Q&A With the Alexa Cup Finalists

The VOICE 19 conference this week will mark the finals of the 2019 Alexa Cup, a global competition to build an Alexa skill and market plan. After a year of qualifying events across 11 countries, the three finalists, present what they’ve created on Wednesday at 4:00 p.m. at the conference. The three finalists include Clemenger BBDO from Australia and New Zealand, Say It Now from the United Kingdom, and Publicis Commerce from the United States. We carried out a brief email Q&A with the finalists to learn more about their plans to solve major business pains. Check out their answers [lightly edited for clarity], and come back later this week to learn who won.

How did the initial idea for the skill come together?

Clemenger BBDO – Stuart Aitken, Strategist

We wanted to find an idea that met a few core tenets that make voice experiences useful. It had to require minimal behavior change on the part of the user (because let’s face it, behavior change is really, really hard). The balance between input (effort required of people who use the skill) and return (the value the skill can provide with that input) had to be just right. And the idea had to be one that lasts and can consistently add value to our users’ lives.

We discovered that one in four people experience anxiety at least once in their lives – a staggering figure – and, despite its prevalence and the availability of simple, effective treatment, [approximately] 60% of sufferers never sought help (or more, depending on geography and culture).

We had a challenge – to understand and address the problem of access to effective anxiety treatment. Our cross-functional team then got together to explore possible solutions and the idea for Inner Voice – a mental health tracking tool that helps people understand, manage and improve their mental health – was born.

Publicis – John Elliott, VP Commerce Practice Lead at Zenith

When we first started thinking about our concept for the Alexa Cup, we thought about the main challenges for voice applications – true value creation, adoption and repeat usage – and thought about how we could solve those issues by approaching our skill a little differently. We drew inspiration from other subscription and daily content models such as podcasts and web-series and came to our central idea, serving premium, daily content through Alexa.

By shifting our own views of Alexa from a “virtual assistant” to an “interactive content provider,” we felt we had a big idea for Alexa. When we looked across the portfolio of Publicis Media clients, we found a clear leader for our concept in Mattel’s Barbie. Barbie is a beloved brand that is also strategically on a journey from product to media platform. We also found an opportunity for our concept to support broader, social goals for the brand as well – using the power of imaginative play to inspire young girls in a world where they are adopting limiting self-beliefs as early as 5 years old. We’re very confident that bringing Barbie to life through Alexa is a win for the brand, for Amazon and Alexa, and most importantly, for our consumer.

Say It Now – Charlie Cadbury, Co-founder and CEO

We leaned on our understanding of Alexa and explored tasks and topics that would meet a customer’s need in a new way. We needed to move quickly, so Sander, our CPO, looked for hard to reach valuable functionality not yet present that would need some inside track to deliver quickly. Having worked closely with marketplace aggregator Booxscale on a number of projects, its knowledge of partnerships played nicely into our concept to deliver the ability for millions of local businesses to be bookable by voice.

How do you see your skill improving customer experience?

Clemenger BBDO – Stuart Aitken, Strategist:

Our research found that anxiety victims fail to seek treatment for a number of reasons.  Many victims never identify a need to seek help in managing their anxiety. Of those that do, many are deterred by the perceived effort of accessing a counsellor or psychologist, and many others fear of the stigma associated with suffering from a mental health condition.

These are large and complex issues that, together, help explain why many anxiety victims fail to seek treatment. Inner Voice helps users understand their mental health so they can begin to proactively manage it, educate them on effective anxiety management strategies proactively so that they don’t need to self-diagnose before accessing treatment, and make access to effective anxiety treatment as easy as invoking Alexa to eliminate the inertia created by the stigma of mental health conditions. Together, we hope Inner Voice will make access to effective anxiety treatment easy – and commonplace.

Publicis – John Elliott, VP Commerce Practice Lead at Zenith:

Voice is an incredible way to move brands from products to service. With this skill, we will move Barbie from a toy product to a dynamic confidence-building resource. It’s no secret that a big factor in voice applications today is “stickiness.” Functions like weather and daily news briefings, however, are popular because they provide value and are in that moment. And that’s what we’re aspiring to with our content approach for Barbie. By developing a content calendar that is a mixture of entertainment, education and seasonally relevant content, we will give our audience a reason to engage each day. We’ll also optimize our content approach for the total Alexa portfolio – so while voice is the common denominator, we’ll make sure our content can be enjoyed through any Alexa-enabled device.

Lastly, because Barbie has a physical presence, we’ll consider how physical products can aid in our content experience. Part of our proposed business model includes a physical product subscription box each month that can be additive to the Barbie experience.

Say It Now – Charlie Cadbury, Co-founder and CEO:

Our research shows that people expect it to be as easy to book services as it is to order a product. Our concept also plays to all parties involved. Marketplaces are massively on the rise, channeling new business to small enterprises that, in turn, are very unlikely to build their own (Alexa) skill. We are enabling these marketplaces to rapidly deliver this benefit to them via Alexa.

What was the biggest obstacle to overcome or surprise in the process?

Clemenger BBDO – Sabrina Riedel, Interactive Executive Producer

Once we had defined that we wanted to tackle anxiety, we were surprised how natural a fit voice was, able to answer the complex issue in a very simple and seamless way. Effective anxiety management strategies prevent downward spirals by disrupting anxiety victims’ negative inner voice and pessimistic thought patterns through reinforcement of positive experiences, thoughts, and memories. We created a skill to stay well and manage anxiety by keeping track of it over time and listening to your inner voice. During research for the skill we came across extensive support for both the use of voice and the use of the self-affirmation recording function. We knew the issue of mental health is very complex and we wanted to ensure we would design a solution that made sense.

As we worked on the prototype and conversation design, voice as a solutions reaffirmed itself at every corner we took. Everything just fit and it meant we could concentrate on creating the best experience within the medium. We leaned on extensive behavioral research to be guided on some of the obstacles we encountered when developing the skill. We are lucky that our local partner, Beyond Blue, an NFP dedicated to improving Australians’ mental health, has an extensive library of information and research to guide us through. Overall the process went a lot smoother than we initially hoped.

Publicis – John Elliott, VP Commerce Practice Lead at Zenith:

Kids today have become so discerning considering the technology options they have at their fingertips. Our biggest challenge was to create a content experience that could live up to the dreams and expectations of our consumer and bring Barbie to life on Alexa in the right way. These are Barbie super fans after all and we want to create an experience that feels as if Barbie was in your living room, talking to you. So this impacted not only our content strategy but also our experience design.

We are seeking to create frequent engagement points within our skill so it felt like Barbie talking with you and not at you. We also have to consider the possible negative experiences and seek to minimize those too. Our content experiences can’t be so complex that a child couldn’t navigate them easily or hinge completely on answering a question correctly, for example. We also had to really think about the role of parents as the gatekeeper. We gave parents control over what information they wanted (and were willing) to provide on behalf of their household. Those were all interesting strategic challenges that we will have to be top of mind as we build this experience.

Say It Now – Charlie Cadbury, Co-founder and CEO:

We are a relatively small business ourselves, being just a year old and under 20 people.  Most of the competition we have come up against in the Alexa Cup has been from multinational agencies with far, far higher pitch budgets so we were definitely outclassed in terms of gloss on our initial slides! However, the scale of the customer benefit, ambition, and utility of the proposition seemed to resonate with the judges thus far.

What comes next after developing this skill?

Clemenger BBDO – Sabrina Riedel, Interactive Executive Producer:

We are working closely with Beyond Blue in making the skill a reality. The organization is very excited about the opportunity the skill brings for them to amplify their message and to make treatment accessible. They see the application of the skill beyond anxiety and after the release of Inner Voice we will work with them to see how we can extend it to other Mental Health issue Beyond Blue wants to tackle.

The exciting thing about the skill is also its potential to scale globally and the massive impact it can have. If we can encourage as few as 1 in 20 to take control of their Inner Voice, we can eliminate billions in health costs to the global economy, and more importantly help millions of anxiety sufferers around the world feel better, every day.

Publicis – John Elliott, VP Commerce Practice Lead at Zenith:

Initially, the focus will be on bringing Barbie to life through voice or voice-plus-visual, leveraging her many talents and abilities. But we have a future vision for a multi-platform experience that integrates our Alexa skill and Amazon Prime video content. We dream of an experience where Barbie can jump off the TV screen and engage with viewers through Alexa. This takes imaginative play to a whole new world of possibilities.

Say It Now – Charlie Cadbury, Co-founder and CEO:

It’s a huge undertaking. As Alexa opens up new geographic regions, we will need to have coverage in these locations and, as more marketplaces launch, ensure they are supported so that customers have maximum choice and as many small businesses as possible have access globally.  This is really an enabling play for the smaller enterprise; our initial working title was ‘Project Robin Hood’ and I like to think we still embody that spirit.