The Marketer’s Guide To Voice

“Alexa, find my consumers.”

Brands are trying to crack the code on voice as automated home assistants take root in American homes. Voice is sure to be a big topic again at CES this year, as marketers descend on Las Vegas on Tuesday to learn about the latest trends in consumer technology.

While speech recognition software has been around for decades, voice activated devices are just hitting the mainstream. In 2011, Apple debuted Siri on the iPhone 4S. When Amazon introduced the Alexa-enabled Echo in 2017, consumer adoption sped up. Today, 21% of Americans own at least one smart speaker, according to Edison Research and NPR, and 52% of smart speaker owners user it daily.

Most people engage with voice today to play music (70%) and check the weather (64%), but the technology is quickly becoming ingrained in daily habits. Almost three-fourths of smart speaker owners use their voice activated device every day, according to Adobe.

While Amazon and Google haven’t provided clear, structured advertising opportunities on voice yet, the growing audience makes it a more viable messaging channel for brands. Many are establishing their presence on voice by building “skills” or “actions,” Amazon’s and Google’s names for voice apps. Others are retooling SEO tactics to prepare for a world where search is initiated by speech.

The voice space might still be nascent in 2019, but brands are testing the opportunity.

“We see voice as an emerging area,” said Rohan Philips, chief product officer at performance agency iProspect. “But we think it’s critical.”

As of this writing, Amazon controls 67% of the smart speaker market, but Google, which has 30% market share, is gaining ground, according to eMarketer. Amazon and Google also integrate their smart assistants in other hardware beyond their smart speakers. Sonos speakers, for instance, have Amazon’s Alexa operating system natively installed.

“Smart speakers are just the gateway drug,” said Abhishek Suthan, co-founder and CEO of Pulse Labs, which does voice user experience design and analytics. “Voice is going to permeate across all devices, with screens, without screens, from your microwave to your TV.”

The following is a rundown of the current opportunities and challenges for brands messaging in an interactive voice environment.

Voice search is the biggest opportunity – if you play by Amazon’s and Google’s rules

Many marketers are testing in voice by developing SEO tactics for a screenless environment. While the same principles of SEO apply to voice search engines, people use different syntax when vocalizing questions compared to typing a search query.

“The SEO is based on how humans actually speak,” said Sean Corcoran, executive director at MullenLowe Mediahub. “Recognizing what information they’re looking for and how to bring that back to them is different.”

Each voice search engine also has nuances.

Alexa favors brands that compete on price, drive sales and have positive reviews on Amazon, while Google Assistant favors companies with optimized listings across its shopping partner sites and high ratings on Google search.

Brands that spend with Google and Amazon on paid products can also factor into rankings, said Cooper Smith, director of research at Gartner’s L2.

“We’ve found a direct correlation between paid search on Amazon and the likelihood of that brand winning Amazon’s Choice,” which makes the product a top search result, he said.

Competing on Alexa for the top search ranking will be especially difficult for brands in certain categories where Amazon is launching private-label brands that squash competitors on price.

“There is a healthy tension between Amazon’s brands and certain categories that’s manifesting in voice,” Philips said. “They have decided to win in certain categories, and that gets complete support from Amazon.”

While voice makes up just 0.4% of ecommerce sales, according to eMarketer, people are starting to use the interactive medium more for product research and reordering.

“Brands are going to wake up to the fact that this will impact their search campaigns,” Corcoran said. “It’s an easy, always-on machine that’s going to be disrupted pretty significantly.”

A branded skill is great – but only if consumers find it

Just as brands once experimented with mobile apps, they’re now developing voice skills and actions. While these experiences don’t offer advertising, they allow brands to drive up value and affinity by solving problems for consumers.

“If you jump in and create a valuable skill, it’s a lot like creating a valuable app,” Corcoran said.

Skills that perform best are utilitarian, engaging and encourage repeat visits, an Amazon spokesperson said. Hellmann’s Alexa skill, for example, serves up recipe ideas using ingredients people already have in their fridge. And HBO’s Westworld skill lets fans engage more deeply with the show by choosing their own adventures.

VaynerMedia is currently working with a beauty brand to launch a skill that offers hair styling tutorials. “When you’re not able to use your hands, voice is a perfect use case,” said Claire Mitchell, director at VaynerSmart, VaynerMedia’s voice division.

But because voice app discovery is still challenging, not all marketers see a clear use case for launching their own action or skill. Building endemic experiences is probably not a long-term play for most brands, Corcoran said.

“You’ll need multiple paid and organic strategies to make sure you’re not lost,” he said.

Google and Amazon don’t offer deep measurement and analytics

Like any new channel, brands will want a clear way to measure engagement, impressions and overall user experiences on voice.

Today, device manufacturers offer high-level, aggregate information about the voice query itself. Brands can use that data to get a sense of how many people are interacting with their skill, how frequently, what kind of questions they ask and what the drop-off rate looks like.

“The analytics built into the platform are pretty lightweight, although still quite informative,” Mitchell said. “The first KPI is learning how people are using these experiences, whether people are using them and what’s going to be valuable.”

Conversational analytics can help brands improve their skills or actions, for instance by identifying certain questions people are asking frequently that the skill can’t answer.

“We [see] the way consumers are falling off or opportunities brands should target,” said Pulse Lab’s Suthan.

Brands can also implement custom analytics to go deeper on certain experiences. For clients with choose your own adventure skills, for example, VaynerMedia tags content to understand how people navigate through a story.

“In a skill where there’s three core experiences, we would track how we got to the final reveal of a story through one path or another,” she said.

Path to paid

As paid voice opportunities emerge, brands must be mindful of a different user experience than digital.

A 30-second spot, for example, will not only disrupt a customer asking for their bank account balance, but have a negative impact on both the device manufacturer and the bank. A daily market update sponsored by a bank, however, would be a more natural fit, said Will Mayo, founder and CEO of voice distribution and monetization platform SpokenLayer.

As brands wait for advertising opportunities to arrive on voice, vendors and platforms like Spotify are building voice interactive ads to be ready when the time comes.

“Imagine you’re listening to a podcast,” said Stas Tushinskiy, CEO and founder of voice-enabled ad platform “Instead of a traditional ad, you’d hear, ‘The new model 3 Tesla has arrived in your city. Do you want to schedule a test drive?’”

But voice AI isn’t quite advanced enough yet to create seamless, voice-enabled ad experiences.

“Platforms want to establish value and trust,” VaynerMedia’s Mitchell said. “We probably wouldn’t want to engage with virtual assistants if we thought their answers were all supported by paid [media].”

Beyond advertising

While voice commerce hasn’t taken off just yet, it represents a big opportunity for marketers. RBC Capital Markets estimates voice-driven shopping will add $5 billion of incremental revenue at Amazon alone by 2020.

Device manufacturers are trying to get people into the habit of voice shopping via voice-enabled screens, like the Google Home Hub and Echo Show. Amazon leverages its ecommerce dominance to make ordering through Alexa seamless, especially for Prime members.

“A multimodal experience is a really big part of this,” Suthan said. “Voice is just part of that.”

As smart assistants become integrated with cars, TVs and household appliances, brands will have more opportunities to connect with consumers in their everyday lives.

Voice is already playing a role in TV navigation as on-demand content explodes. Fire TV, Apple TV and Roku have all enabled voice commands to navigate the TV experience on their devices. And Hulu is the first OTT network to enable its app with Alexa-powered navigation, said Rob Aksman, co-founder and chief strategy officer at TV ad tech company BrightLine.

As more TVs become voice-enabled, interactive opportunities open up for brands. BrightLine is developing voice-enabled TV ads that allow consumers to order a product straight from a commercial using their voice.

“Telling Alexa to add to cart is a natural extension of the visuals on the screen,” Aksman said.

But adoption of these use cases will take time. Today, consumers are using voice to supplement the TV experience, especially with live sports.

“While TV ratings were down for sports, we found young men using [voice] for a deeper experience,” Corcoran said. “They’re asking things like, ‘What are the stats for my fantasy team?’”

When voice does become integrated with TVs at scale, the smart speaker will likely disappear, Aksman said.

“You don’t need an Echo in your living room if it’s on the TV,” he said.

That being said, while Google and Amazon own the smart speaker environment, smart TV operating systems are significantly more fragmented. Besides Google’s Android TV and Amazon’s Fire TV, there’s also Roku TV. And other major device manufacturers use their own operating systems. LG uses its proprietary webOS and Samsung uses the open source Tizen OS.

Need help?

The list of vendors, consultancies and agencies that do voice work is extensive. Both Google and Amazon have a list of partners that can develop actions and skills, respectively.

Correction: This article previously said Rob Aksman is co-founder and CEO of BrightLine. He is co-founder and chief strategy officer.

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