This post originally appeared on the PullString blog.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last twelve months, you’ve heard about voice assistants. They go by the name of Alexa, Google Assistant or Siri and can give you information about your commute or the weather, turn lights on and off, book flights, and order groceries. A line of questioning we hear a lot from CMOs in North America and Europe is: should they even care about this latest technology trend, does voice deserve its own strategy, does it warrant attention at their level of the organization?
We believe there are four strategic reasons why every CMO should start thinking about what voice assistant customer engagement means for their digital transformation strategy.
1) Smart speakers adoption rates surpass that of smartphones
Apple brought digital assistants to the mainstream with Siri back in 2011. Siri was a way to interact with your phone without having to type—still a cumbersome exercise on most phones today. Slowly Siri made its way into all Apple devices.
In 2014, Amazon introduced its voice assistant Alexa and started the smart speaker category with the Amazon Echo. The Echo has now evolved into a full line of speakers, each geared towards a different location in your home. Google quickly followed suit and introduced Google Assistant along with its own smart speaker, Google Home, in 2016.
Unlike Apple, who kept Siri as a walled garden ecosystem, Amazon and Google have opened their platforms to developers and hardware partners. Both boast thousands of apps created for their platform and announced scores of partnerships with car manufacturers and home appliances manufacturers at CES in january. The strategy is to make their digital assistant as ubiquitous as possible.
Brands like CapitalOne and Domino’s Pizza have leveraged this new ecosystem to let their customers check accounts, pay bills, and order pizza by talking to their voice assistants. Though Google and Amazon control 90% of the US smart speaker market, Samsung and Microsoft are building competitive products; in China, the market is mostly owned by Alibaba and Baidu.
The technology behind these voice assistant is rapidly evolving. While people used to make fun of Siri’s ability to understand them back in 2011, voice recognition error rates have dropped consistently over the years and automatic speech recognition (ASR) is now at parity with human ability. And, customers have responded enthusiastically to this increase in quality. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos claimed that the Echo was the number one selling product on Amazon.com in both 2016 and 2017. Google announced earlier this year that it sold one Google Home smart speaker every second between October and December 2017—that would be 7.6 million units. A recent study by Voicebot.ai in collaboration with PullString evaluates the penetration of Smart speakers in the US at 19.7% up from less than 1% just 2 years ago. It represents an adoption curve similar to social media and faster than the smartphone adoption curve.
Sources: Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2017) – “Technology Diffusion & Adoption”, published online at OurWorldInData.org and Voicebot.ai, Voicebot Smart Speaker Consumer Adoption Report 2018
Every time one of these devices is setup within a home, it changes people’s behavior: it changes how they listen to music and radio, how they access information about the weather and their commute, and how they order goods and services. Is your brand ready for these shifts in behavior?
2) The rise of screenless interactions
In 1995, Brazilian author Jose Saramago published a book called Blindness (Ensaio sobre a cegueira). In it, he examines what happens to a society that suffers a sudden and mass epidemic of blindness. Imagine if the same blindness epidemic impacted all of your customers. Imagine what would happen if your customers interacted with you only via smart speaker, wearables and other IoT screenless devices. This is a world that Andy Goodman from Fjord calls Zero UI .
Zero UI is not only driven by technology advances but also by demographic and regulatory changes. As the 72 million US baby boomers age, their eyesight is getting worse, making it harder and harder to consume information on screen. Additionally, in January of this year, the American with Disability Act (ADA) expanded to include access to websites and digital information. Public facing websites are now required to be accessible to people with impaired vision (who can not read a screen) or impaired mobility (who can not use a keyboard). Companies whose websites are not compliant will find themselves liable under the ADA.
If done right, voice-based screenless or “eyes off” interactions have the potential to expand your audience by providing technology access to millions of people who are unable to access or interact with a screen. It also extends your ability to engage with customers at times when screened interactions aren’t ideal (i.e. driving, cooking, exercising).
Zero UI, however, will require some major shifts within your marketing budget. So far you have spent and continue to spend millions of dollars on marketing for the eyes: logo, signage, brochures, web pages. But how do you market for the ear? What does your brand sound like?
Voice and sound represent an interesting brand opportunity. Sounds are the least easy things to remember, yet they provide the largest emotional impact. A psychology study from the University of Iowa showed that we don’t remember things we hear as well as things we see or touch. But in his book, “The Universal Sense,” Seth Horowitz, an auditory neuroscientist at Brown University, explains how one of the most important and effective drivers of emotion is sound because it works underneath our cognitive radar. For example, the sound of a swarm of bees will immediately trigger a sense of danger. No other sense matches the emotional power of sound.
Voice represents a unique opportunity for your brand to expand its audience and create a strong emotional bond. But what will you brand sound like? What will your voice be? Will you use the default Alexa voice which users may associate more with Amazon or will you develop your own voice and personality?
3) Voice-First design will put your data strategy to the test
Just as many organizations have completed their digital transformation to be “mobile first,” a new design paradigm is emerging: “voice-first.” Voice as a medium introduces some core challenges. It is transient and does not offer any persistence—as a result it is not well-suited to expansive choice presentation: people will hardly remember more than three options. In order to be useful, voice assistants should anticipate user needs and offer one or two choices based on contextual information.
In the current world of visual design, you attempt to narrow customer choices and drive them to calls to action (CTA) on your website. But if you fail to show the right CTA, there are other visual elements that help users find the product or information they are looking for. The stakes are much higher with voice. If you don’t get the CTA right, there is little chance that your customer will continue the conversation; they have no visual clue to indicate what else they can do.
Voice-First design will put the investments you’ve made in analytics, big data and AI to the test. Will you be able to determine customer context in order to present the right call to action? Will you be able to anticipate their needs and reach the Grail of the right offer at the right price at the right time? Voice-First design is not just for voice—if you can build an AI platform that can anticipate the customer needs with minimal error rate, not only will you create a great voice experience, it will also dramatically improve the experience on your website or mobile app.
4) The rise of conversational commerce
Voice Assistants can also play the role of personal shopper: 11.5% of smart speaker owner already make one or more purchases via voice monthly.
In an interview with Yahoo! Finance, 1-800-FLOWERS.COM CEO Chris McCann sees a “fifth wave” in retail that will change the way consumers shop. He believes that “18 to 24 months from now these conversational commerce capabilities [like] Alexa or Google Assistant – will be a predominant entry point for our brands”.
- Voice Assistants offer amazing convenience to customers by removing any friction in the ordering process. “Alexa, order ground coffee” and 2 hours later coffee is delivered to your door. Will it be Starbucks, Peets, Folgers?
- Voice Assistants have the power to disrupt the customer decision journey at the product consideration step and loyalty step.
- Voice Assistants are going to become prescribing agents at the initial consideration step.
Imagine the following dialogue:
User: “Assistant, order ground coffee.”
Assistant: “Sure, which brand would you like-Peets or Folgers?”
What if your brand is not one of these two choices? Of course, the user can continue the conversation with the assistant to ensure it orders the coffee they want. But companies like Amazon and Google that control these Assistants will wield enormous power in terms of which initial options to present. How will you guarantee you are part of the consideration set in your product category? Or can you train customers to request your brand?
This initial product consideration step is even more crucial given that voice assistants will entrench that decision in the customer shopping habit.
User: “Assistant, order ground coffee.”
Assistant: “Sure, ordering your usual.”
As long as you are happy with the product, voice assistants will eliminate the opportunity to consider an alternative. It’s great news if your brand was the one initially chosen. If not, it’s your worst nightmare. Customers will no longer browse those supermarket aisles where new packaging might catch their eye and tempt them to try a new brand.
As customers are becoming more and more familiar with making purchases via smart speaker, where is your brand? What is your strategy to ensure you can win the consideration step and then entrench your brand by removing all friction from the re-ordering process?
Call to Action
Voice Assistants are rapidly being adopted in households across America and changing behaviors—from how people access information to how they shop. Is your brand ready to tackle this new strategic challenge? We believe every CMO should start thinking about these four key questions immediately as the prescribing nature of smart speakers and the narrow choices they provide to users offer a natural first mover advantage:
- Are smart speakers altering your customers’ purchase behavior?
- What does your brand identity sound like in a screenless world?
- Is your analytics infrastructure ready to anticipate customer needs?
- How will your brand be present at the consideration and re-order step via voice channel?
We will address some of these questions and more in future blog posts. Stay tuned! If there are any topic you would like us to address in this series, contact me on Twitter at @gprivat.