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Microsoft’s Professional Visionary Purna Virji on AI, Voice, and the Future of Tech

Purna Virji is Microsoft’s Senior Manager of Global Engagement. As part of the global innovation team, she’s responsible for engaging and delighting audiences, evangelizing exciting new products, and advising clients on how to surf emerging trends in the tech industry — something of a professional visionary.

In addition to Bing, Virji is deeply involved in Microsoft’s voice assistant Cortana, as well as their AI efforts, which makes her perfectly positioned to weigh in on two of the most exciting trends in marketing.

While we patiently await her insightful session at this year’s C3, we wanted to sit down and chat about AI and voice search. Considering that a third of marketing executives say AI is the trend they’re least prepared for, it can’t hurt to have an expert weigh in.

Purna Virji knows a thing or two about AI

“One of my favorite stats of the moment is that by 2020, we will be having more conversations with our robots than with our spouse,” Virji says. That’s a seismic shift in the way most people think about computing. It’s also a major opportunity — and a major responsibility — for marketers.

According to Gartner, by 2020, we will be having more conversations with our robots than with our spouse. – Purna Virji According to Gartner, by 2020, we will be having more conversations with our robots than with our spouse. – Purna Virji

With that level of engagement, the chance to “engage and delight your customer,” as Virji would say, is exponentially higher than it is today. But it also means the level of expectation for ease of use and utility of services will be higher as well.

Purna Virji is an expert on voice search

“We’re moving into this world of invisible UI,” she says. “If I want to make a reservation at a restaurant, I don’t have to go on my computer to OpenTable or the restaurant’s website. I can simply ask my digital assistant via my smart speaker or message their chat bot and it will happen. So it’s making life much simpler and smarter.”

We’re moving into this world of invisible UI. If I want to make a reservation at a restaurant, I don’t have to use my computer or go to a website. I can just ask my digital assistant. – Purna Virji We're moving into this world of invisible UI. – Purna Virji

Not only will people be engaging more with digital assistants more often — thanks to the accessibility of AI-enabled voice search, they’ll be using the internet at a younger age, as well. “When my son was 4 or 5, he wasn’t able to type on a computer, but he could talk,” Virji says. “You don’t have to be able to type, and I think that’s one of the big reasons behind the adoption of voice search and AI.”

Those assistants, like Microsoft’s Cortana, will also be learning about our preferences to make life easier — which means the importance of earning customer trust and engagement by meeting needs will skyrocket.

“The machines are going to curate, so we’re going to see fewer impressions. But that’s a good thing, because our content will only show up at the right time when people are ready to act on our offering,” says Virji. “If you can work on customer experience, you have a strong shot at creating that bond.”

The machines are going to curate, so we’re going to see fewer impressions. But that’s a good thing, because our content will only show up at the right time when people are ready to act on our offering.
– Purna Virji The machines are going to curate, so we’re going to see fewer impressions. But that’s a good thing, because our content will only show up at the right time when people are ready to act on our offering. – Purna Virji

One way to do that is using bots and assistants to make life easier for your customer. Optimizing for voice search and conversational computing is crucial in the modern marketing era. Virji says voice searches, especially on mobile, are often local, so keeping elements like your address, phone number, and especially reviews up to date can be key.

Voice searches are also more question-based, either as a straight question (“How far is the moon from earth?”) or commands (“Hey Cortana, can you book me a table at my favorite restaurant for dinner?”). For these types of questions, “structured markup is very important, because it lets the search engines read your data in the right way,” says Virji.

Purna Virji sees a bright future for virtual assistants

Another way she recommends people use these new technologies to delight their customers is to create their own bot. “If you have neither time nor coding abilities, all is not lost. Go to a tool like qnamaker.ai and plug in the URL of your FAQ page, or upload an excel file with questions and answers, and the bot will use natural language understanding to spit out a ready chat bot. It takes less than ten minutes.”

With AI already used by a majority of marketers in certain verticals like retail, there’s never been a better time to jump into the future-tech marketing revolution. “I’m firmly on the side that AI is going to be brilliant for us,” Virji says. “People should start dipping their toes in the water. The future isn’t far off — it’s already here.”

Looking for some forward-facing marketing strategies? Don’t miss Purna Virji at C3 2018, this March 7-8th in New York City.