Let’s shift our gaze from the current moment where an undercurrent of uncertainty colors everything. It is easy to feel like we are treading water both professionally and personally, but if we look outward, things are changing at a rapid pace. As I have heard repeatedly in recent weeks, this pandemic has accelerated shifts that were already underway and/or, a decade’s worth of change has rained down on our society in fewer than six months. One area where this is especially true is the integration of voice-activated smart speakers into our lives. The Covid-spurred work-from-home situation has put digital voice assistant use on steroids. While this may seem like a random sociological datapoint, the business implications are real.
OK Alexa…You Win
From almost any perspective, this is an intense period to be alive. If we are fortunate enough to have a job we can do from home, we aren’t just working, we are doing a lot more at home than we did before the pandemic. We juggle cooking, cleaning, teaching and running personal summer camps all while throwing on a crisp white blouse for a Zoom meeting. We are hacking efficiencies wherever we can find them. Desperation is besting privacy concerns as we submit to the utility of voice assistants. A 2016 Stanford University study concluded that voice search is three times faster than the average keyboard search (both hardware and computing efficiency have improved greatly since then). Omida Technology reports a rise in smart speaker sales in Q1 2020. Of those new speakers, Amazon’s Alexa was the consumer favorite shipping 56.2 percent, followed by Google Home at 35 percent, and Apple Home Pod at 8.8 percent. With Covid-19 serving as the accelerant, the obvious efficiency of voice assistants may prove irresistible; they could become the “gateway drug to ambient computing.” Ambient computing is best described as nearly ubiquitous computing access, in your kitchen, your gym, your car, built into your glasses — in other words, everywhere all the time, fluidly integrated into your life.
All of this brings us to voice, the aforementioned gateway drug. An NPR Edison Research study surveyed smart speaker owners in early April of 2020, as we were settling into the nationwide stay-at-home routine. The survey found overall usage was up:
- The number of users who had three or more speakers in their homes increased by 8 percent year over year.
- 63 percent of the total U.S. online population uses a voice-operated assistant on a device including in-car, in an appliance, on a stand-alone device, a smartphone, a tablet, a computer or a tv remote.
- When surveyed in early January 2020, 20 percent of voice assistant users claimed they consulted their devices several times a day. When surveyed in early April, that number had increased to 25 percent.
- 21 percent of users turn to voice assistants for recommendations.
Check out another study taken by a social marketing firm in the U.K during the same period which tracks with the NPR polling. The data is compelling.
Voice Is Already a Marketing Tool
Removing the keyboard from the equation brings the message one step closer to the consumer. Dynamic audio ads are already popping up on smart speakers, you will hear them on the free ad-supported music platforms of (Google-owned)YouTube Music, Amazon Music, and Apple Music. You may also hear ads if you are playing a podcast on your speaker, but smart speaker dynamically generated ads have not mainstreamed yet (and generally speaking, Amazon and Google prohibit such ads). That said, building this medium into your marketing should be part of your short to medium-term planning, and it is a step that should be taken with care. A number of brands are already effectively deploying voice assistants and building the infrastructure to weave advertising into their strategy as the platform rules continue to evolve.
Voice is not the first channel to wrestle with normalizing advertising in a “personal” zone. Facebook, while keyboard dependent at the time, was the first social platform to utilize targeted advertising. In 2007, a little over a year after the platform opened to everyone over the age of 13, Facebook held an event in which Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook Ads, described as a system for businesses to connect with users and target advertising to the exact audiences they want using the “trusted” referrals of their friends. I doubt that Facebook with its credo of Move Fast and Break Things, wrestled too much with the sensitivity of the situation considering the pot of gold at the end of that rainbow. According to Statistica.com, “In 2019 about 98.5 percent of Facebook’s global revenue was generated from advertising.”
Who Is Doing What and How?
Brand-owned voice assistants are being deployed to nurture voice-based consumer/brand relationships. The assistants are smart speaker agnostic and don’t try to compete with the Google, Amazon, Apple or other personal assistants that are already part of the family. Examples include Starbuck’s voice-activated barista and Bank of America’s voice-activated personal assistant Erica which now boasts more than 10 million users. Erica assists with a range of tasks from a simple balance request or walking a client through filing a credit card dispute, to investment assistance. Microsoft’s Cortana, the company’s AI trained voice-assistant, offers a truly human-like conversational exchange.
With Covid-19 serving as the accelerant, the obvious efficiency of voice assistants may prove irresistible; they could become the gateway drug to ambient computing.
At a recent virtual PSFK Summit, Jonathan Foster, Principal Content Experiences Manager, Mobile and Conversational UX at Microsoft, spoke to the company’s initiatives. Foster, with a background as a writer in film, television, theater, and fiction, spent his early years at Microsoft designing the voice inter-play and personality of Cortana. Foster described the tech giant’s ethics-based approach toward infusing a personality into a synth, an AI trained customer-facing, realistic sounding conversational bot. Foster now leads a team that extends his right-side-of-the-brain orientation into Microsoft’s bot development framework, a product that offers a tool-kit for brands to build bespoke voice assistants. Foster’s team developed an array of bot personalities. A brand can choose the best fit from a catalog of traits including: professional, caring, enthusiastic, witty and friendly. In Foster’s talk, he mentioned that he imagines the possibility of a brand extending the bot’s use beyond customer service to include discovery and sales assistance, say if a customer asks, which one should I buy?
Voice Is Intuitive
Selling via voice is already here. Nithya Thadani, CEO of Rain, a marketing agency that specializes in conversational AI, presented at the Collision from Home 2020 Tech Conference. Her championing of voice technology centers around the maxim that voice is a natural behavior, not a construct like typing which is based on rules. Speech is used in prayer, in therapy, and it is a means by which we express free-form sentiments. Her agency Rain is working with Fortune 100 companies to develop voice strategies including NIKE, Inc., Starbucks, Tiffany, and P&G. For NIKE, Inc., in February of 2019 Rain worked with R/GA and Google to create a Cannes Award-winning, live, voice-activated sneaker-drop for NIKE’s Adapt BB, a lace-less shoe that adapts to a foot’s contour with a touch of a button. During the first half of a Celtics-Lakers game, voice prompts teased the halftime product-drop. When the drop occurred, fans could buy the shoe only through a Google Home speaker. The stock allotted to the event sold out using voice in less than six minutes.
The Rules are Evolving
Both Google and Amazon have taken a cautious approach to allowing ad messaging on their speakers. For now, the tech giants forbid what we would consider traditional format ads with dynamic delivery on their respective devices, (as previously mentioned, they are included in the free version of YouTube Music), but they now allow advertisers to create verbal cues that might lead to an engagement. Recode described the change at Amazon, “The e-commerce giant has been reaching out to consumer packaged goods companies this year, asking them to include in their advertising campaigns Alexa branding and an Alexa utterance — the phrase you’d say to make Alexa purchase, say, Tide detergent or Blue Bottle Coffee…In exchange, Amazon will give CPGs data about how well their product is performing within its category on Amazon, as well as some advertising on Amazon’s sites.” In the summer of 2019 Amazon distributed the Alexa Marketing and Advertising Guide to a group of marketing agencies. Google is reportedly looking into search-based advertising revenue from smart speakers.
So while you were busy juggling work, life and all means of disruption, you probably didn’t notice that marketers have opened the door to a personal, conversational relationship with you via that smart speaker you now depend on. Did your Starbucks voice assistant just tell you about a new drink, and simultaneously offer to order it for you? Did your smart speaker just offer you 25 percent off-one-item at Bed Bath and Beyond discount when you asked it about a new vacuum? As our customers move away from keyboards to hearables and voice, we need to be ready to meet them there.