It’s hard to overstate just how quickly voice assistants have caught on. Use of Cortana, Alexa, Google Assistant, and other devices grew 128% in 2017, with over half of U.S. households projected to have a smart assistant by 2022. More than 50% of Millennials are already using some form of voice commands every month.
Much of this growth stems from improvements in the technology’s accuracy. According to a recent study, voice-to-text is 3X faster than typing for English (and 2.8X faster for Mandarin). Microsoft’s conversational speech recognition system now has an error rate of only 5.1%, putting it on par with the accuracy of human transcribers. Google and Amazon have promoted similar advances. Voice assistants now work, and people like them.
To be sure, some brands have taken notice. Some CPG and QSR chains, including Tide, Purina, and Patron, already are experimenting with Alexa skills, by, for instance, integrating recipes, ordering, and fun facts into Echo. But at this point, relatively few companies have developed a strategic road map for a voice-enabled future. A survey from BrightEdge Consulting, for example, found that while the majority of marketers view voice as important, 62% were not likely to develop a search plan for voice in the next 12 months.
It’s time to stop talking about voice and start acting instead. Here are five steps to moving toward a voice-centric future.
1. Start with search: This may seem tactical, but brands need to rethink their SEO and SEM strategies. Comscore predicts that voice will account for half of all search activity by 2020. Of note, voice-enabled search is different from text in major ways. For example, 70% of voice-search queries occur in natural, conversational language, often with a heavy emphasis on geography. As a result, keyword planning will become less relevant; marketers will need to think more about intent when looking at search data.
2. Rethink partnerships: With a 69% share in the in-home voice assistant market, Amazon and Alexa might seem to be the only platforms brands need to worry about today. That’s not so. Many digital players are adjusting their offerings to a voice-focused world. Services such as Hulu, Spotify, DIRECTV NOW, Lyft, Slack, and Kayak are all ahead of the game when it comes to voice and should at some point offer brands a new set of integration points for it. One could imagine a travel company’s voice skill might offer special deals on a particular hotel chain or a music service might stream a brand’s ads to voice only.
3. Express the brand: So far, brands have largely leveraged voice in functional ways. For example, some brands allow customers to place orders verbally on Alexa. That’s great, but just as with any digital platform, brand experiences in voice can also live on past the transaction. Moët Hennessy’s Bottles and Bubbles skill, for example, gives people information on champagne, food pairings, and even suggested music for the evening. Skills like that are more celebration than transaction and can provide a model for brands without direct commerce opportunities in voice.
4. Make hard choices about the product: With the arrival of voice, product development and marketing need to become fully aligned. For example, Mercedes allows customers with Google devices to use Google Assistant to unlock and start their cars. Ford will soon have Alexa-equipped vehicles. Moves like this will likely raise expectations across every product category.
5. Get ready to use the data: Co-ideation platforms such as myStarbucksidea and GE XYZ were early to bring the voice of the customer into the product experience. Voice data also has the potential to make this activity more automatic, constantly gathering insights on both usage patterns and what people think about a product. Netflix is already using machine learning on Google Assistant to recognize the differences between users, enabling it to provide custom entertainment options without a physical remote.
Put simply, marketers broadly agree that voice is no longer a curiosity or standalone channel, but they’re also having trouble getting started with it. Brands must begin at least with a search strategy, but, more than that, they need to start transitioning their products and services in a proactive way to embrace a technology we all know is coming.