Speaking up

Speaking to devices and instructing them to complete tasks may not be a completely new phenomenon, but the last year or so has seen the use of voice explode. It’s become a legitimate avenue we’re exploring to make our lives easier. Why is this the case? Tyrone Stewart investigates.
The last year or so has seen the way we search for things change dramatically – with voice rapidly becoming the primary way that we find information online. Research from comScore suggests that 50 per cent of all searches will be conducted using voice by 2020, while Gartner estimates that around 30 per cent of all searches will be done without a screen by the same year. Moreover, the adoption of voice assistants and smart speakers is moving at a pace quicker than the adoption of smartphones and tablets – further evidence that consumers are embracing the technology and of the opportunity this presents for marketers to reach them.

“I see this as the beginning of a new phase of the internet: an internet where voice is the key interface,” says Professor Steven Van Belleghem, an expert in customer focus in the digital world, and author of Customers The Day After Tomorrow. “Future growth of voice in the short run will be based on new language capabilities and relevant applications. It’s a bit like with our mobile phone. When the iPhone came out, we mainly used it for communication and funny gimmicks. Today, the iPhone is part of our daily lives. Usage of voice today is also centred on some basic applications and gimmicks; 10 years from now, it will be part of our day-to-day lives.”

Do as I say
The main driving forces behind the rapid uptake of voice are the convenience it offers and the relatively low cost of the technology. Consumers are now using voice as a utility and looking to make their lives easier by doing so. Older consumers are turning to AIpowered devices and features because of this ease of use, while the younger generations are embracing the technology in the way that younger people tend to do with all revolutionary tech.

“Ease of use is the biggest thing. Let’s face it, who wants to be – particularly on a mobile device – keying, if there’s an easier way of doing this?” asks Jon Buss, managing director for Northern Europe at Yext. “It’s that whole convenience of being able to use voice. That’s how we’ve seen the adoption occur and the rate of change. It’s all about convenience.

“There’s a very big percentage of users over the age of 45 using voice assistants. It’s that whole thing of if you’re in the home, do you really want to be keying in ‘What time does the Post Office open?’ or ‘What’s the temperature today?’ or ‘What’s on my schedule?’ It’s a lot easier using voice to do that. And then there’s the younger demographic, who are just embracing this as the norm.”

At the same time, the fairly low cost of smart speakers and the fact that millions of people have access to voice assistants through their smartphones – whether that’s Google Assistant on Android devices, Siri on iPhones or Alexa through its dedicated app – makes the technology far more accessible than many inventions before it.

“Another one of the reasons why there’s been such a high adoption, particularly of home speakers, has been this low cost of entry,” adds Buss. “They’ve brought the costs down and made them really easily accessible, because voice has been adopted as a utility thing.”

One of the biggest names, if not the biggest name, making voice technology accessible is Amazon. Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant can be found in the company’s Echo devices, through the Alexa app and in a huge number of other products, ranging from cars to microwaves.

“Voice is the most natural and convenient user interface and can make the complex simple by removing a lot of barriers and friction. What we’ve found is that removing the tiniest amounts of friction from everyday activities improves our customers’ lives,” an Amazon spokesperson told us.

“We’re in a golden age of machine learning and AI, and really at a tipping point for so many elements of the technology. As we evolve to a world of ambient computing – where we are surrounded at home, work and on the go by devices with internet connectivity and the ability to interact with cloud-based services via natural language understanding – our goal is to enable more natural interaction with all of these devices. But we’re not developing technology for technology’s sake; every move we make in this vein is to improve the experience for our customers and our partners.”

Not being heard
Despite the rapidly increasing number of people embracing voice technology, it seems that many consumers don’t trust the information being provided to them by AI assistants. Research conducted by Yext showed that 70 per cent of voice search users are yet to act on the information they’ve been provided, while 52 per cent of them check multiple online sources to confirm what they’ve been told.

“This is the big thing. There’s this disconnect at the moment,” says Buss. “You’ve got all these people adopting these intelligent services, home speakers and voice, but they don’t have confidence. And the reason they don’t have confidence is because the underlying data, which these technology platforms are pulling information from, is wrong.”

This poor data and the incorrect information being provided by digital assistants is purely down to the brands not placing the correct information on the internet for the technology to pick up on, according to Buss. And brands risk being “left behind” if they don’t have all of their information in check – whether that’s opening times and locations or more in-depth details such as product information or menu items.

I’m listening now
Though consumers are still uncertain about how far they can trust digital assistants, the adoption rate of the technology and the continued increased use of voice search shows that the opportunity that exists for brand marketers is a significant one.

Furthermore, as machine learning continues to improve, it will become easier for both voice and text-based bots to “adapt to the user” and become a bespoke assistant for each individual, according to Sharon Dickie, commercial director at Waracle, a mobile app developer.

“That is the direction voice technology is moving towards, and one of the reasons why companies could benefit from starting to familiarise themselves with it,” she says. “As voice assistants become more human-like and improve their ability to adapt to the user’s needs and behaviours – and learn from them – they start to gain more and more popularity within the contexts in which this technology is especially required: at home, while in the car and in all those situations in which the users cannot use their phone, or they’re busy doing something else, but need to access information or perform a certain task online.”

From an advertiser perspective, the good news is that voice ads coming through a device can’t be ad-blocked or skipped, meaning marketers can be sure their message is being received. The down side of this became evident last March, however, when Google experienced a backlash for inserting an ad promoting the new Beauty and the Beast movie into its Daily Briefing. But, as voice assistants continue to be normalised, it’s safe to say that consumers will become more receptive to ads coming from them. And, at the end of the day, people don’t complain about the ads on the radio or podcasts.

“The role of voice in marketing continues to grow and evolve as the associated technology becomes smarter and more intuitive,” says Tom Deering, creative strategist at Teads Studio. “The huge increase in the use of AI personal assistants such as those produced by Amazon and Google means that users are quickly becoming comfortable with the notion of device interaction – and in turn, the ad experience – becoming more ‘conversational’.”

A company that has been at the forefront of the voice revolution is UK radio group Global. Through its digital audio ad platform, DAX, it teamed up with the British Heart Foundation, a UK charity, to launch a campaign targeting Amazon Echo devices with a message to encourage users to install the charity’s new skill. This skill enables people to arrange the collection of donated furniture and electrical items via Alexa.

Global’s audio ad platform also linked up with Virgin Trains to encourage Alexa users to buy tickets using a single voice transaction when the train operator began selling tickets through Alexa last year.

“We’ve always recognised the power of sound, being home to the UK’s most loved radio brands. With the rise in streaming audio, including radio, music and podcasts, we saw opportunities for brands, and so we launched DAX, to connect advertisers with millions of people worldwide listening to digital audio content,” says Ollie Deane, director of commercial digital at Global.

“Mass adoption of smart speakers worldwide has made it increasingly important for advertisers to consider how their brand sounds. In response, most companies have now made their sonic branding a much bigger part of their marketing strategies,” Deane continues. “While sonic branding is not a new concept, if, as comScore predicts, 50 per cent of all searches will be done by voice by 2020, the sound of a brand has never been more important. As voice search becomes a larger part of our routines at home and in our cars, screenless devices will be a major gateway to the internet, and brands that have a distinct sonic identity will be the most successful.”

The voices are everywhere
Looking ahead, it’s very likely that voice will continue to roll along at this rapid pace throughout this year and beyond. And you can expect to see the big players, like Amazon and Google, continue to find new ways to revolutionise within the voice space.

“This is only going to continue to grow at a phenomenal rate,” says Yext’s Buss. “The more users who adopt the technology, the more people that talk about it, the more people who try it, the more success they get – because clearly with skills and apps and better data and better utilities, we’re adopting this more and more. This isn’t going away, this is going to continue growing at this rate.”

At the same time, we can expect tech companies to look towards ways of making advertising on voice a truly viable option for brands, while we see an increase in marketing to machines.

“Marketing people are experts in influencing the buying behaviour of humans,” says Professor Van Belleghem. “The more algorithms are involved in decision making, the more marketing to machines will increase in importance. This will fundamentally change branding and purchasing.”

The opportunity that voice presents is clear – whether that’s through advertising or just a brand making sure that all the information about it is correct and in-depth, to ensure it is returned at the top of voice search results.
Voice, powered by AI and machine learning, is transforming the way we live and shows no signs of slowing down for anybody or anything. At the very least, the tech companies certainly won’t be slowing down anyway.

This article first appeared in the February 2019 print edition of Mobile Marketing. You can read the complete issue online here