technology will be fueled by the instinct of self-preservation and staying healthy.

Once people experience the first elevator they can speak to, the first vending machine they can order from, the first iPad they can sign in with, without having to touch any buttons or screens, it will be the consumers pushing forward the new normal. The question won’t be coming from brands and it won’t be “Why Voice?”. The questions will be coming from the consumers and they’ll be asking “Why can’t I just use my voice for this?”

Here in the US, we have seen voice devices deployed in hotel and hospital rooms alike, prior to COVID-19. In the past, these were enterprise-sized solutions to alleviate pressure for overworked nurses and hotel staff members. At their core, these experiences were built to maximize efficiency by offloading non-essential guest/patient requests to free up time for medical care providers and guest services staff to attend to higher priority requests and needs.

The smart speaker pilots in hotel and hospital rooms addressed smaller requests and limited overburdening employees. However, in the face of COVID-19 it’s impossible to ignore that those voice assistants also limited non-essential physical contact (while simultaneously improving efficiencies). In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic “nonessential” takes on a whole new meaning, in a multitude of ways.

Innovation remains a necessary budget item

When assessing budgets, innovation can often be considered a “luxury” and face cuts or be slashed entirely to keep operations afloat. But in this case, the seemingly “non-essential” budget is where the solutions to minimize “non-essential” contact will come from.

Henry Ford once said, “A man who stops advertising to save money is like a man who stops a clock to save time.”

The same is true of innovation. Even the best laid out advertising campaign will fall flat on consumers if they don’t feel safe using your product or service. If your brand isn’t backed by a tangible differentiator for these times, it risks losing customers not only to competitors but to the overarching societal fears of safety concerns. 

Doubling down on innovation budgets is important but should be done adeptly and with a strategy in place. Each sector should consider what areas were already poised to grow within their target consumer audiences and measure them against what technological advancements have gained traction and consumer adoption throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. This way, companies can ensure their innovation responses are durable and customized to their brand while keeping budgets small, streamlined and tailored to their audience. 

For example, there was already a joint pilot program to run Aiva, a healthcare specific voice assistant, on both Google Assistant and Alexa devices at hospital rooms acros  New York, Los Angeles, and Boston. In response to the pandemic, Amazon is fueling the steepening of the adoption curve with a donation of $5M worth of devices to be allocated to hospitals, schools, and community-oriented programs across New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Houston, and Italy.

Furthermore, as of this year, the bedroom is now the most popular location for smart speakers within the home, and could be a tool that not only provides utility but comfort and routine during  hospital stays. 

Smart speakers and voice assistants are the new necessity

Considering that voice-assistant usage adoption was already well-underway in this vertical and is increasingly becoming a main-stay fixture bedroom setting, it makes strategic sense for hospitals to continue investing in this particular technology. Investing in a smart-speaker led strategy could be the right fit for hospitals and hotels, based on the statistics and behavioral data, especially in the immediate future. 

In academic circles a widely known phenomenon called “Summer Learning Loss” takes place every fall. This happens when students do not have the resources to retain and build upon knowledge they’ve gained during the year throughout the summer holidays. So, when the new academic year rolls around they spend the first few months re-learning what they’d already studied in the past year, this puts them at a disadvantage to their peers who not only are able to pick up where they left off, but have built upon their foundation over the summer and are ahead of the class.

A similar phenomenon happens in the re-hiring and retraining process for large organizations. While COVID-19 is nothing like a summer holiday and the lack of resources in question for students is far out of their control, companies do have the choice of resource prioritization. The choice lies between cutting innovation teams or fueling them with the proper supplies to get ahead of the rest of the pack.

RAIN has seen many of our clients elect to continue investing in innovation even in the face of major challenges to their core business. Making cost-cutting decisions or strategically pivoting a business is never easy, but when doing so, it’s vital for companies to take the long view alongside survival measures. The long-term ROI of funding strategic and data-backed emerging technologies has the potential to far outweigh any losses incurred in the short-term.

Shanna Walia

Shanna Walia, Strategy Analyst at RAIN, is passionate about creatively connecting end-users to emerging technologies. Classic films, learning languages, traveling, and yoga are a few of her favorite things. 

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