Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Hello, Professor Turing (a virtual presence test)

In 1950, Alan Turing, a British and computer scientist, proposed a test for artificial intelligence which has come to be known as the Turing test. This test, which is well-known in the field of artificial intelligence, has a human judge engage in conversations with a machine and another human. If the judge is unable to distinguish, only on the basis of responses to his or her questions, which respondent is human and which is not, the machine may be argued to "have intelligence".

Fast-forward half a century, and it's now also possible to apply the basic idea of the Turing test to the nascent field of virtual presence management - that is, managing a company's presence across the online and offline worlds. In this scenario, a customer would engage in a transaction with a company through two channels. If he or she is unable to differentiate between the channels in terms of the transaction outcome, then the company may be argued to "have seamless virtual presence".

Understanding Virtual Presence

A few examples should make this clearer:
  • Purchasing a movie ticket on a cinema's website versus purchasing it at the box office. 
  • Making a hotel reservation on a hotel's website versus making it over the telephone with the hotel's reservations desk. 
  • Booking a city tour online with a tour company versus turning up at the appointed hour at the meeting point. 
  • Transferring money electronically through a bank's website versus filling in a form at the local branch. 
Now, think about the scenarios above and apply them to your own experiences. When you purchase a movie ticket, reserve a hotel room or send money to someone, are there noticeable differences or advantages between the online and the offline channel? If there are, your cinema/hotel/bank has yet to master virtual presence management.

Applying The Turing Test

If you apply our version of the Turing test to well-known online brands, you'll notice that with a few notable exceptions, most of them seem to fail the test. For example, at the time of writing:
  • IKEA is a well-known retailer of goods for the home. Although the IKEA website is professionally designed and offers a wealth of product information, it does not offer online shopping for all of its products. For many products, it is necessary for customers to visit an IKEA store and make physical purchases. 
  • Cinemark is a chain of movie theatres in the USA. The Cinemark website allows online bookings and gives customers an online order confirmation number. Customers are required to collect their tickets from the box office using this online order confirmation number before entering the theatre. 
  • Easyjet is a well-known low-cost airline in the UK and Europe. The Easyjet website allows users to book tickets and check in for their flights online. However, entry to the airplane is still dependent on a physical boarding pass, which must be printed at home or collected from a check-in desk. 
While these companies seem to "fail" the Turing test, in its strictest sense, would it be fair to say that they have "no virtual presence"? Obviously not. IKEA, Cinemark and Easyjet are all well-known brands and their websites are widely used by millions of users every day to obtain product information and execute business transactions.

A Better Test: The VPM Maturity Scale

Where does this leave us? The Turing test is a Boolean test: a company either succeeds entirely or fails entirely. However, virtual presence is not a Boolean concept. Companies may have different "degrees" of virtual presence, ranging from the very basic (static websites) to the very advanced (tightly-integrated ERP systems). To evaluate a company's virtual presence, there is a need for a graduated scale, one which lets a company identify both where it is today and where it intends to be in the future.

We call this scale the VPM Maturity Scale, and it's one of the key tools used by our customers and our partners when deploying Magnolia CMS. I'll discuss it in more detail in my next blog post, but if you can't wait until then, download the Magnolia VPM Tech Brief and see how your company ranks in its virtual presence.

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