James Kotecki (00:00): 

This is CES Tech Talk. I'm James Kotecki, bringing you one of my favorite C Space Studio interviews from CES 2024. I had a lot of great conversations in Las Vegas, and I know you're going to like this one, so enjoy. 


And we are back. I told you I'd be back and here we are. This is the C Space Studio at CES 2024. I'm James Kotecki, joined by Instacart's Ali Miller, where you are the VP of ads product. And we're so grateful to have you in the C Space Studio today. 

Ali Miller (00:38): 

Thank you so much for having me. It's great to be here. 

James Kotecki (00:39): 

So we've spoken with Instacart before, never spoken with you personally. Can you start by giving us some contextualization of your role in Instacart and maybe even just kind of the scope of Instacart today as we sit here now? 

Ali Miller (00:51): 

Absolutely. As we sit here now. Yeah, so I lead the ads product team at Instacart. I have the great pleasure of doing that with a wonderful team. And so Instacart, as you may know, is a service where we work with a wide variety of partners. So we have retail partners, we work with 1400 retail partners. We partner with 5,500 brands, and we can reach over 95% of households across the US and Canada to get groceries delivered to consumers from the stores that they love shopping from. 

James Kotecki (01:18): 

And so how do you define your role and the scope of ads product within Instacart? 

Ali Miller (01:24): 

Yeah, so we partner with some wonderful brand partners, like I mentioned. And so we've really been focusing in the last 12 to 18 months on building out our full ads portfolio. So this includes starting with our core sponsored product solution. This allows emerging brands and established brands to reach consumers as they're shopping, searching, browsing, and buying products on Instacart. And so any brand of any size can use our ads platform to reach consumers as they do that. We work with sponsored products at the bottom of the funnel and then working up the funnel to build reach and engagement with shoppable ads and inspiration forward discovery focused ads. 

James Kotecki (01:57): 

And just to understand the scope, are we mainly talking about people who go to instacart.com or the app and the ads that they see within that ecosystem, within your kind of ecosystem? 

Ali Miller (02:07): 

Yeah, that's a great question. And in the spirit of what we're talking about this week, which is we've started really in building out that on platform solution, like you mentioned. So as folks are using the Instacart app or website, they can browse their favorite stores, they can buy products. And so that's where our ad solutions can help to shape those purchases, drive incremental sales and drive results for brands. 


What we've been working on as a next step and what we've just announced this week is starting to move off platform. So helping brands actually reach consumers based on high intent Instacart audiences in a privacy safe way off platform in partnership with Google Shopping. So brands can actually reach consumers as they're searching products on Google and then actually convert back on Instacart when they buy those products. 

James Kotecki (02:46): 

And the benefit to the brand is they only have to deal with you, but they get that additional reach. That's one benefit. 

Ali Miller (02:50): 

Exactly right. So they can work with us, they can partner with Google to actually reach consumers in that way. Exactly. 

James Kotecki (02:55): 

How do you think about the consumer experience that you ideally want to create here, especially... And I suppose where's the line? Where is the consumer's heads at in terms of I search for something, I don't want a bunch of divergent ads, I don't want everything to be sponsored content. So how do you figure out what that line is? 

Ali Miller (03:12): 

One of the things I love about the e-commerce space and the retail media space in particular is the ads are truly content. So the ads are promoting brands that consumers are discovering or brands that they may know and love already. And so our goal is really actually to enhance the experience. It's kind of the north star of what we all try to do in the advertising space, but especially in retail media, you can find relevant products that are helping you understand how to build up your basket. If you're shopping for chips, we can recommend salsa. We can help you discover categories you may not have thought of buying on Instacart, like laundry care. And so we really focus on creating an additive experience with ads, and that's very much in the spirit of taking what we've learned, driving results for brands, driving an ad experience that consumers can really engage with and actually discover products with, and then continuing to grow it out from there. 

James Kotecki (03:57): 

I like that as a rebranding of advertising. It's no longer advertising, it's additive content. 

Ali Miller (04:01): 

It's additive content. Additive, yep. 

James Kotecki (04:01): 

That's what ads are going to stand for now. 


And we're going to just rebrand the entire ecosystem here. This is very exciting. 

Ali Miller (04:06): 

Perfect. You heard of here first. 

James Kotecki (04:07): 

If north star is relevant, then the south star or the wrong way to go must be lack of relevance or kind of interruption. When you're counseling brands and how to do the best in this environment, I imagine that's what you're kind of counseling away from. Are there clear things that you are advising people to steer away? 

Ali Miller (04:26): 

Yeah, that's a great question. So a lot of the ways in which we've actually built out our Instacart ads platform is focusing on machine learning powered and AI powered, got to say it, optimization and contextual relevance that can actually drive the right bid, the right ad experience, et cetera, just based on the products that the brands are promoting. So we try to make sure that we're actually powering a lot of that guesswork so we can take the guesswork out, the brands can reach consumers at the right time, drive results, drive incrementality without needing to actually think so much about what is the perfect keyword or the perfect moment to reach a consumer. So that's really kind of the beauty of our marketplace model across all the different retailers we partner with. Those brands can be at eye level at the right time without a lot of work on the brand's part. 

James Kotecki (05:09): 

So you mentioned AI, we're all talking about AI here at CES 2024. 

Ali Miller (05:11): 

We are. 

James Kotecki (05:12): 

AI powered smart carts, I understand that's an announcement that you made here at CES. What does that mean? 

Ali Miller (05:17): 

Indeed. So I mentioned before we're kind of taking what we've learned and what we've built on platform, expanding off platform, and now we're taking the third step to actually enter the aisles of the grocery store. 

James Kotecki (05:26): 

The physical store. 

Ali Miller (05:27): 

The physical store. So Instacart has really started initially bringing the best of offline in store, online, and now we're moving it in the other direction. And so as you can imagine, we were talking about relevant content and content that kind of responds to consumers' tastes and preferences, bringing that magic to the aisles of the grocery stores, exactly what Caper Carts are doing. So a consumer can use the Caper Cart, it has a screen directly in front of them that can help them discover products, understand where products are located in the grocery store- 

James Kotecki (05:54): 

Just that alone is extremely useful. Just that navigation piece. 

Ali Miller (05:56): 

Exactly. Yeah, I certainly need it when I go to the grocery store. And so then you can check out directly on the cart. And so if you imagine this from an advertising perspective, the best of retail media, measurable, performant, able to close the loop based on first party data, all of those wonderful, wonderful things we know and love in the retail media space, we can actually bring that into the aisles of the grocery store with ads on Caper Cart. So we're so excited to get this out the door, starting to partner with some wonderful brands, and we'll be working on rolling that out over the course of the year, starting with some great initial screens when you're getting to know the Caper Cart, we can work with brands to sponsor that warm welcome. We can highlight seasonal relevant products and so on. 

James Kotecki (06:36): 

Interesting. And I wonder if that would even help Instacart shoppers. If it's clear from the cart that that's who it is, then they can kind of efficiently navigate them through the aisle and maybe give them a different experience because not shopping for themselves and maybe the ads that they might see might not be relevant in some circumstances versus others. 

Ali Miller (06:52): 

Yeah. Exactly. And the Instacart team has worked a lot on building some of those foundational capabilities like wayfinding within the store. So an Instacart shopper can easily find what they need as well. 

James Kotecki (06:59): 

The cart, does it have cameras on it? Do the products have to have any kind of special tag on them to be integrated into this cart? 

Ali Miller (07:06): 

It's really been built to completely work out of the box. So no pun intended, but when you take the box that you're actually purchasing on the shelf, there are cameras, computer vision, and AI power, as we were talking about. So you can actually just drop the item into your cart and it can scan, no problem. It shows up on the screen. And then with our new ad solutions, what we can do is then suggest sponsored items that actually go with what you just added. So you added cookies, maybe you want some ice cream, you added chips, maybe you want some salsa like I was mentioning before. So it's a great opportunity to build bigger baskets, help consumers discover more easily what they'd like to shop for in the store, and maybe even be surprised and delighted by something new. 

James Kotecki (07:43): 

You had an IPO in 2023, that was just last year. And I think some people might think of an IPO as kind of the finish line of a lot of work to get to that, and it certainly is. It's kind of a starting line too, because now you have maybe a different set of incentives or maybe a different framework. How has that shift occurred with you, with your team, with Instacart generally as you've gone through that process? 

Ali Miller (08:06): 

Yeah, I mean, it was a huge milestone and super proud of all of the work that the teams did to get to this huge point. Like you said, it really is a starting line for us. So we want to make sure that we're continuing to invest in great solutions for our consumers, for our brand partners, for our retail partners. And like we were just talking about, moving from on platform to off platform and now actually connecting the offline store to all of that technology that we really invested in, there's so much ahead of us that we really are just getting started. 

James Kotecki (08:31): 

I'm always fascinated by how brands define themselves and how they redefine themselves and how consumers might think of them. So if someone talks about what Instacart is, not knowing about the AI powered smart carts, they may think, oh, it's a company that helps you shop online. So are you thinking about the brands differently or the overall holistic purpose of the company differently now that you're clearly moving into the real world too? 

Ali Miller (08:52): 

Yeah, I mean, our vision is to power every grocery transaction. That includes online. That includes off our platform and helping consumers discover what they want to purchase. And that includes now connected stores in the offline world. And so very much so we're thinking about this not just through the scope of the Instacart app, but to power technology for our retail partners, help our brands reach consumers at the right time, and like you said, move into the aisles of the physical grocery store. 

James Kotecki (09:15): 

Are there other emerging technologies that might be on the show floor here at CES that you've got your eye on? That you think maybe someday that'll be something we can actually work with? 

Ali Miller (09:23): 

Yeah, I mean, it's been really exciting to see how we were talking about generative AI, of course. I feel like last year, generative AI it was the new buzzword. We were getting excited about it. It was all about the chat bots and so on. I feel like now we're actually really working on how can these technologies work behind the scenes to power more personalized and helpful experiences and actually take some of that work out of deciding day to day what you actually want to buy and what products you want to discover. So I love this trend of really starting to work on building AI into the foundational decisions and day-to-day lives that we have. 

James Kotecki (09:54): 

Finally, you are a violinist. 

Ali Miller (09:57): 

I am. 

James Kotecki (09:57): 

For the Oakland Symphony Orchestra; is that correct? 

Ali Miller (09:59): 

Yes. Oakland Symphony. 

James Kotecki (10:00): 

The Oakland Symphony. Which is such a cool creative thing to do. And does it impact the, I assume, rather analytical day-to-day work that you do at Instacart? Do you see connections between those two worlds? 

Ali Miller (10:14): 

Yes. I mean, one of the things I've always talked about in what I love to do as a musician and what I moonlight as is there really is this aspect of teamwork and creating something much larger than the sum of its parts. And an orchestra is just that. We're all playing our parts, we all have the music in front of us, but together, it really does make something magical. And so I think you can very much draw the comparison to our day-to-day lives. We're all doing our individual work, we all have our individual ideas, but together we're creating something really magical. 

James Kotecki (10:40): 

Well, thanks for bringing some of the magic to us, Ali Miller, Instacart, appreciate it. 

Ali Miller (10:43): 

Thanks so much. 

James Kotecki (10:44): 

Well, I hope you enjoyed that conversation from CES 2024. That's our show for now. But there's always more tech to talk about. Hit that YouTube subscribe button, leave a comment, follow us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, iHeart Media, or wherever you're getting this show, and get more ces at ces.tech. That's C-E-S dot T-E-C-H. I'm James Kotecki, talking tech on CES Tech Talk.