Your Voice-First Future is Here

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Companies in virtually every industry are already thinking ‘voice first’ when considering new products and new marketing opportunities. This is not a shift away from omnichannel interaction, but rather an onramp to multimodality—a new way of thinking about accelerating growth in a voice-driven environment. Voice interaction will become the powerhouse medium for marketing, sales, distribution, fulfillment, service centers, and every local business.

An important driver for voice adoption? Putting simple voice design in the hands of everybody. Recently, Adobe acquired Sayspring, which helps prototype and build voice interfaces for Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant apps. Amazon also launched Skill Blueprints, a simple way for users to create personalized skills and responses for Alexa. These tools will accelerate the usage of voice AND create even more awareness of voice-enabled solutions. In turn, this will create an expectation that users should be able to interact with anything, i.e., any product or local business, via voice.

Businesses are undergoing a revolution to find the best ways to represent their offerings using a voice interface. Advertising is wrestling with formats on this new important platform. Digital giants are forging a path to every consumer, looking to win a home automation arms race. You, too, should be considering how to connect in new ways with your customers because voice and speech recognition are ready for prime time.

Why Now?

The rise of artificial intelligence, computer speed, and mass adoption are the key drivers bringing this capability to our everyday lives. Computational speed allows us to train Recurrent Neural Networks, a class of Artificial Neural Networks that allow an internal memory to process sequences of inputs such as voice, sound, and speech recognition.

Penetration of voice-first devices in the home is rising fast (ComScore Feb. 2018, 18.7M US homes). These devices are the ‘gateway’ platform to a future of integrated components for the home. They are the glue that makes the Internet of Things work. While Google Home or Amazon Echo can already be used to control a vast array of Internet-enabled devices, there are many more due to join the list by 2020. These will include smart refrigerators, mirrors, and smoke alarms, along with an increased list of third-party integrations. Features such as playing music, controlling lights, television, heating, and air controls are just the beginning.

Marketers Want In, But There are Roadblocks

2018 will be the year that brand advertisers begin to take voice assistants seriously. First, a marketer will want to understand what other brands are doing. So far that is not easy on any of the platforms.

Alexa’s skills don’t offer much ability to explore the competition. For instance; to access a bank’s skill, you have to have an account there. No one really knows what else is going on in voice from any of their competitors because there isn’t an easy method to find out.

Then, there is the idea of an actual advertisement. Imagine how annoying a broadcast ad would be in the context of a digital helper in your home. Very different from radio or TV, voice assistants are a no-interruptions platform, making us rethink advertisement on a voice platform.

That’s why Amazon launched a restrictive ad policy that bans third-party ads from skills, unless those skills stream content. Instead, Amazon is encouraging innovation by subsidizing the developers themselves. Although there is no official word from Amazon on Alexa advertising, you should be thinking about this as part of the long game. The goal right now is to learn as much as possible and start to build engagement with customers.

Early In-Store Use

In retail stores, shoppers can ask the virtual assistant information about specific items in the store, or about special offers; the possible interactions are endless. What’s more, since the technology is multi-modal, it doesn’t have to be just voice. The shopper can speak and be presented with different visuals, based on his or her request.

“It’s more than just controlling products with your voice. It’s really about adding a layer of intelligence and getting tech products to work in a more integrated fashion into your life,” says Joel Evans, Co-Founder and CEO of n-Powered and advisor at The Innovation Scout.

Designing for Voice   

Designing for voice applications is quite different from designing for graphical interfaces. When thinking about designing a voice application, think about it as if you’re talking with another human.

Most people default to the IVR days and think that you have to step a user through something: press 1 for this; press 2 for that. The power of voice-first technology is that it can infer based on your spoken dialogue.

“If you were talking to your friend and wanted to order pizza, you would say, “we should get some pizza.” You wouldn’t say, ‘Press one,'” Evans said.

Most voice assistants can respond in two different ways.

The first way is similar to a mobile app experience. You “launch” the voice experience. In this example, the skill can walk the user through what the voice app is capable of doing. For example, “Hello John. I’m here to help you make a reservation. You can say ‘make a dinner reservation’ or ask me for some dinner suggestions. What would you like to do?” 

The other way to interact with a voice assistant is by doing what Evans refers to as a one-shot utterance. For example, “Ask Reserve to make me a dinner reservation,” where Reserve is the name of the skill or conversation action. These differences need to be accounted for when designing a voice app.

What To Do Now: Testing

It’s time to think voice first when it comes to your customers. Home Smart Speakers are showing the fastest technology adoption in history. As consumers quickly incorporate this new capability in their everyday lives, it reshapes customer journeys and, with it, the product ecosystems.

This emerging technology feels a bit different. It feels like we are on the verge of launching a new life form. We will be interacting (and thus developing feelings) for something that was, well, just a thing. Voice carries much more emotional depth. Harnessing this power of feeling may well be the most important connection that marketing has ever been able to make with customers. 

You can download the full Voice First whitepaper from The Innovation Scout here.


Annette Tonti is CEO & Co-Founder, The Innovation Scout. She is an executive with over 30 years of corporate and entrepreneurial experience. The Innovation Scout works with businesses to help them move their innovation programs faster. It leverages an SaaS platform that uses artificial intelligence and big data to match startups and other innovations with business challenges.

Joel Evans is Co-Founder & CEO at n-Powered, Alexa Champion. Joel has 20+ years of experience and expertise with Alexa, Echo, AWS, mobile, wearables, and voice technologies.

Michael Glavich is Chief Business Accelerator & Change Catalyst for The Innovation Scout.