The Era of Voice

The Era of Voice

There are three different Amazon Echo devices in my 1,000 square foot apartment – one in my kitchen, one in my bedroom, and one in my bathroom. A good portion of my life now revolves around voice enabled assistants and devices for everything. I use them to listen to music, control my lights, and look up recipes. In addition to utilizing Amazon’s voice assistant, Alexa, on all three of the devices in my apartment, I also make use of two other voice assistants on my smartphone: Samsung’s Bixby and Google’s Assistant. Sorry, Siri.

I’m not alone. Over half of smartphone owners use voice assistants. There are also currently 57.8 million US adults who own at least one smart speaker, which is 23% of total US adult population1.  There has been a 22% growth in smart speaker ownership since January of 2018, and growth is expected to explode now that we are post-holiday season. To help put this in perspective, the first-generation iPhone was released in the US in 2007. Three years later, there were 62.6 million smartphone users in the US2.  The first true smart speaker, Amazon’s first-generation Echo, was widely released in the US in 2015.

When Amazon released its Echo Show, it added a seven-inch touch screen to the device.  Soon after, other tech companies took notice and mimicked. Google released its Home Hub with a seven-inch screen as well, and Facebook released its Portal devices. The Portal has a 10.1-inch landscape screen while the aptly named Portal+ has a screen size of 15.6 inches and works in portrait and landscape. While both have their strong suits, they are mainly seen as challengers to Amazon’s Echo devices.

So that begs the question, has the voice revolution already begun? If you ask the average consumer they would likely say yes, as according to Google, 72% of smart speaker owners say they use their devices as part of their daily routine3.  However, most marketers have no plans for voice in the next year.

Consumer Expectation

For most product categories, voice integration is now table stakes, based on consumer expectation.  Five hundred million devices including thermostats, headphones, lightbulbs, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, and doorbells are either voice-enabled themselves or integrate with smart speakers and assistants4.  The voice powered marketplace is poised to continuing accelerating; anything that can be will be enabled with voice integration.

But, what about marketers who sell products that are not internet-enabled?  Voice is going to continue to play an important role in everyday life as more consumers become comfortable using voice assistants and devices. At its core, voice gives consumers back control over the information they receive, the content they discover, and how they interact with brands. User control and choice is fundamental to a good user experience. It’s not unlikely voice will drive growth in how users search, shop, and buy.

Preparing for Voice

In the next few years, a brand’s presence within voice will be just as important as having a website and robust social media presence.  But having a presence in voice can mean numerous things.  Here are a few ways brands can prepare for voice:

  1. Voice Search: According to a study from BrightLocal, 56% of US internet users have used voice search on a smartphone to find local business information, and Gartner predicts that by 2020, 30% of all search queries will be driven by voice5. In order to prepare, brands must ensure they have a firm grasp on their local content via Google My Business. Search engine optimization (SEO) and creating content for voice is also extremely important. Brands must be optimizing and implementing schema for rich snippets. Additionally, brands should be creating content that feels more conversational than standard website copy. Think about how your customers might find you using search and what questions they might be trying to answer. Develop content that voice assistants can find, and that devices with screens such as Google’s Home Hub might surface on YouTube. Harmelin’s SEO and Content Marketing team is well equipped to help our clients deploy schema that helps support voice searches and create content that is more easily accessible by consumers.
  1. Skills and Actions: Being an authority within a brand’s vertical is nothing new. Harmelin has been recommending for years that our clients use their YouTube channels as a hub of authority in their respective categories. While Harmelin primarily manages paid media campaigns, it is important for brands to maintain an organic presence on YouTube so their content surfaces when a user searches a topic on the world’s second largest search engine. It’s very possible that Skills for Alexa and Actions for Google become the next hub for authority. Skills and Actions have primarily been driven by news organizations, streaming audio companies, and of course native shopping functionality on Amazon or Google. Imagine a user enabling an Amazon Skill or Google Action to ask “Alexa, ask CPG Brand if they have any coupons,” or “Hey, Google, ask my bank to transfer money from savings to checking,” much like they might ask “Alexa, where’s my Uber?” Discoverability of Skills and Actions is still rudimentary but could soon turn into more of a curated marketplace much like the Apple App Store and Google Play and drive brand loyalty. In the meantime, a brand can drive discoverability of their Alexa Skill or Google Action via paid media.
  1. Connect with Your Audience: Outside of voice, it’s important to continue finding ways to connect with your audience and customers. According to a collaborative research study from Drift, SurveyMonkey Audience, Salesforce, and myclever, 15% of US adults ages 18-64 have communicated with businesses via chatbots in the past 12 months. While this remains far behind communicating via phone (60%) and email (60%)6, the proliferation of voice-enabled assistants and devices providing immediate results will likely drive consumer adoption of chatbots as a viable means of communicating with businesses, because they will also produce immediate results from a consumer standpoint. In fact, according to the same study, 37% of users predict they will use chatbots in order to get a quick answer in an emergency, while 35% predict they’ll use chatbots to resolve a complaint or problem because they see the potential benefits as being able to receive 24-hour service (64%) and getting an instant response (55%). Brands should begin considering investing in diverse means of communicating with consumers, especially as consumers continue expecting immediate gratification and results.
  1. Prepare for ads. At some point soon, look for Amazon, Google, and Facebook to monetize their voice-enabled devices in a scalable way. This will likely take shape in the form of audio much like streaming audio or podcasts, where audio ads are dynamically inserted into Skills and Actions.  It’s likely though that length will be restricted. While most audio spots are 15 or 30 seconds in length, any scalable smart speaker ad will likely be required to be limited in length. Think of traffic sponsorship live reads on the radio or YouTube’s six-second bumper ads, but for audio. The other things that might happen is these companies make use of their screen real estate. However, we likely will not see standard IAB banner units make their way to these screens. More likely, we’ll see the opportunity for user-initiated sponsored content or videos as devices like the Echo Show cycle through headlines on its home screen.  Again, there will likely be restrictions around the content and videos. For example, videos will likely need to feel more organic and not be a standard 30-second ad.

If nothing else, voice is still very much the wild west. Tech companies are still figuring out how to move forward with voice while advertisers patiently wait in the wings. Facebook seems finally committed to hardware; shortly after the release of its Portal devices, Facebook confirmed they are working on augmented reality glasses which might be built with the same underlying software as its Oculus headsets7. Companies like Magic Leap, Thalmic Labs, Google, Apple, and Microsoft are also working on AR devices as well. Will these companies build in voice integration to these devices, and if so, how? With tech companies pushing more into hardware, is this a sign that voice is only a passing fad, or a signal as to how far voice can extend?  On my Echo Show I can ask Alexa to show me the front door, and it will bring up a live video from my Ring video doorbell. Imagine prompting Facebook’s AR glasses to do the same.