The Touch-Free World: New Voice Business Opportunities Post-Coronavirus

The coronavirus crisis has significantly altered our everyday lives. Behavioral trends that were already underway, including the use of e-commerce, telemedicine, remote learning, video communication, at-home entertainment or exercise, and food delivery, have seen significant acceleration. Consumer shifts that would have otherwise taken years have been compressed into short weeks. While some of the behaviors will revert to pre-crisis patterns, many will stick with us permanently.

For the most part, these rapid changes have been enabled by existing Web and Mobile solutions. Companies like Amazon, Zoom, Slack, Instacart, Microsoft, Google, Netflix, and others were already in-market with established products before their demand skyrocketed overnight. The current environment, however, creates tremendous opportunities for new players, technologies, and solutions. These will take a bit longer to reach consumers but will become the iconic products of tomorrow.

Golden Opportunity for Voice

Companies that innovate and adapt to a world changed by the pandemic will be well positioned in the post-crisis world. Voice technologies are in a particularly favorable position to power the next generation of products.

We will witness two shifts related to Voice:

  1. Existing products will add Voice interfaces
  2. New and unique experiences will emerge, built on Voice as the primary medium

Anyone in quarantine who has ventured out in public has suddenly become acutely aware of touching anything or approaching anyone too closely. No-touch, voice-enabled options to interact with any device around us or to complete routine transactions will become indispensable. Consumers will inevitably demand to have a voice option for the elevator, at the self-checkout counter in the grocery store, ATM, airport interactive map, and anything else that currently requires touch. Similarly, companies concerned with employee safety will implement voice interfaces in the workplace to minimize the risk of virus outbreaks. As brick-and-mortar retail stores reopen, some of the servicing will shift from human-to-human to human-to-virtual assistant, once again relying on Voice interfaces.

A second phenomenon that we are witnessing is that many of us are spending more time at home – away from the office, the mall, the coffee shop, or crowded conferences. This arrangement has opened our eyes to a new reality. Businesses don’t have to pay for expensive offices and employees get to skip out on the commute and retain schedule flexibility. While some workers will eventually return to their traditional workplaces, traveling and attending events, many will continue to work from home. This means that brands that have traditionally relied on foot traffic, event marketing, or other in-person ways of getting in front of their customers urgently have to pivot to new channels of reaching their audiences, literally meeting consumers where they are, in the comfort of their home.

One technology that has decidedly entered the home in the past few years is the smart speaker, with over a third of Americans now having one. Not surprisingly, a recent NPR report indicated that smart speaker usage is up due to the quarantine. It is a golden opportunity for brands that have traditionally relied on in-person marketing and sales to prioritize Voice in their omnichannel strategy.

New Experiences

The current environment offers unique opportunities to meet emerging needs and establish new consumer patterns. Tomorrow’s iconic products are unlikely to include a single modality (e.g., only touch or video) – they are likely to enable multi-modal experiences that combine images, video, touch, audio, and possibly AR/VR, depending on the context of users and the device they use. Voice, if used as a core part of these products rather than retrofitted as an afterthought, will transform the user experience.

There are many emerging needs where Voice is suited as the primary interface. Here are three opportunities brought into focus by the current crisis that could be uniquely addressed with Voice solutions.

  • Mental Wellness at Home

Even before the coronavirus, Western society was already suffering from a loneliness epidemic. Sadly, prolonged social distancing, wide-spread economic hardship, and an ongoing negative news cycle are only feeding into this phenomenon. While an anti-Covid-19 vaccine will hopefully be developed soon, there is no quick or universal fix for mental wellness.

There is a dire need for a digital mental wellness coach who will converse with people experiencing isolation, depression, addiction, or substance abuse. A coach that can “listen”, and provide support and encouragement. A coach that can escalate to a medical professional in a time of crisis. A coach that can guide us through meditation, exercise, building healthier habits, and other self-care procedures. An interactive voice-driven user experience is far mgtore suitable here than a passive consumption of text and images, using touch or keyboards.

  • Connecting stars to fans and patrons

Large-scale events, as we know them, are unlikely to take place for the foreseeable future. It will be some time before we experience packed sports stadiums, performance halls, or festivals again. Yet, the need for stars to connect with their audiences and for audiences to experience thrilling shared experiences are as important as ever. There is a need to reimagine how stars connect with their fans and patrons.

Picture being able to listen to your favorite band from the comfort of your living room and then asking them questions about their art – perhaps about their practice routine, favorite concert, or what inspired a particular song. Different band members, in their own voices, may give you different answers. They may also ask you about what you enjoy about their music. These are asynchronous conversations, with the artists themselves. Having such virtual, personalized exchanges with your favorite artists or athletes will be the future of how sports, arts, and entertainment companies nurture their fan base. There are creative ways in which live events can also be replicated at home, bringing immersive experiences that are shared across distributed fans. Using existing Voice technologies, it is already possible to create such solutions.

  • Elderly care and companionship

We’ve all watched the heartbreaking images of isolated and frightened seniors, unable to receive visitors due to Covid-19. While there is no substitute to having a loved one by one’s side during a time of need, a voice assistant can be a great entertainer, nurse, trainer, and organizer for the elderly. Voice is an excellent interface for seniors to navigate the digital space without having to rely on interfaces that require visual or motor skills (screens, touch, keyboards). A voice assistant designed for the elderly can not only serve as a companion, but can also provide them with the independence to access digital experiences on their own. There are already a number of companies pursuing this space but we’re still short of a great solution. With our aging population, a conversational, helpful, and friendly assistant will become an integral part of seniors’ lives.

Over the past few years, Voice technologies have entered into our everyday lives, but have come short of transforming them. With the current crisis, Voice is poised to be harnessed in ways that reshape how we live. Voice-driven, multi-modal experiences related to interactive learning, at-home fitness and entertainment, product discovery and shopping, entertainment, and many other activities will quickly become the norm. Existing and new businesses exploring opportunities in the changing landscape should look no further for inspiration on how to reach consumers directly. Voice enables innovative and personalized experiences, in the safety of home – exactly what consumers are hungry for today.