No longer is a domestic robot the stuff of fantasy. The launch of the Amazon Echo in the U.K. and Germany in September 2016 has made the concept available to the masses. Technically a voice-controlled virtual assistant for the home, the device has sold over four million units since launching in the U.S. in late 2014, according to the 2016 Internet Trends report by KPCB/Mary Meeker, and both Google and Apple are also reported to have rival products in the pipeline.
The Demise Of The Screen
The gradual shift from screen to voice has been in evidence for some time, but it is only very recently that voice recognition technology has become sophisticated enough to start changing consumer behaviour. Computer recognition of speech has risen from approximately 70% to 90% accuracy in the last five years, notes KPCB, prompting an increasing number of consumers to start interacting with their smartphones using voice rather than text.
Ravleen Beeston, U.K. head of sales at Bing Ads, said nearly one in four searches on the Windows 10 taskbar were now activated by the Bing-powered personal assistant Cortana. “Microsoft search is now going beyond the traditional ‘blue link’ results and into the realm of voice-activated interfaces,” he said. “Search is the foundation for digital assistants like Cortana, Siri, and Alexa, and provides the intelligence for operating systems and apps alike.”
Beeston added that “who” and “how” questions were today’s fastest-growing query type. “They will likely be made largely via voice search in the future, due to the intent revealed in the spoken word—this is especially important as it is key to the delivery of better results.”
Voice Will Drive IoT Growth
As consumers change the way they search for and access information, brands need to adjust. “More and more online devices are prioritising voice as a methodology for interaction,” said Dr Chris Brauer, director of innovation at Goldsmiths, University of London. “Smart IoT (Internet of Things) devices, from lights to kitchen appliances, will function far more effectively using voice than through a screen. There is potential for the slow demise of the screen as an interaction methodology, and brands will have to think about how they position themselves in a voice-dominated world of interaction.”
The opportunities are manifold. Cameron Worth, founder of IoT agency SharpEnd, cited the potential to drive commerce through the Amazon Echo. “The fact that it is an Amazon device allows you to add products to the basket easily because there is a direct connection.”
Partnerships Will Be Key
But, perhaps, some of the bigger opportunities lie in thinking laterally. “I think that brands who will progress quickest with voice are those that understand the opportunity to integrate with third-party applications and services,” said Worth.” He shares the example of a company that wants to send a product to a consumer. “For example, it could partner with Uber on the Echo platform, and agree to deliver the item within 12 minutes. That drives a new type of commerce. All brands should have APIs in the world we are moving towards, and they should easily be able to integrate with each other.”
Absolut Vodka, which works with SharpEnd, is exploring how it can leverage voice in the home to deliver contextual services, such as how to make certain cocktails or find nightlife inspiration. Fredrik Thorsen, global head of digital marketing at Absolut Vodka, said partnerships would be key. “This is just the beginning of our journey, and we’re now looking into much wider opportunities such as commerce and third-party integrations ahead of market pilots (now that the Echo is available outside of the U.S.).”
Brands Can Add Value In Broader Ways
Voice also opens doors for brands to think beyond their core product offering. University of London’s Brauer believes voice platforms present brands with the opportunity to deliver a companion service that engages consumers more deeply. “There is every reason for a bank to roll out not just a banking service, but an advisory or coaching service that allows customers to say ‘I’d like to save £2,500 pounds to go on this holiday in a year’s time—help me do that.’”
He also cited the example of a fitness brand developing a wellbeing coach. “With voice-activated services running in the car, on your watch, in the home, the service is always available. You pull it down wherever you are and it consistently tracks information. There is a seismic shift in how brands can reach customers and create more meaningful experiences for them.”
Is Voice Data More Powerful Than Text Data?
In order to deliver such meaningful experiences, brands need content to be engaging, relevant, timely, and personalised—all of which rely heavily on data. Bing Ads’ Beeston suggested that the data gathered via voice could be even more potent than that gathered by text. “[Voice] captures long queries and more complex questions, painting a more detailed picture of its user and their needs. This enables the user interface to act in an anticipatory manner, predicting what consumers want or need—for brands, this trust and reliance help bring them closer to their customers. And with trust comes increased use, enabling it to become smarter and, therefore, produce better results.”
In future, data relating to how the user is feeling could also play an important part. Brauer cited the example of AI (Artificial Intelligence) and chatbots and how they analysed tone to learn if they are making someone impatient or angry. “Analysing tone will be really important [for voice] going forward.” SharpEnd’s Worth agreed: “We’re not yet at the stage where we can tell if a person is anxious or excited purely through voice [on devices like the Echo], but it is something that will happen.”
That said, brands mustn’t get too cocky or too clever, even if access to increasingly granular data allows them to do so. Ultimately, any service delivered on a voice platform must be simple, efficient, and fast. “What people need is brands who will help them with their lives,” said Worth. “Take the Amazon Echo as an example. You don’t want to have a conversation with the brand in the home environment—you want to access what you need and get on with your day.”
Scriptwriting Takes Centre Stage
The secret—in part, at least—lies in the scriptwriting. Thorsen at Absolut Vodka said: “With voice interactions, we need to be careful not to overdo it with how we script the interactions. Our end-users want short, snappy interactions versus long conversations, so it’s really about getting our end-users the service they need in the quickest way.”
Worth cited social media as an example of a space where brands have learnt by their mistakes: “Some got a bit ahead of themselves and tried to be too funny, too clever, too witty.” He said SharpEnd had been working with companies to develop tone of voice manuals for voice-activated apps. “It’s about making the interaction as clinical and concise as possible. We are stripping away a lot of the fluffy brand bits.”
The trick lies in balancing functionality, or an added value service, with an experience that reflects a brand’s values. It isn’t easy. Brauer said: “These voice platforms are going to emerge as intermediary gateways between consumers and brands.”
It means brands have to work even harder to make their voices heard.