As Voice Gets Established, Brands Grapple with Implementation

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This post is the latest in our “Beyond the Screen” series. It will be an editorial focus for the month of January, and you can see the rest of the series here. Check out our white paper on the topic. 

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Consumer demand for voice technology has never been greater, and industry heavyweights like Google and Amazon are gearing up for a platform war as they work to integrate voice assistants into virtually every area of the connected consumer’s life. But behind the scenes, many brand marketers are struggling to connect the dots and design campaigns around a technology they don’t fully understand.

While global brands like Campbell’s, Domino’s, Purina, and Tide have jumped into voice by designing skills for Amazon’s Alexa, countless mid-size brands are still sitting on the sidelines and waiting for a clearer picture to emerge before they invest heavily in this new medium.

“Many organizations are testing the boundaries of innovative voice assistants, like Alexa and Google Home, but we’ve seen more challenges than opportunities,” says Becky Linahon, director of marketing at TetraVX, a global unified communications and collaboration company that specializes in delivering cloud-based solutions. “This isn’t to say opportunity doesn’t exist with the growth of smart homes and voice-commanded tech, but it is still an under-explored area as the adoption of these technologies ramps up.”

Searching for Solutions

For most brands, that exploration of voice technology begins with search. Nearly one-quarter of U.S. households owned smart voice devices by the end of 2018, and 32% of those consumers use their voice assistants on a daily basis to search for things they would normally type into a search engine. Another 29% of consumers ask their devices “quick questions” every day.

The changes happening right now in search, brought about by rising usage of voice devices, are forcing brand marketers to think differently about paid and organic campaigns. Consumer attention is often conceived as a zero-sum game, but voice expands that pie by reaching consumers when they can’t look at a screen, like in the kitchen, in the car, or when they’re otherwise on the go.

Linahon says marketers should be rethinking search to use real terms in natural, conversational language. She predicts that SEO for voice skillsets will become prominent, and marketers will have to rethink their content strategies, as it relates to voice, in the coming year.

“Today we see that voice tech is being used for simple Q&A and product purchases, [but] there is unseen opportunity that marketers are just beginning to speculate towards,” Linahon says. “Ideas that have come up in early stages are the implementation of voice chatbots and voice apps.”

MomentFeed Senior Vice President Derek Browers agrees, and says one of the challenges for brands preparing for the rise in voice search is that there isn’t enough context provided by a single voice search result for consumers who have grown accustomed to extensively researching even the smallest buying decisions. Browers believes that brands can start prepping now for a voice-first future by optimizing their business information for search across Apple, Google My Business, and Yelp, which are the networks powering voice search for Siri, Google Assistant, and Alexa.

“What we’re witnessing with the rise of voice as an interface is analogous to the rise of the smartphone. The largest difference is that voice is being adopted much faster, with 40% of Americans already owning a smart speaker,” Browers says. That’s on top of the fact that smartphones themselves will drive the adoption of voice, compounding the market change effected by this new interface.

On the Road 

If voice technology providers want to bring brands further into the fold, they might consider doing so through strategic partnerships and collaborations, like the kind Connected Travel, a connected-vehicle platform and application services company, recently launched with Honda.

Working together for more than two years, Connected Travel and Honda were able to develop the Honda Dream Drive infotainment system, an end-to-end content and commerce platform that caters to both drivers and passengers inside vehicles. Using voice command technology, the system allows for “safe” in-vehicle spending, so drivers can pay for gas or make dinner reservations without taking their eyes off the road.

The collaboration comes out of Honda Innovations, the automaker’s Silicon Valley-based program dedicated to experimenting with new technologies and business concepts. A growing number of major brands are opening similar programs, opening the door for technology firms with voice solutions to create collaborative projects that push the boundaries of what voice marketing entails.

Connected Travel CEO Bryan Biniak says these types of collaborations make for better products because each company brings its unique expertise into the project, leading to a result that ultimately has more real-world applications than what a software company might design on its own.

“The Dream Drive voice system was designed to provide drivers with a safe and convenient way to discover, book, buy, and navigate while driving,” Biniak says. “Honda was able to leverage the behavior-based driver safety technology ConnectedTravel developed for USAA.”

Creating a Truly Voice-First Experience

Honda isn’t the only company to collaborate with a digital firm on voice applications. The cosmetics brand Estée Lauder collaborated with Google to provide customers in-home beauty experiences via Google Home. Jabra, which manufactures wireless and corded headsets, is building Alexa into its products. Sonos, the electronics manufacturer famous for its speakers, is doing the same.

But most of these brands are integrating existing voice technology into their own platforms, basically turning their “dumb” devices into “smart” ones. As voice matures, marketers will have to look beyond off-the-shelf tools and stationary devices, like Amazon’s Echo, and towards a voice-first future with the ability to scale.

Unfortunately, TetraVX’s Linahon says most brands right now don’t have solidified plans when it comes to voice. The inchoate strategy ties back to a number of challenges, first among which is the lack of a clearly defined direction for how best to utilize the technology.

“Marketers know this is what’s coming, but they simply aren’t sure how to prepare,” Linahons says. “Approaching voice tech will come from a combination of understanding the technology and truly understanding your brand. As organizations develop new applications built specifically for voice assistants, it will be more important than ever to know who your consumers are, what they want to know or do, and where your brand fits into their day-to-day life.”

The savviest brands, the ones that are willing to experiment and figure out how to harness voice technology before anyone else, will be the ones who are ahead of the curve, and they will ultimately enjoy the type of consumer attention that’s only available to daring early adopters.

“As was the case with mobile apps, brands need to be thoughtful about how they enter into voice. Voice-based apps and skills need to provide real value or utility if they are going to provide sustainable ROI to the brand,” says MomentFeed’s Browers. “They also need to be voice-first in their design and user experience, which is a very different kind of storytelling than what brands have grown accustomed to in screen-based apps. The brands that get this alchemy right should enjoy significant first-mover advantages, and I think that holds a lot of appeal for marketers.”

Stephanie Miles is a senior editor at Street Fight.Rainbow over Montclair

Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.