The true art of sales revolves around building relationships. If you don’t have a good relationship, it is much, much harder to gain the attention of the prospect or close the sale — and you won’t get repeat business.

No doubt you’ve gotten the phone call from “Heather from Account Services,” who assures you that nothing is wrong with your (unnamed) credit card, but that you should speak to a salesperson anyway. This is a spam call. There is no underlying relationship (and sometimes no working return phone number, either). Millions of these calls go out daily. It’s indiscriminate.

Five years ago — oddly, on 1 April 2013 — Nuance introduced a technology that provides an interactive voice to online advertising. The idea is that you will engage in conversation with the ad much as with Siri or Alexa, presumably about the product on offer. With all respect to the company and its technology, I have not interacted with many speaking online ads recently, so perhaps the idea has been classed with those video ads that begin their audio blurb when you open the web site.

However, I wouldn’t be that quick to dismiss the idea behind the technology. I just don’t think all the pieces are in place, yet, to allow effective interactive ads. The missing piece? AI on your end as well as on the end of the advertiser.

The Introduction

Here are the critical elements of a “phone AI” to make interactive ads work.

Your phone AI keeps track of you only for you — not for an advertiser or service provider. This may presuppose private cloud software that collects your own statistics for your own use. Your phone has been collecting your likes and dislikes for months. It already has thousands of interactions with you to draw from. Only, right now, it is the service provider and a few others who get to see them. If you had your own collection, you could make it work for you.

You must have faith in your phone (or, more accurately, faith in the AI on your phone) to adequately screen any proposed conversations. Because people don’t currently own their phones for long (about two years), it will be critical for this knowledge to build up elsewhere than on the phone, so that it can carry over from device to device.

Here’s the kicker: Your phone must make the introduction. That is, the advertiser proposes; the phone disposes. I mean this seriously: your phone introduces you to the AI entity making the call based on your known preferences, and the phone asks your permission. There is a fine line here between the phone acting as your agent or as the agent of the importuning advertiser… but real estate agents (virtually all of whom technically work for the seller) have been living this role for decades.

It must be a transaction that is worth your while. It’s easy to burn up a life at the behest of others. Ads on TV and billboards may go by unremarked. They may leave behind subtle impressions, but they do not command attention. We cannot be talking here about trivialities like Heather from Account Services or the sudden bank transfer needs of a Nigerian prince. If I’m going to spend any of my (human) time interacting with your AI, you must offer me something of substance and value to pay for my time. It does not have to be your product, but it must be of value to me. This is where Heather fails. I don’t want to speak with her, let alone need to speak with her. We have no relationship. Her call is of value only to you. I want to take calls only that are of value to me — they solve a problem that I know I have, they enhance my well-being, my wealth, or save me time — and I must be able to rely on my phone AI to determine that the call would of value to me.

Think of a highly skilled office assistant, attuned to the interests of the boss, and allowing only a very select set of callers through. That’s the level of sophistication such an AI must possess. But consider the potent effectiveness of such ads…!

With both parts in place — the advertising AI and the phone AI — true relationship-building through ads can begin. And maybe then we will all willingly begin to speak with an ad.