I downloaded a white paper on Voice over Internet Protocol. As I was reading it, my phone rang. "Hello, David," a voice said. "I see you've downloaded our research. If you're considering buying a VoIP system, perhaps I can . . .?
For an instant, I was shocked. Who was this guy? How did he know my name? How could he see what I was doing right this very instant in what I quaintly thought was the privacy of my cubicle? I was shaken.
I had fallen into the Uncanny Valley.
It's a truth universally acknowledged that potential buyers are best approached when they're most ready to buy. Marketing automation tools, using the transparency into customer actions, interests, and even physical presence afforded by cookies, geolocation applications, and the personal information we willingly hand over to Facebook, Google, Apple, and others, have made it possible to collapse the time between when someone expresses interest in something (by searching, visiting a website, liking, or downloading a white paper) and when a salesperson makes contact.
That's what happened when the VoIP guy called me. To access the white paper, I'd entered my information. When I did, maybe a light lit up on his screen. A window may have opened with my name and phone number. Perhaps his system dialed me automatically. But even though I understood the mechanics behind the call, it still felt wrong. The swiftness of the response, a stranger, calling me by name, suddenly intruding on my life, it creeped me out. That's the Uncanny Valley phenomenon.
Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori noted decades ago that although humans get more comfortable with robots as the robots get more human-like, at a certain point, just before the robot becomes almost, but not quite indistinguishable from a real person, real people are suddenly repelled. They get creeped out. (The line showing that drop in comfort is the valley in the Uncanny Valley.) Many believe that creepiness is what led to the flop of the 2004 CGI move Polar Express, based on a beloved children's book and starring the beloved Tom Hanks . . . or something that seemed like Tom Hanks but wasn't. Something with dead, joyless eyes and waxy, cemetery skin. It was mysteriously horrible. It was a truckload of awful. It was the Uncanny Valley, realized.
Just as the movie's makers didn't intend to disgust their audience, the VoIP salesperson didn?t mean to freak me out. Indeed, it's a truism in sales that the longer it takes to contact a lead the less likely it is that the lead will turn into a sale. That's why businesses are buying automation tools: to follow up on leads as quickly as possible. According to recent research, "firms that tried to contact potential customers within an hour of receiving a query were nearly seven times as likely to qualify the lead . . . as those that tried to contact the customer even an hour later."
But maximizing the efficiency of sales through technology, over-leveraging the information about customers that has become so easy to collect, aggregate, and analyze, risks toppling into the Uncanny Valley of Creepy Marketing and, what's more important, risks losing the sale.
I'm not so naive to imagine that businesses will ever stop trying to optimize marketing. But perhaps CFOs should ask how much is too much, how fast is too fast? Even as businesses climb the mountain of improved lead conversion, the Uncanny Valley lurks just beyond the next peak. And it's a real turn-off.