Alexa, Podcasts, and the Role of Voice in Today’s Marketing

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Marketers ignore smart speakers and podcasts at their own peril. Both of these voice-based mediums are playing more prominent roles in how consumers find information and interact with their favorite brands. Where are we today in voice marketing? Let’s take a look at some trends and what marketers are doing to answer them.

Alexa Leads the Way, but What’s Next?

A few years after they jump-started the smart speaker industry, Amazon’s Alexa products still maintain their commanding market share. According to CIRP, in 2018, the entire install base for smart speakers was 50 million units, with Alexa still the preferred personal assistant. Google Assistant ranked second, and Siri came in third but was slowly picking up steam as HomePod found its audience (and the correct price point). Microsoft’s Cortana brings up the rear with 3% of the market.

That means it’s no accident that almost half of all small business marketers have a more optimistic opinion of Alexa’s potential for marketing than they do other digital assistants. That’s according to one study, at least. But it’s enough to ask: Where do smart assistants, and voice interaction in general, go from here?

The stakes are only getting higher. Research from Edison Research and NPR indicates there are 118 million and counting smart speaker devices in the United States in 2019. More than half of all smart speaker users have more than one device.

This is a huge canvas for marketers to work with, and it’s leading to increased spending on specific marketing tactics — namely, optimizing for voice search. This is an opportune moment for companies to get ahead in the space, too, because just 4% of companies (of a surveyed 75,000) report “readiness” for voice search optimization.

Like optimizing a website for use on a mobile device, optimizing content, like native marketing content, in the age of voice interaction requires some know-how. At its simplest, it means tailoring the written content on the product page, blog post, or guest article to directly answer questions the way they’re presented to smart speakers and digital assistants.

If someone is looking for a particular product or clothing item for an event, for example, you want an online resource, like an article or video, ready and waiting the next time somebody asks Alexa or Siri, “What does business casual really mean?” and then the inevitable follow-up question, “Where can I get business-casual clothes?” Answering user queries in a way that delivers actually useful information is the next “near-me search optimization” gold rush in terms of search engine result rankings.

Alexa and other voice-enabled platforms aren’t just about finding ways to serve branded content to users, though. Consumers are increasingly using these assistants to place and check the status of their orders, too. That means brands are making search tools an actual part of the sales funnel.

Placing and checking back in on orders via voice presents opportunities for brands but also raises the bar for voice readiness. Apple makes it easy for users to write their own Siri shortcuts to enable voice functionality and automation, but third parties have to update their own apps to support it. And having an app at all means hiring the right software developers, who are now a necessary part of any team.

Amazon, meanwhile, is looking ahead to higher-stakes transactions like buying prescriptions and scheduling doctor’s appointments. They’re rolling out a pilot program for third parties who are bound by HIPAA privacy rules but who want to build Alexa skills for their customers (or, in this case, patients).

Getting ahead of trends like these and ensuring your audience can interact with your company in as many channels and in the most convenient way possible is vitally important now that voice marketing has hit the mainstream.

Podcasts Come of Age as a Creative and Advertising Medium

According to the latest research, 2019 saw a statistically significant spike in the number of people listening to podcasts, and the medium is joining the broader smart-speaker and mobile-driven voice-marketing moment. Using “gold standard” sampling techniques, researchers found that more than half of all U.S. citizens have listened to a podcast and almost one in three listen monthly or more often. In 2018, only one in four Americans was a monthly listener. It’s time to start taking podcasts seriously as a creative and advertising medium.

It seems like our phones have always had these apps built in. But when you consider this news about the growth in popularity, along with the news that podcasts are being given fresh attention on desktop and laptop computers by tech companies, you have the makings for a huge pool of users — and a lot of opportunities for marketers who know what they’re doing.

One of the big things to keep in mind is that podcasts are not like social media in some fundamental ways. We’re immune now to timelines and feeds that are peppered with ads for products. But scrolling past them is easy. Social media users know this and companies know this.

Internet users aren’t going to download product pamphlets or infomercials in podcast form. That’s not what this medium is for. If brands today want to use this channel to distribute something relevant, shareable, and useful on a practical level, their branded podcast (or “owned channel”) needs to be a resource. It needs to be a source of knowledge or it needs to tell stories that communicate something about the brand’s values. It needs to be human, in other words, which is what the switch to voice is all about in the first place.

Marketing using podcasts is about creating or taking part in something that’s a destination in its own right. And by “taking part,” we mean finding podcasters with an audience and a story or message that resonates with your own and sponsoring them in return for a product mention. It’s not always about creating a new channel from the ground up, but instead finding opportunities to reach existing audiences who likely share characteristics with your own.

Podcasts are likely to become the next big platform for influencers, which means companies should get into the fray sooner rather than later and start casting a wide net for up-and-coming podcasters who look like promising partners.

Whether you’re building an in-house podcasting “channel” or cross-promoting on somebody else’s, this is one of the stages on which the future of commerce is about to begin playing out.

Where Are We Now in Voice Marketing?

The increasing popularity of smart speakers, digital assistants, and podcasts means we need to begin thinking differently about voice and marketing. That includes tailoring online content to users and how they engage with it, making voice functionality a part of the sales funnel, and creating podcasts or partnering with influencers to reach audiences in a new way. With the right approach, a creative brand could get a considerable head start in this new but quickly developing marketing landscape.

Nathan Sykes writes about the latest in business technology online. He has been featured on The Next Web, Information Management, and BestTechie. Nathan is the editor of Finding an Outlet.