Is Auto the Next Big Digital Engagement Platform?

The promise—and complications—of in-car customer engagement

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Over the past few years, voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Google Assistant have gone from sci-fi fodder to regular parts of  our daily lives. Because of their smart speaker and smartphone integrations, these assistants can reach consumers at home and on the go, making them a growing platform for customer/brand engagement. But the possibilities don’t end there—this technology is also creating new engagement opportunities in a whole new space: auto.

While self-driving cars tend to grab most of the headlines, tech brands and car manufacturers have been quietly working to bring the sorts of connected, digital experiences that support so much of modern life to the in-car experience. And the rise of connected cars has the potential to create new ways for marketers to connect with current and potential customers. Depending how this space evolves, cars could very well represent the next great engagement platform for marketers.

What’s Possible Today?

For some time now, automakers have led the charge to better connect cars with mobile phones using  bluetooth technology. BMW famously illustrated the possibilities associated with this technology back in 2012 with its “Close Call” Super Bowl commercial. But more recently, tech companies like Apple and Amazon have made strides in building technology that is both made for and compatible with vehicles.

In 2014, Apple launched Carplay—which transforms your car’s dashboard system to more closely match the familiar look and feel of iOS. . Drivers merely need to plug in their iPhone and the transition is complete, making it possible for them to play music, take calls, or respond to messages without having to look at their smartphone. Carplay is available with 40 automakers and over 100 different models, and as automaker roll out more and more care with compatible hardware, its reach is only expected to grow.

Never far behind in the technology race, Amazon has begun work to expand its Alexa footprint to auto as well.  Earlier this year, Amazon opened up Alexa to a variety of third-party devices and partnered with automakers like Ford and Hyundai to bring Alexa to their next lineup of cars. For vehicles that don’t have support that the direct integration,  Amazon partnered with Logitech to bring Aleca support to  an aftermarket mount called ZeroTouch. ZeroTouch works with Android phones and brings the complete Alexa experience to your car, allowing for effective, hands-free engagement with your smartphone.

Each of these new integrations and platforms have the potential to allow brands to interact with their customers in-car, bringing new engagement opportunities to the auto space. But while that’s a major opportunity for marketers, auto-focused digital engagement also brings with it a significant safety risk: distraction.

The Connected Car Problem

The truth is, people are easily distracted by smartphones. That’s true whether you’re strolling down the street or driving a car, but the stakes are a lot higher behind the wheel—if you walk into a streetlight because you’re playing a game on your phone, you may be embarrassed, but you’re unlikely to suffer a serious injury. The situation’s a lot different when you’re driving 4,000 pounds of steel at 50 miles per hour.

Distracted drivers is a growing risk to everyone, not just the driver. According to the CDC, distracted drivers contributed to nearly 3,500 deaths and 400,000 injuries. A major contributor to these distracted fatalities and injuries is engagement with texts and emails while behind the wheel. In a survey conducted by AAA, nearly two-thirds of respondents have read a text or email while driving, 40 percent have used their phone while behind the wheel, and one-third have taken the time to send or respond to a message. (The problem has become so large that one of the world’s biggest tech giants felt obligated to respond—at this year’s WWDC, Apple announced the launch of a “Do Not Disturb While Driving” feature that would combat distracted driving by blocking messages to people while they’re in a moving car.)

But as dangerous as combining cars and digital devices can potentially be, that combination also represents an opportunity for marketers.

In-car customer data: A big opportunity for marketers

Americans love their cars. In fact, AAA reported that Americans spend 17,600 minutes a year in their car. Those 293 hours represent seven full working weeks. That’s a lot of time—and a big opportunity for marketers. For nearly 300 hours a year, Americans are simply sitting in their car.

The time spent in a car can provide marketers with mountains of nuanced audience data. People use their car on a regular schedule (i.e. going to work, taking the kids to soccer practice), and location and behavioral data can be gathered from their smartphone, in-car digital interface, and other devices during these trips. When it comes to push notifications or mobile ads, context and relevance make a world of difference. Connected cars and the data they’ll be able to gather have the potential to allow marketers to send highly relevant content to car owners when they’re not driving, supporting stronger customer/brand relationships.

What could this look like in action? Let’s say, every Monday you take the same route to pick up your child from school, and you’ve got an app like Foursquare on your phone—one that knows what types of restaurants you frequent and the places that are in your area.. At the time you might normally stop for a drive through dinner, the app could send you a message (potentially either a push notification or a voice notification, depending on whether your car is in motion), alerting you to a family dinner special at a restaurant a few blocks before you’re expected arrive to that location. That’s the level of precision a connected car could foreseeably deliver.

The future is fast approaching. Connected cars and voice activated controls are no longer a dream concocted by Hollywood visual effects—the technology is here, and mass adoption could be just around the corner. So, while  you’re working on integrating rising technology like voice assistants into your marketing strategy, start ideating and iterating for the new platforms they are bringing to life.

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