A small silver lining in the big, black Coronavirus cloud? Robocalls fall off a cliff.

There isn’t much positive news at all for businesses and consumers coming out of the Coronavirus pandemic — which makes one appreciate any glimmer of good news all the more.

One thing we’ve noticed at my company is a drop-off of those pesky robocalls in recent days. As it turns out, we aren’t the only ones seeing this.  My brother, Nelson Nones, who lives and works in East Asia but who also has U.S. personal and business phone lines, has noticed the same phenomenon.  And he believes that there’s a direct correlation to the COVID-19 outbreak.

What’s more, he has quantitative evidence to back it up. Here’s what he writes:

Within the past fortnight I’ve noticed a dramatic falloff in the number of robocalls I’m receiving to my primary landline. 

I’ve plotted the number of robocalls I’ve received so far during each day of March 2020, alongside the cumulative number of COVID-19 cases reported worldwide. Here are the results month-to-date:

What classifies as a “robocall”? I define a robocall to be an inbound call received from a phone number I’ve blocked based on reputations reported by the https://www.nomorobo.com website. 

As the chart above shows, the falloff began on March 11, 2020, just as the cumulative number of COVID-19 cases worldwide began to accelerate. Whereas during the first ten days of March I had been receiving two robocalls per day on average, since then I’ve received an average of just one robocall every five days.  

That’s almost a 90% drop. 

Is this just a happy coincidence? 

At first glance, maybe — because COVID-19 cases didn’t start to accelerate rapidly in the U.S. for another week or so, at about the same time as schools and theaters began to close, sporting events were postponed or cancelled, and many people began working remotely.  

If anything, one would expect the volume of robocalls to jump as scammers seize the opportunity to prey upon the growing number of people in the U.S. who are available to answer calls while cocooning at home.  

Most scammers use a technique called “neighbor-spoofing” to trick people into answering by displaying a local U.S. phone number. For a personal example, nearly all the robocalls I block appear to come from my U.S. area code (or from overlapping and adjacent area codes).  

But in fact, the vast majority of those calls originate from overseas. This makes them difficult to trace, but anecdotal evidence suggests that many of the calls originate from India and the Philippines, which already have well-established and legitimate call center industries owing to the local population’s English language skills.

As examples, Medicare scams involving the writing of fraudulent prescriptions for orthopedic braces are perpetrated in the Philippines, while sophisticated IRS scams have been broken up in India.

The scammers are criminal organizations that use personal computers, free software and ultra-cheap voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) connections to dial vast numbers of calls automatically. The tiny fraction of calls that are answered are put through to their human staff, who are reportedly packed elbow-to-elbow in call centers hidden inside the upper floors of nondescript buildings, under the constant watch of security cameras and even armed guards.  

In other words, the perfect coronavirus-spreading grounds. 

[What makes it possible for me to track this is thanks to the very same VOIP technology, which automatically routes callers who dial my primary U.S. landline to Thailand free of charge.] 

As you can see in the chart below, COVID-19 cases were already trending upward in India and the Philippines when my robocalls began to drop precipitously on March 11, 2020, about a week ahead of the U.S. curve:

I don’t think that this is a coincidence.

I suspect a lot of people in those concealed call centers got sick and went home. And now that India and the Philippines are in near-total lockdown, hardly anyone can show up for work to keep the scams running. 

We’ll see if the tsunami of robocalls resumes once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. In the meantime, I’m happy to count the hiatus as a small Coronavirus blessing, alongside Italy’s passionate sopranos and tenors in lockdown and the many acts of human kindness now being reported in the U.S. media.

Virtual Meetings: Will the COVID-19 virus accelerate a trend?

One of the big repercussions of the Coronavirus scare has been to shift most companies into a world where significant numbers of their employees are working from home. Whereas working remotely might have been an occasional thing for many of these workers in the past, now it’s the daily reality.

What’s more, personal visits to customers and attendance at meetings or events have been severely curtailed.

This “new reality” may well be with us for the coming months – not merely weeks as some reporting has indicated. But more fundamentally, what does it mean for the long-term?

I think it’s very possible that we’re entering a new era of how companies work and interact with their customers that’s permanent more than it is temporary. The move towards working remotely had been advancing (slowly) over the years, but COVID-19 is the catalyst that will accelerate the trend.

Over the coming weeks, companies are going to become pretty adept at figuring out how to work successfully without the routine of in-person meetings. Moving even small meetings to virtual-only events is the short-term reality that’s going to turn into a long-term one.

When it comes to client service strategies, these new approaches will gain a secure foothold not just because they’re necessary in the current crisis, but because they’ll prove themselves to work well and to be more cost-efficient than the old ways of doing business. Along the same lines, professional conferences in every sector are being postponed or cancelled – or rolled into online-only events.  This means that “big news” about product launches, market trends and data reporting are going to be communicated in ways that don’t involve a “big meeting.”

Social media and paid media will likely play larger roles in broadcasting the major announcements that are usually reserved for the year’s biggest meeting events. Harnessing techniques like animation, infographics and recorded presentations will happen much more than in the past, in order to turn information that used to be shared “in real life” into compelling and engaging web content.

The same dynamics are in play for formerly in-person sales visits. The “forced isolation” of social distancing will necessitate presentations and product demos being done via online meetings during the coming weeks and months. Once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, in-person sales meetings at the customer’s place of business will return – but can we realistically expect that they will go back to the levels that they were before?

Likely not, as companies begin to realize that “we can do this” when it comes to conducting business effectively while communicating remotely. What may be lost in in-person meeting dynamics is more than made up for in the convenience and cost savings that “virtual” sales meetings can provide.

What do you think? Looking back, will we recognize the Coronavirus threat as the catalyst that changed the “business as usual” of how we conduct business meetings?  Or will today’s “new normal” have returned to the “old normal” of life before the pandemic?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

Amazon: Where utilitarian products deliver stellar results.

In the era of e-commerce, year after year the growth and financial success of Amazon continues to be noteworthy — seemingly impervious to economic downturns or volatility.

What’s the secret sauce?

The answer is interesting. It isn’t that Amazon dominates any particular product category. Rather, it’s the kind of product — “utilitarian” — that cuts across many categories.

From cellar to stellar: Amazon shares’ incredible run.

Utilitarian products tend to be practical, generally inexpensive or downright cheap … and typically carry little risk associated with making a regretful purchase choice. They aren’t the type of products that inspire brand affinity, and they typically don’t require very much in the way of pre-purchase research on the part of buyers.

Moreover, on Amazon these utilitarian products have an equally utilitarian path to purchase. Purchase “journeys” — such as they are — are straightforward. Often they begin and end on Amazon’s site, with few or no deviations to conduct research or compare brands.

This is where Amazon excels — in nudging shoppers down the sales funnel while giving them no reason to go away from the website. Amazon makes the purchase steps quick, effortless and satisfying — and probably easier to complete than anyplace else online. If there is a more elegant purchase procedure out there in cyberspace, I have yet to find it.

And if some shoppers might wish to do a little more product evaluation, Amazon makes that possible as well, with consumer reviews offered right on the site for quick and easy evaluation and validation.

Of course, there are certainly product categories that aren’t particularly “utilitarian” in nature, and this is where Amazon’s model is a little less effective. A category such as women’s apparel is more brand-specific and brand-driven, and the purchase journeys in that realm are typically more longer, more circuitous, and more discovery-focused.

But Amazon has effectively carved out a niche in so-called “basic” products to the degree that it has become the “go-to” destination for thousands of products that are “common” in every sense of the word — resulting in some very uncommon business and financial results for the company.

Amazon is poised to become America’s single biggest retailer, outpacing Walmart.

It’s a measure of how much the American retail landscape has changed in the past decade that Amazon is poised to overtake Walmart as the largest U.S. retailed by 2022.

That prediction comes from a recently published report from market research firm Packaged Facts.

As of today, Packaged Facts estimates that Amazon makes up ~43% of all U.S. e-commerce sales, which is dramatically higher than its ~28% share just four years ago. Continuing its growth trajectory, by 2022 Amazon is expected to make up nearly half of all U.S. e-commerce sales.

That degree of concentration will make it bigger than Walmart — even considering the latter’s huge brick-and-mortar presence which Amazon lacks.

Of course, Walmart continues to possess additional advantages that Amazon cannot match, despite the latter’s acquisition of supermarket chain Whole Foods in 2017. Not only does Walmart have a huge physical footprint in retail, it also offers a wide range of in-store services which entice foot traffic — things like an onsite pharmacy, financial services, and photo processing.

Also working in Walmart’s favor is its dominance in so-called “click-and-collect” shopping orders. According to recent surveys, ~43% of respondents identified Walmart as the pickup location for their last click-and-collect order — three times the share percentage of runner-up Target.

Still, the emergence of Amazon atop the retail industry heap says volumes about the seismic shifts brought about by online retail. The channel hasn’t been around all that long in the grand scheme of things, but its impact has been nothing short of seismic.

How have your shopping habits changed during this time? Do they reflect what has happened in the larger market? Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

Predicting the top tech jobs, 20 years out …

What with the inexorable march of technology – which sometimes seems more like a relay race – it’s interesting to speculate on which occupations will be most in demand five years or ten years from now.

That seems pretty reasonable. But what about 20 years on?

Is it even possible to predict which jobs will be most in demand by then – particularly in the tech sphere? Or is that a fool’s errand, destined to elicit howls of laughter should anyone deign to look back at 2020 predictions when 2040 rolls around?

As it happens, the prognosticators at British multinational defense, security and aerospace company BAE Systems are willing to stick their necks out on the topic. They asked their own futurists to tell the what the top jobs in tech might be in 2040.

In broad terms, the answer is that future jobs will be in professions that bridge technology.  More significantly, it will be the technology that is the primary job generator, not the profession itself.

But it you really want to bottom-line it, anyone who focuses on artificial intelligence, virtual reality or robotics should be able to future-proof his or her career.  At least, that’s the unmistakable takeaway from the jobs that have been earmarked as the “hottest” ones looking ahead 20 years.

And … here they are:

AI Translator – People in these jobs will train other humans as well as their artificial intelligence assistants or robot counterparts, tailoring AI to meet workers’ needs and tune it to acknowledge and correct human errors.  Smart-aleck machinery – it’s just what the world’s been waiting for …

Recommended educational background: IT studies, cybersecurity, mechanical engineering

Automation Advisor – As companies become more reliant on automation and robotics, people in these jobs will make sure that the automated workforce is in line with regulations.  Compliance officers for machines – why not?

Recommended educational background: Physics, mechanical engineering, robots

VR Architect – As AI models are used to predict maintenance, people in these jobs will use virtual and augmented reality to monitor components and manage maintenance activities.  That’s OK – plant maintenance has always been a responsibility with a lot of downsides …

Recommended educational background: IT studies, graphic design

Human e-Sources Manager – Differing from today’s human resources managers, people in these jobs will analyze data collected from exoskeletons, smart textiles, wearables and the like to perform predictive and preventive maintenance on human workers.  Isn’t that nice; sensors will now send alerts to your manager when you’re overworked, overstressed, overweight or otherwise unwell — brilliant!

Recommended educational background: Biology, medicine, psychology

Systems Farmer – people in these jobs will help companies grow large multifunction parts with nanoscale features, which will sense, process, harvest energy and perform self-repairs.  It’s otherwise known as “chemputing” – and it’s likely as unappealing as it sounds.

Recommended educational background: Biology, chemical engineering, chemistry

AI Ethicist – As autonomous systems are assigned more responsibility, people in these positions will make sure AI devices and robots don’t show bias, and will make decisions that best serve the business.  I wonder how well that initiative will turn out?

Recommended educational background: Math, history, philosophy

Kidding or snark aside, it is worthwhile to “navel-gaze” along these lines and think of the “what if” scenarios that could very likely paint an employment picture unlike anything we’ve ever contemplated before.

And indeed, BAE Systems fielded research that found that nearly half of people between the ages of 16 and 24 who were surveyed think that they’ll end up having a career in a job that doesn’t even exist yet.

The only problem is – practically no one surveyed had any sort of clue what that future job will be — or how to prepare for it.

What do you think about which jobs will have the most job security in 2040? Does the list above ring true, or are there others that deserve a place on it as well?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

Beyond brand loyalty: Where “daily relevance” now matters.

In recent times, the Harvard Business Review has reported on a so-called “new era” that is emerging in marketing.  In an HBR article co-authored by Joshua Bellin, Robert Wollan and John Zealley, three marketing science specialists at Accenture, the notion of marketing as a set of sequential trends that overtake and supersede one another is covered.

What are those sequential trends? The HBR article outlines five of them and dubs them “eras,” each of them evolving with increasing rapidity:

  • Mass marketing (up through the 1970s) – The era of mass production, scale and distribution.
  • Marketing segmentation (1980s) – More sophisticated research enabling marketers to target customers in niche segments.
  • Customer-level marketing (1990s and 2000s) – Advances in enterprise IT make it possible to target individuals and aim to maximize customer lifetime value.
  • Loyalty marketing (2010s) – The era of CRM, tailored incentives and advanced customer retention.
  • Relevance marketing (emerging) – Mass communication to the previously unattainable “Segment of One.”

Clearly, it’s technology that has been the catalyst for change as we migrate from one era to the next. Mass marketing was a staple for the better part of 40 years, what with radio/TV and newspaper advertising being paramount.  But subsequent eras have come along much more quickly as we’ve moved from market segmentation to customer-level marketing and loyalty marketing.

As for the emerging era of “relevance marketing,” new techniques are enabling marketers to exploit explicit data by name (such as previous purchase history and other known information) along with implicit data (additional information that can be inferred by behavior).

The question is whether this kind of “relevance” will engender long-term wins with today’s customers. The same technology that enables advertisers to target “Segments of One” is what enables those very targets to weigh the worth of those messages, discounts and offers so that they can find the best “deal” for themselves in their exact moment of need.

As far as the customer is concerned, wholesale digitization means that last week’s “preferred vendor” could be next week’s “reject” — with “loyalty” standing at the wayside holding the bag.

The danger is that for the seller, it can rapidly become a “race to the bottom” as buyers’ spontaneity erodes profit margins while the brand goodwill dissipates as quickly as it was created.

Marketing thought leaders Jim Lecinski, Gord Hotchkiss and several others have referred to this as the “zero moment of truth” – and in this case the “zero” may also be referring to the seller’s profit margin after we’ve progressed through the five eras of marketing that bring us to the “Segment of One.”

What are your thoughts about where marketing is ending up now that technology has given companies the power to micro-target — particularly if it means profit margins declining to their own “micro” levels? Please share your thoughts with other readers.

Cookie-blocking is having a big impact on ad revenues … now what?

When Google feels the need to go public about the state of the current ad revenue ecosystem, you know something’s up.

And “what’s up” is actually “what’s down.” According to a new study by Google, digital publishers are losing more than half of their potential ad revenue, on average, when readers set their web browser preferences to block cookies – those data files used to track the online activity of Internet users.

The impact of cookie-blocking is even bigger on news publishers, which are foregoing ad revenues of around 62%, according to the Google study.

The way Google conducted its investigation was to run a 4-month test among ~500 global publishers (May to August 2019). Google disabled cookies on a randomly selected part of each publisher’s traffic, which enabled it to compare results with and without the cookie-blocking functionality employed.

It’s only natural that Google would be keen to understand the revenue impact of cookie-blocking. Despite its best efforts to diversify its business, Alphabet, Google’s parent company, continues to rely heavily on ad revenues – to the tune of more than 85% of its entire business volume.

While that percent is down a little from the 90%+ figures of 5 or 10 years ago, in spite of diversifying into cloud computing and hardware such as mobile phones, the dizzyingly high percentage of Google revenues coming from ad sales hasn’t budged at all in more recent times.

And yet … even with all the cookie-blocking activity that’s now going on, it’s likely that this isn’t the biggest threat to Google’s business model. That distinction would go to governmental regulatory agencies and lawmakers – the people who are cracking down on the sharing of consumer data that underpins the rationale of media sales.

The regulatory pressures are biggest in Europe, but consumer privacy concerns are driving similar efforts in North America as well.

Figuring that a multipronged effort makes sense in order to counteract these trends, this week Google aired a proposal to give online users more control over how their data is being used in digital advertising, and seeking comments and feedback from interest parties.

On a parallel track, it has also initiated a project dubbed “Privacy Sandbox” to give publishers, advertisers, technology firms and web developers a vehicle to share proposals that will, in the words of Google, “protect consumer privacy while supporting the digital ad marketplace.”

Well, readers – what do you think? Do these initiatives have the potential to change the ecosystem to something more positive and actually achieve their objectives?  Or is this just another “fool’s errand” where attractive-sounding platitudes sufficiently (or insufficiently) mask a dimmer reality?