Hive Content

IAB Report Suggests It Is Time To Act on Voice

Despite many reports and articles suggesting that now is the time to think about how your brand sounds this is not the case.

The time to do that was two years ago! Don’t worry though, there is still time to catch up.

The Interactive Advertising Burea (IAB) has recently published a report making key recommendations to US-based marketers on how to adapt to an increasingly screen-less world and it adds some urgency to those who have been slow to consider how they will approach this new channel.

The full report is well worth a read but, here I have tried to pull some of the main findings and drill down into what we can learn about brands and voice going forward into 2020.

The IAB recognizes the huge growth in screenless devices over the past few years. There has been no technology in history that has had the same adoption rate as Voice Assistants and the rapid growth of the channel has meant that some marketers have been slow to react at the same speed.

“Brands who don’t educate themselves on the screenless device marketplace could be significantly missing out on reaching new and untapped audiences and/or risk losing relevance in an ever-growing cluttered space of brands and advertisements.”

Recognizing the power of audio in delivering clear emotive messages is nothing new. You only have to consider how Winston Churchill’s iconic “We will fight them on the beaches” speech, broadcast across the country, rallied a nation in the Second World War (and countless other historical examples) to realize the impact that audio alone can have.

In radio (a medium in which I’ve worked for 20 years), we often talk about the deep and personal connection that a listener experiences with a presenter or radio brand – by harnessing audio and Voice First we are being presented with a new opportunity to reimagine and enhance that relationship.

The IAB report also draws attention to the effect that screenless devices are having on screen-led interactions.

Smart-Speaker users often report they are spending less time with smart devices such as phones and tablets. This is reported as a direct result of owning a Smart Speaker. This is the first time technology has disrupted the growth in the use of smart-screen devices. It also indicated that many parents who have purchased a Smart Speaker device have done so with the explicit intention of reducing screen-time for their children (information pulled from Edison’s Infinite Dial research). This would suggest we could see a huge shift in user behavior in the future. I have written before about how Children growing up with Voice Technology now, in 10-15 years, will interact with this technology in a much more frequent and natural way. This research suggests that as well as this being an unconscious change some individuals are also making the conscious choice to turn away from screens.

The evidence supporting a voice-first future is certainly mounting up and yet some major brands still prioritize a flashy business card (destined for the nearest paper bin) over a fully thought out audio identity that reflects how they want to be perceived by prospective customers. I’m not suggesting that audio should be prioritized over visual or other marketing techniques. Rather it is important to consider how the different pieces of the puzzle fit together.

With Voice-Activation is on the rise (and now present in most IoT hardware) it is equally important to remember that just because a device is “Voice First” doesn’t mean it is “Voice Only” with many devices combining visual and audio stimulus. Creating a cohesive brand across all formats is very important.

Comparisons are also made in the report between the high impact of advertising/marketing within podcasting and the potential of Voice First. Recent research by Edison and Podcast One showed that podcast “Superlisteners” (those who consume more than 5 hours a week of podcasts) rather than objecting to brand promotions within podcasts instead actually welcome them. Often seeing them as a facilitator in supplying the niche content that they desire. They are also more open to hearing the adds, consumed the content more positively and, importantly are more susceptible to the messaging within. The IAB suggests that these habits are similar to Smart Speaker users.

“Smart speaker owners are open to using skills or apps from brands, and on-platform targeted advertising is becoming more prevalent in Flash Briefings or music services.”

So what does this all mean for brands and their relationship with audio?

Essentially it suggests that if you aren’t already considering you audio branding strategy then you need to make inroads now and not JUST by considering how you can leverage Smart-Speaker technology.

As well as Alexa and other SST hardware brands need to think about different types of hardware that may now, and in the future, carry Voice-First technology and also how the popularity of mobile-powered Bluetooth audio opens up new places in which people can consume on-demand audio content.

This provides a whole new range of opportunities and also challenges at the same time. Rather than delivering one-size-fits-all audio content to a variety of listeners in a variety of environments (as we have with radio content for many years) we now have to consider location, demographics, listening habits and even elements such as local weather conditions – all which could influence the type of content that a user may want and their susceptibility to messages.

This offers the opportunity to delivery incredibly targeted audio to a very precise audience helping brands and marketers to cut through the noise in a crowded market.

Audio can also no longer be seen as an independent media. Not only should your audio brand relate directly to other elements of your marketing strategy but more and more frequently we are seeing smart audio and images being delivered hand in hand (via Smart TVs and products like the Alexa Show).

The combination of visual and audio along with the prevalence of Smart Audio Delivery allows a brand to potentially be present in a consumers life like never before:

“How do these technologies fit together? How do we move a user from their Smart TV at home, into their car on their commute and then with their desktop (and even in between these locations with smartwatches and mobile devices).”

This is not Radio 2.0 this is a BRAND NEW marketing channel (has this truely happened since the launch of television?) that not only allows a consumer to buy a product with a direct, instinctive response to a single question but allows brands to create rich, emotive and incredibly bespoke content to help illicit the correct response to a sales question.

Audio has always been an effective tool in marketing and those who have been slow previously to explore the possibilities must start to pay serious attention now or be left playing catch up in the very near future.

**All quotes are taken from the AIB report “Recommendations to Marketers in a Screenless World”

Super-Listener: The Hero that Podcasting Needs.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No its a Super-Listener… and it could be the secret to unlocking a podcasts financial potential.

Every technology has its “power-users”. A small number of consumers that account for a high level of use. In podcasting, these are known as “Super-Listeners” and it refers to listeners who consume more than five hours of podcasts a week. In radio terms, they are Podcasts P1’s.

Edison Research & Podcast One have just unveiled the results of a study into these users and their behaviour and there are some very promising findings for podcasting as a whole.

Super-listeners have always been important to the podcast scene. Not only are they the consumers who are most likely to hear advertising but they also tend to be evangelists for the medium, recommending their favourite shows to friends (96% of Super-Listeners tell their friends about their favourite shows) and spreading the good word of podcasts. This latest research provides a little more information about the behaviour of those individuals.

Initially, some of the findings of the research could be considered worrying but, when viewed as a whole, the research point to podcasting as an incredibly effective way to reach an audience.

It would seem that many Podcast “Super-Listeners” do their best to avoid advertising. They listen to podcasts, subscribe to services such as Netflix and consume music via streaming services all as a way to avoid advertising (22% say this is a motivating factor for using such services). However, rather his being a negative for podcasting as a tool for marketeers it is actually a strength.

With podcasters doing their best to LIMIT their exposure to advertising you might assume that podcasting becomes an ineffective way to reach those listeners but it would seem that the opposite is true.

Whilst we must keep in mind that this particular sample group will naturally look favourably on podcasting as a whole, the way this group of advert-adverse listeners react to adverts withing podcasting is still impressive and encouraging.

Not only do 44% of listeners pay attention to the adverts they hear but 37% agree that podcast advertising is the best way for a brand to reach them personally.

There are also some interesting statistics that show podcast listeners who hear an advert are more likely to consider that product (42%) compare to similar advertisements on the internet (33%) or on Social Media (31%).

No alt text provided for this image

What I found really interesting however is the “Halo Affect” that a podcast can have on an affiliated brand.

We know that podcast listeners are fiercely loyal. The intimacy of Podcasting (and audio to a certain extent) leads to listeners building deep, meaningful relationships with their hosts. Because of this relationship they view any brands working with those hosts/shows in a favourable way. Almost an “any friend of yours is a friend of mine” attitude to advertising, which becomes a very powerful tool in the arsenal of podcasting. Not only can a brand promote their products effectively they can also user podcasting to improve their public perception – just by being present on the medium.

No alt text provided for this image

What does it mean?

Not only are podcasts an effective way of delivering a product to an incredibly targeted audience but now this research suggests that listeners are more likely to take action on that promotion.

This could be accredited to the synergy between product and audience and ability to hit precise demographics but, as this research suggests, elements such as trust and loyalty come into play too.

Because of relationships built with their favourite shows, listeners become not only more susceptible to placement within those shows but may even view a brand appearing within a podcast in a more favourable light – they appreciate their role in bringing them their favourite shows!

Previous Edison research  (from 2015) has already found that, in general, Podcast listeners are higher educated, more tech-savvy and have more disposable income than your average consumer which adds further appeal to a vibrant podcasting market.

With a highly engaged, affluent and susceptible audience within easy reach its easy to see why more and more money is being poured into podcast advertising every year.

You can read the full report and watch the webinar from Edison Research and Podcast One here.

How security fears could stunt the growth of Smart Speakers

Ever since the arrival of the Smart Speaker and its Voice Activated friends, there have been those voicing concern about the perceived security of such devices.

The idea of an electronic stranger listening and monitoring everything that is said in the home is, understandably, disconcerting for some. It is also perfectly natural that with a new technology comes with a certain amount of mistrust from its adopters. When it comes to Voice Assistant’s however, it could be that attempts to allay consumer fears over security could result in Smart Speakers being less… well… smart.

In the past few weeks, the state of California put forward legislation that would require the likes of Amazon and Google to get a users permission, in writing, before their Smart Speaker devices can store voice recordings. It would also prevent manufacturers from sharing any recordings they DO make with 3rd parties (in Amazon’s case the developers who are creating their Voice Apps or Skills).

Jordan Cunningham, who authored the “Anti-Evesdropping Act” said:

“Today, the State Assembly sent a strong message to the tech giants who have spent years recording and retaining private conversations in the home via smart devices.”

If the bill passes into law whilst it may well provide some reassurances to those worrying that tech giants are spying on their everyday conversations, at the same time it could greatly hinder the development of this technology.

Google, Amazon and Apple all rely heavily on the data, utterances and conversations that they record and process to improve the way their technology interacts with the human voice. Without this data, progression in this area could slow or even stall.

Amazon has already taken their own initiative to combat these concerns, and maybe placate the lawmakers, by announcing that it “soon” intends to allow users of the Alexa platform to delete everything recorded by their device on a daily basis (nicknamed the ‘Amnesia Command’). Although, it remains to be seen if that step will be far enough, especially when you consider that Alexa listens, records and communicates with the “Cloud” every few seconds in order to identify, receive and process commands (although only legitimate commands are stored). This step is in addition to the existing layers of security and privacy protections.

Security IS important for ANY device that is part of the IOT. But, being overly cautious in this area could seriously stifle the development of the platform and create huge barriers to its useful application.

These type of Voice Recognition systems rely heavily on machine learning. The more you communicate with them the more they can recognise speech patterns, vocabulary, nuance, slang. This happens not just in general terms but in some cases on a user-by-user basis.

Processing that huge volume of data doesn’t happen in the little tube on your desk either. Recorded audio must be uploaded and analysed elsewhere, by machines and humans. If we limit the data that we are sending to be processed we are also limiting the information from which the machine can learn and thus limiting the machines ability to understand, and even mimic, human communication.

One of the concerns raised by Cunningham was that such devices can “wake” with erroneous commands with users accidentally prompting a response from their device. The irony is that such early bugs will be impossible to fix without the very data that the act wishes to deny access too.

Voice recognition is already showing it’s benefits to the user. From streamlining daily activities to communicating for those who struggle to communicate the applications for the technology are forever expanding.

It’s going to come down to a simple choice. Embrace the new technology and potential invasion of privacy that comes with it (as we have done with previously Social Media and Smart Phones) or reject the idea of a future full of frictionless voice activation and interconnected homes.

The two may not be compatible.

 

Will Alexa Find Her Home ‘On The Road’?

Alexa is officially strapped in and ready to ride the highways of the USA.

Back in September Amazon announced, as part of a whole raft of “Voice Enabled” products, that they would be launching the “Echo Auto”: a way to take Amazon’s Voice Assistant with you on every road trip. Well, now it’s here… but only Stateside!

Since the launch of the Alexa platform, I have always felt it could well find its natural home on the move. What better use could there be for a handsfree/voice activated system than when both your hands are occupied? Amazon’s voice recognition processing may be a little clunky at times but when compared to your mobile handsets speech-to-text software its miles ahead. Add to that the benefit of being able to access a world of podcast entertainment with just a sentence and you can begin to see how Echo Auto could soon become the must-have in-car system.

The device itself sits on your dashboard and connects via your mobile phone (it won’t work with in-car systems like Android Auto and Apple Car Play right now) picking up commands via an array of special microphones designed to cut out road noise and clearly pick up the users voice.

As well as the usual Alexa functions such as asking for information, Smart-Home functions and entertainment, the Alexa experience has been tweaked to add in location-specific functions such as directions and points of interest depending on exactly where you are in the world.

The first few Echo Auto’s have now been shipped to a “small” group of customers with demand already “through the roof” with Amazon claiming that there have already been 1million requests for the device (priced at $24.99).

Amazon, by providing an in-car platform for their voice assistant, is only going to gain greater advantage over their rivals and increase their market share. Especially when you add that to manufactures such as BMW, Ford and Toyota who have elected to integrate Alexa into many of their new models. What remains to be seen is how developers can take advantage of the opportunity.

We have long spoken about the “potential” of Voice First but, in reality, much of that potential is yet to be realised. For the most part, the average user sees their Echo device as a novelty rather than an essential in everyday life.

This is largely down to two reasons.

Firstly, we are so used to performing most of the functions that Smart Speakers offers via a Smart Phone; For years we have been trained to turn to the computer in our pockets to perform searches, access entertainment and complete functions and that behaviour is hard to change.

Secondly, the locations where we have these devices (such as the lounge/kitchen) are, in general places, where we are free to use our hands. We can tap at phones and look at screens. So, undertaking these operations via voice still feels like an unnatural action.

Both of these hurdles are overcome when in a vehicle.

Not only are we much more used to using voice commands when driving (I’m sure we’ve all made a hands free call behind the wheel) but establishing a “need” for the functions is instantaneous. We can’t, or at least shouldn’t, be using our hands to make calls, tune radios or find podcasts when we are driving and Alexa solves that problem.

What other potential issues can be solved by adding voice control to a car remains to be seen but it could well be that Alexa finds her true home on the road.

Alexa wants to diagnose your illness and sell you meds!

Since their inception 6 years ago, the potential use of Smart Speakers within the healthcare system has been an area that many have been keen to explore and the latest move by Amazon shows that this has not passed them by.

In general, Amazon’s key strategy with the Alexa platform is simple; Another way to sell. A voice-activated route straight into their global marketplace. It would seem, at first glance that the latest move from the tech giants was a diversion from this key principle… but only at first glance.

Earlier this year Amazon submitted a patent for technology that allows an Alexa-type device analyse the users your voice in order to determine both your physical and emotional health.

The patent in question is for a voice assistant that can use a “Voice processing algorithm” to determine the users’ emotional state and detect any “abnormal” conditions. By identifying emotions such as “Happiness, joy, anger, sorrow and stress” it can in turn realise abnormalities when compared to the users’s normal pitch tone etc… and compare that to other similar cases.

“Physical conditions such as sore throats and coughs may be determined based at least in part on a voice input from the user, and emotional conditions such as an excited emotional state or a sad emotional state may be determined based at least in part on voice input from a user. A cough or sniffle, or crying, may indicate that the user has a specific physical or emotional abnormality.” – Amazon Patent

It would appear that this is a move away from Amazon’s core “sales funnel” principles but, further reading proves this not to be the case. The result of being able to identify a user’s emotions and physical state is the ability to then sell targeted adverts that can treat that condition:

“A current physical and/or emotional condition of the user may facilitate the ability to provide highly targeted audio content, such as audio advertisements or promotions, to the user. For example, certain content, such as content related to cough drops or flu medicine, may be targeted towards users who have sore throats.” – Amazon Patent

There is no guarantee of course that this patented product will ever make it to market. Plus, some fundamental questions about user privacy will need to be answered before it does. But, it does give a glimpse into the future world of targeted ads and ultimately it all comes down to one simple belief: The more an advertiser knows about its customer the easier it becomes to sell a product…. and Smark Speakers are great at harvesting data!

It makes perfect sense that Amazon are keen to explore the Health Care market having already this year set up their own Health & Wellness Team and purchased online prescription service Pill Pack. Add that to the potential size of the healthcare market and it is no surprise that Amazon are looking for ways to monetize in this area.

However, I believe, the potential impact of Amazon Alexa and other Smart Speakers on the Health Care market reaches far beyond diagnosis and selling medicine/related services.

We have already seen many case studies where local health authorities have used Smart Speakers as a way to keep in touch with patients isolated by both their conditions and/or geography.

We have also seen how “Smart Homes” can help those with physically limiting conditions perform tasks in their homes that previously they could not.

As a diagnosis tool, however, we should proceed with caution. Anyone who has ever turned to google to diagnose a potential medical condition will know the pitfalls that can have. A simple stomachache fast becomes something far more serious after browsing a couple of on-line diagnosis websites. This misdiagnosis can only be amplified when you take away the ability to browse through countless pages and instead rely on, as voice does, the first returned option.

I have no doubt that Alexa and her Smart-Speakers brothers and sister will have a big impact on Health Care in the future but whether it can effectively diagnose medical issues, and prescribe the correct medication, remains to be seen.

Alexa may well become our future GP… but will she have our best interests at heart?

 

 

Alexa… Play Capital! Global’s new Ad hints at Smart-Speaker strategy.

This week UK radio station Capital FM launched their brand new TV ad campaign. Alongside the usual plethora of Pop Stars (that I’m sure you recognise and I don’t) was a more familiar face… Alexa, or at least an unbranded version of Alexa.

The ad (which you can see below) shows two typical target audience types accessing a world of “Hit Music” all via the simple phrase “Play Capital” but it reveals a lot than just another way to listen to “The UK’s Number One Hit Music Station”.

Having watched the promo, I think there are a few things to consider about its potential impact and implications: Not least why Shaun Mendez (I googled it) is playing Ice Hockey with a ball and not a puck?

Capital is a cool, young brand and it needs to appear in touch with the Zeitgeist. So, it makes perfect sense that they should feature a new cool technology in their advertisement. Its inclusion also hints at the growth of Smart Speakers. The younger generation has always been the “Early Adopters” when it comes to new technology and with Global featuring it so prominently in their campaign, is suggested that the technology is beginning to filter through to the mainstream now too.

Here, however, featuring the technology so prominently suggests a smart play by the radio giant.

For a while, now Global (the owners of the Capital brand) have been showing an interest in Smart Speaker technology; each of their radio brands (Heart, XFM, Classic, LBC) have their own dedicated Alexa Skills. They have also added messages informing listeners that they are available via Smart Speakers too their Top of Hour production (the flashy ident you hear at the beginning of an hour, often before a news bulletin) on all these brands radio feeds.

It would appear that there is a concerted effort to drive listeners to consume the Global product via Smart Speaker technology. The reasoning for this could be as simple as giving people yet another way to listen to their audio in addition to FM, DAB, OnLine, in App etc… It makes perfect sense that if you make it easier for a listener to find you then the more listeners you will find, right?

But Global have approached this problem in a different way to their radio rivals and it could bring big benefits.

I’ve not been completely convinced about the benefit of radio stations creating their own native players for Smart Speakers. They rarely offer any useful functionality beyond listening to the desired station, functionality that is available via native radio players Skills such as Tune In. Unlike a phone app they provide no visual prompt to return to that station and (until push notifications are added by Amazon) I believe they largely remain unused with user preferring to use a command such as ‘Alexa Play Smooth North West’ which accesses Tune In rather than ‘Alexa Open Smooth North West and Play’. The first is more conversational and has less friction, the keys to Voice First user experience. This is not to say there isn’t the capability to build in extra, valuable functionality. But at present, they tend to offer very little.

Global, however, appear to have created their own player to rival the likes of Tune-In. This means they can “own” commands such as “Play Capital” (or any other of their stations) and it will access that station via their Global Player. It’s a similar model to that adopted by the BBC with their (excellent) Smart-Speaker audio player.

It’s a nice idea but what advantages does this give Captial and Global?
Firstly, I’d speculate that this project would have been undertaken in partnership with Amazon themselves and no doubt also comes hand-in-hand with some advanced audience insights that aren’t available to the normal Amazon developer. All very handy when taking your product to an advertiser.

Secondly, Global are setting themselves up perfectly to take full advantage of the technology as it matures. By directing listeners to their own Smart-Speaker audio stream they also have the capability to programme targeted advertisements to those individuals in a way you can not on the traditional radio. Not only by using the Amazon insights on listeners mentioned above but also by creating “Alexa only” spots that allow listeners to directly access more information or special offers with a simple question, command or statement all without leaving Global Player.

Finally, and maybe most tellingly, Global are training their audience. Voice First has no visual prompts. You have no buttons and menus and so voice commands become almost instinctive. The technology is not at a stage yet where it can decipher what you need and present with you the best Skill/Action to complete that task without first hearing a very precise command (yet, although it is on the way) and Global have found a solution to that problem. They’re are putting the command you need to access their content front and centre of their messaging. Repeatedly telling the audience that to access more content via Smart Speakers you must say “Alexa Play Capital” – It’s the voice equivalent of adding a radio station to pre-set 1 in your car.

Not only are Global Radio making sure they are in every place that their audience may wish to listen to music but they are also ensuring, literally, that they are the name on everyone’s lips when it comes to UK radio on the Amazon Echo.

**You can read more about the potential of targeted ads in our blog about the work of “A Million Ads” here.

Why Does Alexa Have A Female Voice?

Have you ever stopped to consider why Amazon’s “Alexa” has a female voice… Or Siri for that matter… or the Satellite Navigation device you used to keep in your glove box (unless you’d downloaded that hilarious Mr T version of course)?

In terms of Voice Assistants; Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Google have all added a female touch to their digital personalities and it’s not by chance. It also is an interesting example of how important considering the “sound” of our brand can be.

The answer, in Amazon’s case, is fairly simple. There are many studies that conclude that adding a female voice to a computer operated system can make it seem caring, sympathetic and more helpful to its user (in other words more human). It’s simply a way to increase customer satisfaction based on how (most) human brains process voice because, according to a Hanover College study (and many others), heard each sex’s voice automatically triggers certain stereotypical expectations.

Amazon were asking a lot from the consumers when they introduced Alexa into our homes. A new personality would be sitting, and listening, in the corner of our living spaces and trust was an important factor in making that relationship work and adding a female voice would help build that trust.

It wasn’t a decision made lightly according to the head of Amazon’s “Smart Home” division Daniel Rausch:

“We carried out research and found that a woman’s voice is more ‘sympathetic’ and better received.”

He also explained that during their test’s they found that users were more willing to take instruction from female voices – which is in keeping with many trials of a similar nature down the years.

We can learn two clear things from this… One, it looks like the future of Voice Technology will be female fronted and Two, how important it is to consider the “sounds” of your brand.

(READ: ‘What Does Your Brand Sound Like?’).

For Amazon, it was important that their device appeared helpful and trustworthy. Their business model isn’t based on selling ‘Alexa Enabled’ devices but on the commerce they can deliver via those devices and so trust was a key part of that, making us more likely to make purchases via the platform.

For your brand, ‘trust’ may not be a key issue. There may be some other message you want to get across or another emotion you wish to trigger?

Edginess?
Intelligence?
Excitement?

When giving your brand a “voice” presence it’s important to consider how it might sound or what type of voice might best match that core value.

Sure, for certain applications and functions you will need to use Alexa’s inbuilt VOX, indeed in some cases, it’s the best option. Outside of those uses, however, you need to ask the question as to what you want the voice of your brand to sound like and how should it feel.

Business’ spends millions of pounds every year on logos, websites and business cards but very few spend even the time to consider how a medium as powerful as sound can work for them. With the growth and potential of Voice First, that is soon going to change… and you can be ahead of the curve.

How do people ACTUALLY use their Smart Speakers (Infographic)

I spend a lot of time talking to businesses about the POTENTIAL of Smart Speakers and Voice First tech… gazing wistfully into the future and trying to predict how a voice-activated world might look. Sometimes however, you have to focus on the now.

I spoke recently to an Amazon Architect who confessed that use of their Alexa devices is still pretty basic. People make simple requests and rarely interact with their Voice Assistant in the way intended. This is certainly backed up by Alexa Skills retention rates which are, at best, poor with only 2% of Skills being continually used 2 weeks after they are first enabled.

Yet reportedly, in the US alone, 43.7 million people already have a Smart Speaker device in their home with that number set to soar to cover half of ALL consumers by the end of 2018. So what are people ACTUALLY using them for?

Now, new research for Adobe Analytics (in the US) backs up the suggestion that for all the exciting potential functionality that Voice offers, the reality is pretty boring.

It would appear that one of the most powerful devices in the Internet of Things is being used for the most mundane of tasks; asking for weather, playing music and setting timers… it doesn’t feel like the life-changing technology we were all promised right?

However, there are more promising signs amongst the research too. Smart Speaker usage is on the rise. This is partly down to increased market distribution but also down to owners becoming more and more familiar with what their devices can do, the way they work and making them part of their daily routines.

A glance at the “Emerging Activities” section of the graph above shows that slowly and surely people are demanding more from their devices and pushing them further in terms of what they can do. 17% of people will order takeout via their device, 20% are playing games and 30% are using them for shopping – one of the main intended uses when Amazon launched Alexa back in 2013.

Louis Georgiou of Code Computerlove, who conducted a similar usage survey, concluded that these new usage statistics show we have only seen the tip of the Voice Assistant iceberg:

“A lot of people are banking on home speakers being the future of home automation — and they are certainly making progress in helping homeowners link all their smart technology together. But I think this survey reinforces that we’re probably not using the technology to its full capabilities. We’re still quite conservative and limited in the tasks we’re asking our devices to perform. My prediction is that we’ll see a move toward more valuable and worthwhile interactions.”

Convincing Smart Speaker owners to complete more complex, and worthwhile, tasks on their Amazon Echo or Google Home device isn’t all down to trust and familiarity. Developers still need to offer solutions that prove these devices can do more than perform basic functions. What can they do better than the other devices competing for attention in our busy lives?

In my opinion, three things need to happen before we fully see Smart Speaker’s fulfilling their potential and begin to replace mobile phone and tablets. (Although there has been some evidence to suggest this is happening already which you can read about here).

1) Devices must feel simpler to use. The current requirement for a user to remember specific commands to access specific skills is currently cumbersome and unnatural and this needs to change.

2) Amazon Alexa and Google Home must react better. We live in an on-demand world where users require instant gratification. Hearing Alexa reply “Sorry, I don’t know that one” to a simple request is frustrating at best and at worst, impacting future use. Understanding of natural language and regional dialect is improving every day but so must these devices ability to ‘translate’ a command and direct it correctly without encountering errors. One of the BIG selling points for such devices is the speed at which information can be accessed so these process must be fast and fluid.

3) Smart Speakers must SOLVE problems. Voice Apps must emerge that genuinely provide a better solution to a problem than anything else at a users disposal. As a music player, they enable hands-free access to a world library of music and it’s a winning position. What other functions can Voice perform in a smarter and better way than their traditional screen-based brothers?

Can Amazon Maintain Their Smart Speaker Dominance?

Amazon are leading the pack when it comes to Smart Speakers right now. As is often the case with tech, they haven’t done this by necessarily being the best but with a combination of being first, clever marketing and competitive pricing. All this means that ‘Alexa’ is the first name most people think of when it comes to Personal Voice Assistants. But, now with Google and other providers hot on their heels does the internet shopping giant have the chops to stay out in front?

According to a survey in the US conducted by Voiceboy.ai and Voysis Amazon Echo’s share of the Smart-Speaker market declined by 8% (to 62%) in May 2018 whilst Google’s Home share grew by the same proportion. With Amazon still owning around 3/4 of the World’s Smart Speaker market, there is no need to hit the panic button yet but I’m sure that shift has a few Amazon bigwigs are nervously checking their daily sales figures.

Amazon’s tactic for staying out in front are pretty obvious… fix two of the biggest problems that currently face’s Voice First technology.

The first issue is user retention. According to the Wall Street Journal; 84% of Voice-Apps are disused and forgotten about within 2 weeks of their first installation. Why? Currently, they just aren’t good enough.

Whilst Smart Speakers are great at controlling smart homes, playing music and performing search functions there are very few apps that fulfil a real NEED and keep users coming back for more. This was also the case with the early smartphone apps – there is a struggle to realise the potential of this new technology.

How do you fix this? You keep trying. Amazon has always been good at encouraging new developers to get under the bonnet of Alexa and make new and exciting Voice Apps. They have great online resources for developers and offer “prizes” for the best performing Skills. They’ve even started to slide open the door to monetization in recent months.

This support is showing no signs of slowing. Attendees to the recent “Voice Summit” at the New Jersey Institute of Technology would have witnessed Amazon not only flexing its muscles but also offering a helping hand. Live Coding Session, Q&A sessions and Voice Workshops (similar to those offered at Amazon Alexa events around the globe) were on offer to upskill current developers and encourage those with a passing interest to get involved. Event founder Pete Erikson explains (via Forbes):

“Amazon has a head start in the market. They are very interested in making sure the developers know how to build their first Alexa skills, do more with them, or learn how to monetize.”

This isn’t a show of philanthropy from the market leader, it’s purely driven from self-interest. If the Alexa platform can offer the most intelligent apps, the most engaging games and the most creative voice entertainment then they have a massive advantage over their rivals. None of their competitors seems to offer this level of encouragement or support.

This level of support is mirrored in their work with brands as they continue to encourage and attract the biggest brands to dip their toe’s in the Voice Pool – further reason to bring users to their Smart Speaker platform, and (tellingly) into the Amazon eco-system.

Secondly, as I’ve discussed before on this Blog, Alexa (and other Smart Speaker devices) needs to learn to communicate better if it is to become a truly frictionless interface.

Voice is the most natural form of communication so it is important that Alexa can communicate in a natural way. The importance of this is illustrated with this lovely analogy from David Isbitski, Alexa’s “Cheif Evangelist” at Amazon:

“Oratory is what we do as a human race. Machines are finally catching up. We can begin to understand context. … My mom still prints out emails from my dad, but he talks to Alexa all day long and asks for weather, music, etc.”

David’s dad (probably) talks to Alexa in the same way he would address someone in a post office; with natural conversational language rather than the sometimes complex command strings that Alexa requires to complete some tasks. So, Alexa must learn to understand conversation if it is to communicate properly with the “David’s Dads” of this world. A user can only hear “Sorry, I don’t understand” so many times before returning to their SmartPhone screen.

Google has an advantage here. Their years of search-engine research means they know how people request functions and ask questions (even if it is via text rather than speech) and so Amazon has some catching up to do.
We know Amazon is working hard on their “natural language understanding” to make user interaction as error-free and comfortable as possible and if they get this right, combined with the right Skills on offer, they could stretch their market share even further and see off the potential challenge or Google in the battle for Market dominance.

Google has the brain but Alexa has the (commercial) braun!

The race for Smart-Speaker dominance is increasingly looking like a two-horse race between Amazon Alexa (50% market share) and Google Home (30%) with the worlds most valuable hardware company Apple, failing to make any real impact (4%).

But whilst Google and Amazon are splitting the lions-share of the market, neither has master all-areas of Voice First yet – with each having their own strengths (and weaknesses) particularly when it comes to “selling”.

A recent study by US cable channel CNBC concluded that whilst Amazon’s Alexa was out-in-front in terms of e-commerce, if you wanted to have a “natural” conversation with your voice assistant then it was Google Home that was leading that race.

It is no surprise that Alexa is the perfect personal shopper. Amazon’s entire business is based on commerce and their range of voice-assistants have been seamlessly integrated into their core shopping platform, making it easier than ever to order your favourite items from Amazon’s global marketplace.

This places a high value on promotional space within the Alexa ecosystem. An advert that can present a product and asks the consumer directly if they wish to then buy that product is a frictionless process that would likely lead to a much higher conversion rate than traditional advertising formats. It’s what makes the question of voice first SEO so interesting.

(READ: “What happens to SEO in a Voice Activated World”)

This integration has also opened the door for brands to sell items directly via their own Alexa Skills. Whilst the most popular form of this “voice commerce” model is similar to the freemium model on mobile phone apps (you can download a basic app for free but then must pay for upgrades). There is also a growth in direct product sales via Alexa Skills: for example, a recipe Skill sponsored by a pasta company may allow the user to order ingredients (pasta) directly via their voice app.

Its a form of direct sales that requires very little work, or even though from the consumer. “Would you like me to add XYZ to your shipping basket?”, “Yes please Alexa”.

In fact, you don’t even have to say please.

This ease of commerce obviously makes the Alexa platform very appealing to brands and companies who want to sell their products directly but they are missing one big plus point that Google Assistant offers: Natural language and understanding.

Google Home is hot on the heels of Alexa and is, for the first time, showing faster growth in the market. Much of that is down to the way users communicate with the device.

Google has years of experience in understanding how people ask questions and request information from its internet search engine. Whilst speech and text are very different formats this leg up has helped Google develop much better language-processing than its big sister Alexa.

In order for Smart Speakers to become TRUE “Voice Assistants”, they need to understand how people speak and learn from previous interactions. They need to learn about their user. Not only understanding their consumer habits but also the way in which they phrase questions (and even their mood from tone of voice). According to research from Dentsu Digital Agency Google is way ahead in this area:

“Google obviously plugs into the Google search network, which has all the resources that Google has including all the history of search. It’s why Google has become the most popular desktop search engine. I think that’s the main advantage of the Google Assistant is it’s one its part of the whole Google ecosystem.”
Dan Calladine | Dentsu

Densu’s research found that Google Assistant was five times more likely to understand a request and give a correct response to a question than Alexa when handling queries concerning asked about travel, finance or retail.

This gives Google a huge advantage not only when it comes to offering the right products to the right individuals but also in creating an enjoyable and fulfilling user journey to its owners – something that could go a long way to explaining its land-grab in market share.

So, if you are a marketeer who do you turn to? Amazon with its commercial platform or Google with its advanced brain? The answer right now is both. Right now Alexa is the best (just) and easiest platform for brands to test their Voice First strategy but in the long term, there is no way of predicting which platform will eventually win (if either) so don’t be putting all your eggs in an Alexa shaped basket.

The competition for dominance in this area is great news for voice innovation. Google will use its deep learning to continue growing its language processing and Amazon will need to improve in this area greatly if it is to keep pace. Likewise, Google will have to make direct purchases as frictionless on their devices as it has become on the Alexa platform.

Competition, in this case, is feeding innovation and Voice First, as a platform of brands and marketers will continue to get bigger and better.

Smart Speakers Are Being Trained for World Cup

The World Cup is one giant bandwaggon that everyone is keen to jump aboard.

From official drinks sponsors to world cup salad cream (really) it’s a bonanza of commercial opportunities as well as a festival of football. So, it’s no surprise that many want to take advantage of the world’s biggest football tournament by using Smart Speakers.

Despite the interest, the results this summer have been, at best, mixed. I am left still searching for the ultimate voice-first football tool and wondering when the potential of Smart Speakers will be realised?

There is a multitude of new World Cup feature available to football fans around the globe via their Smart-Speaker and whilst some are better than others, very few offers any more than “gimmicky” functionality.

Let’s start with Amazon’s own additions to the Alexa platform. As with every major holiday or event, Alexa has been “Tooled Up” to deal with any questions enquiring minds might ask about the World Cup. From answering questions on certain formations to explaining the off-side trap (plus the usual format of ‘facts’ that seems somewhat of a Smart-Speaker obsession). She can also access schedules and scores from the World Cup which whilst useful, is hard to see how it reaches beyond the regular search capabilities of devices such as the Google Home.

Whilst facts and trivia are fun (if you are into that kind of thing) it is hard to see how this fulfils any real NEED for the user. In reality, it’s a one-time hit, something a user may try once and never returns too again. It highlights one of Alexa’s biggest challenges; user retention. Currently, the average “Skill” has 6% of its users coming back for more after their first use and these features will do nothing to change that.

I do like, however, the idea behind Alexa’s “Bluffers Guide”. Ask your device “Alexa, how do I bluff my way through the World Cup” and you get a potted round-up of the last 24 hours of action and latest World Cup news. It’s short, simple and it’s a creative way to present a daily World Cup update. There are two main issues with content, however; 1) the information is delivered in Alexa’s monotone voice (which personally I can only bare for two sentences at best and 2) Who is ever going to ask that particular question without being prompted?

Alexa interactions must feel natural and effortless and whilst I can envisage a user asking “Alexa, whats going on in the World Cup today?” (which accesses similar content) the bluffer’s guide approach doesn’t feel quite as natural – it needs a prompt.

This is why I like the way the BBC have approached this summers coverage.

If you have seen (or listened too) any of the Beeb’s Coverage of this World Cup you would have heard them prompting you to ask your Smart-Speaker device to “Take Me To The World Cup” which is the Alexa invocation term that has been chosen to access a short, daily podcast update from their team in Russia. Surprisingly for the BBC who pride themselves on high standards, the content isn’t the best. It feels like its created as an afterthought, something the programming team have to “get out of the way” before getting on with their real jobs. The phrase used to access the content, however, is perfect. This shows how picking the correct invocation name for a Skill can not only help users to find you on the device but also make accessing the content feel more natural. How much nicer does the phrase “Take me to the world cup” sound rather than “open the BBC world cup update”?

The negative with the BBC’s content is that there seems little point in the content itself. We know that Alexa is a great deliverer of audio (podcasts, radio, music) all of which is available via the BBC and all which is delivered to a much higher standard. Here, however, they have created an inferior product just to service a Smart Speaker audience. If they felt the need to create specific content for Smart Speakers, then surely harnessing more of the technologies capabilities would have been a key goal. It would have been great to hear a “multi-branch” podcast that allows a user to build a bespoke update, accessing the pundit’s opinions on exact games or even events from the World Cup. Sadly, it was an opportunity missed.

The Times have also chosen the World Cup as their opportunity to enter the arena with their ‘Times Sports Briefing’ offering a regular round-up of the action from Russia (as well as daily World Cup facts… obviously).

They see Alexa as an effective “Marketing Tool” and rather than using it as a way to simply deliver content and they are dipping a toe in the water during the tournament. For them, this is an experiment to see if they can drive subscriptions as well as potentially establishing themselves on the platform via which they may choose to publish podcasts. Times sports editors Alex Kay-Jelski explained in an interview with The Drum:

“We will mention what’s happened, we will pick out what Henry Winter said in his match report about England or put out a nibble of Patrick Viera’s column that he is doing for us, ‘Ooh, this could be quite interesting’ and they will hopefully want to buy the product in some form. When a World Cup comes around you think, we can’t just do what we always do, we have to find something to build new audience and have a bit of an experiment and fun.”

Alex Kay-Jelski | Editor | Times Sport

Alex is, of course, spot on in his assessment. Alexa has the potential to be a brilliant marketing tool and should form part of ANY brands content market strategy for 2018. He is also correct that this is a time for experimentation.

Alexa, Google, Apple and any other Smart Speakers on the market are still very much in their infancy, a new technology that no one quite knows how to master. The problem here is that all the examples listed above lack that spirit of experimentation. They lack imagination.

We know that Smart Speakers are a great way to deliver content. That is, and always will be, one of their key functions and at the centre of their appeal for both consumers and brands, but now is the time to see what else they can do! Sure, ensure that you’re audio content is available on the platform (as it should be available via every available platform) but if building Smart-Speaker specific content make sure it is just that: Content that uses the tools and potential interactivity that Smart Speakers offer.

Why is what you are doing is best suited to Smart Speaker delivery? What is it about your new “Skill” that will keep a user coming back again and again? How are you using this technology in a way that elevates it above other audio delivery methods?

If you can answer those three big questions then you’ll be in pole position to steal a march on your competitors.

Bixby Is Watching You!

I have been waiting patiently for Samsung to launch their version of a Smart Speaker for some time now but so far, nothing has emerged.

Samsung Phone users will already be familiar with their personal voice assistant, ‘Bixby’ that comes “ready-to-help” with any newer smart-phone (S8 and beyond) at the touch of an (all to easily accidentally activated) button. Taking that technology to rival Amazon, Google and Apple in the home-assistant market is the new obvious move.

Although there is no new news on when (and if) that launch will happen, a newly uncovered patent does give some clues as to what Samsung may have in store, and its an exciting glimpse into the future of Voice-Activation.

Back in December, I wrote about the potential of Samsung in the Smart-Speaker market to combine voice technology with its “Smart Things” network and help make the creation of a “smart home” that little bit easier. You can read about that here.

Now, the filed patent (filed November 2017) takes the idea of a Smart Home even further with the apparent addition of facial and voice recognition. This would enable Bixby to identify who is talking to it at any given time. Voice recognition is nothing new, both Amazon and Google are promising their devices will be able to identify which user is trying to communicate with their Smart-Speaker devices in the near future, but the addition of Face-Recognition could lead to an even more frictionless user interface… the holy grail of Voice First!

According to the images, taken from the patent and posted on LetsGoDigital, the proposed Samsung device has a rotating “head” that allows it to move and tilt so it can not only detect sound more effectively but also use its facial recognition camera. The results are a little different from the usual look of such a device – leading to an almost humanoid look to the speaker… it’s quite cute!

There are many other proposed features on the patent (such as a touch-screen of some variety as well as Bluetooth, GPS and HDMI connectivity) but its the move to facial recognition that really interests me.

The idea of a personal voice-assistant that can instantly identify a user before receiving a command may seem like science-fiction but it will soon become science-fact.

This, for me, is the first step to creating a smart world. A completely connected environment which automatically recognises not only a user but also identifies their chosen Voice Assistant (making the choice of device obsolete but the choice of platform vital). Heating, lighting, audio could all be managed instantly and adjusted to a users preferences the moment they enter a room (or vehicle).

It’s an exciting glimpse into the future of Voice Activation and a sure sign that this technology will play a key role in the way we control our homes an access information in the future.

You can view the patent via LetsGoDigital here, here and here.

Amazon is making it easier for customers to find YOUR Alexa Skill.

It’s been a bugbear of mine, and many other peoples, for some time: The clunky app-based way in which new Skills are discovered on the Amazon Echo. Now all that is about to change… for the better!

There is no doubt that one of the most frustrating parts of the Amazon Alexa experience is accessing the correct Skill from Amazon’s 40,000 strong Skill’s Catalogue. The very process of entering the Skills Store via desktop or mobile app seems to fly in the face of Voice First technology and the frictionless, button-free world it aims to create.

In recent months the Amazon team had attempted to improve this experience, allowing users to enable a Skill via voice command but the process still required the user to know the exact name of the Skill they wanted to access or face a tiresome list of possible options, however, the latest soon-to-come update from the Alexa team will streamline that whole process.

A new feature, catchily titled “Can Fulfill Intent Request” can now be used by developers to help Alexa find and identify your Skills in response to a user request. Essentially, Alexa will attempt to find the best Skill for the job you instruct it to do. So if you don’t already have a Skill enabled to complete the requested function, Alexa will intelligently (and silently) search for the best option. It’s a similar streamlining method as seen in the Amazon Store with “One Click Purchases”.

Amazon use’s the example of a Surfing Skill to illustrate the new feature in a post on the Alexa Developer Forum:

“If a customer asks, “Alexa, where is the best surfing today near Santa Barbara?” Alexa can use CanFulfillIntentRequest to ask surfing skills whether they can understand and fulfil the request. A surfing skill with a database of California beaches might be able to both understand and fulfil the request, while one with a database of Hawaiian beaches might only be able to understand it. Based on these responses, Alexa would invoke the skill with the database of California beaches for the customer.”

The challenge for developers will be identifying the right phrases and questions that will cause Alexa to pick their skill above others. What questions, commands or phrases should access their new Skill as the most relevant? Alexa will only send the request to Skills that are likely to be able to handle the intents and so to take advantage of the new feature it’s important to consider every possible request combination that your Skill can service.

Previously it has been possible to guide a user through the programmed intents but this new feature throws the net much wider with a daunting amount of potential voice commands needing to be considered. For those who can pitch it right, however, the results could be huge. Opening up access to their Skill to a whole new audience who previously were not aware of its existence.

The update does raise the still unanswered question of “Voice SEO” however. How can a Skill ensure it is the number one returned result to a popular request. Right now, it can’t. Amazon will use a combination of machine learning, Skill ratings and previous engagement to return the best possible result but much will come down to the developers understanding of the way users request new Skills and communicate with their devices.

It’s another small step in improving the way in which a human uses voice to communicate with a machine and it could make a massive difference for a Skills discoverability on the Echo platform. This an area in which Google Home has traditionally won out. It also further raises the idea of an “Ad Words” for Voice… a way in which a Developer can pay for their Skill to be the first result to certain requests. Currently, this is not something that has been suggested to be on Amazon’s agenda but potentially, it’s only a matter of time.

Further reading for those interested in the potential of  “Voice SEO”:

What happens to SEO in a Voice Activated world?

Is Amazon Launching Alexa “Ad Words”.

Why Google is a REAL threat to Alexa’s market dominance.

Since it’s arrival into the marketplace 3 years ago, Amazon Alexa has held the lions share of the Smart Speaker market. The cost, availability and some ferocious marketing from Amazon have all helped it to grab a dominant market share which has, at times, been up above 70%.

Now, for the first time, that dominance is under threat.

There are now a plethora of Smart Speaker and Personal Voice Assistant devices on the market, with even more on the way, but it is the Google Home Pod that is emerging as the true pretender to the crown.

Whilst Alexa is in no way ready to relinquish its market share crown yet, a new report from Strategy Analytics has revealed that Google is catching up in terms of new device sales. The numbers for both are impressive, with the overall market pretty much doubling Year on Year.

During Q1 of 2018 Google shifted around 2.4 million Google Home Devices (they sold 0.3 million in Q1 2017) compared to Amazon’s 4 million. Sure, they are still way behind but, at the same time, are now the fastest growing “Smart Speaker” producer and are catching fast. Its further proof that although Amazon’s platform is a great toe-in-the-water for any brand or company wishing to experiment with Voice First technology, its competitors cant be ignored for long.

Part of the improvement in Google’s fortunes has been its effort to improve the service it offers. It still lags behind Amazon in terms of Skills/Actions (the varying terms for Voice-Apps) that it has on offer and is not as compatible with as many smart-devices in the home but there is massive improvement in both these areas. Plus, the success of “Android Auto” in new cars could help Google Assistant become the default voice assistant whilst we drive.

The REAL winning aspect of Google Home, however, is far simpler.

At HIVE Content we have always said that the key to making successful Voice-Apps is creating a frictionless, natural communication – and this is where Google Home really wins.

Amazon Alexa’s combination of wake-word and invocation-phrases can make for awkward interactions. Long, unnatural sentences are commonplace and its a problem. Amazon is working to fix this and their recent addition of “Follow Up” (a fix that enables you to ask Amazon follow up questions without repeating her wake word) is a big step in the right direction. Google, however, has a secret weapon… and its Google!

Not only does the Google Assistant boast the worlds most advanced and powerful search engine to interpret and return results but it also has the tech-giants very own natural language processing algorithm built into its architecture. This enables it to understand much more complex phrases and enables a more natural two-way conversation with its user.

This isn’t the only reason that Google is catching Amazon in the Smart Speaker race (and there are still plenty of areas in which Alexa remains No1) but its an interesting example of how a natural-conversation stream can improve a technology and, when designing Voice-Apps, lead to a much more user-friendly experience.

Further Reading:
If you liked this blog then you might also be interested in: “Smart Speakers Must Learn To Talk Smart“.

Alexa’s latest update could give brands a new “in” with users.

If you have visited this blog before you will have been left in no doubt that I am a “Smart-Speaker evangelist”. I’m both passionate about the technology and how it can be harnessed as a marketing tool and excited about its future.

On occasion, however, that positivity is tempered by a frustration. I see clearly the potential of the likes of Alexa and Google Home, and for me, it can’t be realised soon enough. The limitations of the (reasonably) fledgeling technology still prevent the platform from delivering what I believe, it is capable of delivering. Thankfully that is changing quickly.

The speed at which the technology moves and updates is frightening, with the likes of Amazon working tirelessly behind the scenes, adding countless updates every week. Allowing the platform to take steps forward…. and in the case of Alexa, it’s about to take a giant leap.

Amazon have just announced plans to improve the Alexa platform to allow it to recall information that you’ve directed at “her” and also indulge in more natural conversations (removing the necessity to begin each sentence with your wake word). This is a massive step forward in this technology becoming a key part of everyday life. For Voice-Assistants to become really useful, they must offer a frictionless user journey; Their ability to communicate must be as human as possible (you can read my thoughts on that here) and these updates will be a big move in that direction.

Maybe more importantly, there will also be an update that will allow Alexa to launch Skills in response to specific commands and questions from the user WITHOUT the explicit instruction to do so. For example, if you ask Alexa to order a taxi she may now automatically turn to the Uber “Skill” rather than you having to use the rather unnatural, chain of command “Alexa, ask Uber to order me a Taxi”.

The news was announced last week in a keynote speech at the World Wide Web Conference from Ruhi Sarikaya (head of Alexa Brain group), who claims that the updates will make its virtual assistant smarter, more engaging and importantly provide an experience more bespoke to each individual user. Also suggesting that Alexa’s newfound abilities would make it much easier for users to discover some of the platforms 40,000 Skills (which helps solve Alexa’s issues with “Discovery”, an area in which Google has been leading the march).

The ability to ‘enable’ a skill in response to a question also creates an interesting option for a revenue model for Amazon: Tell Alexa you are hungry and she could now offer to order you a Domino’s pizza. Ask Alexa how to get red wine out of a carpet and she could now invoke the Vanish Skill (I have no idea if this exists – it should). Skills that maybe you’d be unlikely to actively seek out in the Alexa Skill Store, but that could prove useful at a given time.

It would be easy for Amazon to monetise these search results in a form of SEO delivering paid results before organic ones. But (for the time being at least) brands can take advantage of this opportunity and improved discovery to become the consumers prefered/default option.

As is always key it requires marketers to think about the problem they can solve for a customer or what type of branded content can best deliver their message. For some brands that is simple (Domino’s can cure your hunger, Vanish can offer stain removal) and for others it may require a little more creativity – but the opportunities are there for everyone!

Alexa is a long way off being the finished product, as is the case with Voice First technology and Voice Assistants on the whole but it’s clear to see that there is a concerted effort by Amazon, Google and co to improve the system and make it a better experience for users and brands alike.

We are only just scratching the surface of what Smart-Speakers and Voice Assistants can do and I remain excited about their future.

Smart Speaker Owners Say NO to Adverts

A new online study from NetElixir has revealed that the majority of Smart-Speaker users DO NOT want to receive ads via their Voice Assistants. So, how can brands still reach their target audience via this powerful new marketing tool?

NetElixir’s “Search without Screens” survey (which you can find here) of US adults took a look at the use of Voice Assistants on various devices and took away some interesting findings.

As well as some very positive results for Voice-First technology, such as almost half of respondents conducting at least ONE smart search every day, there was potentially worrying feedback for advertisers.

Survey respondents were asked: “Under which circumstances would you welcome sponsored content or advertised product suggestions while using voice search on your virtual assistants?” which generate the following responses:

“Under which circumstances would you welcome sponsored content or advertised product suggestions while using voice search on your virtual assistants?” SOURCE: NetElixir’s “Search without Screens”.

By far the most positive response (of 38%) was that advertising would be welcomed if it was “relevant” to the consumer. On its own, this is not a worrying statistic at all. After all, advertising is all about finding the right, targeted audience who are interested in your product and Voice-Firsts AI algorithms and potential for personalisation combined with Google and Amazons consumer knowledge means that there is no excuse for delivering irrelevant advertisements. However its the additional comments form NetElixer with regards to this research may ring some alarm bells:

“We found 129 raw responses that explicitly rejected ads with a voice search. These responses tended to be emotional and uncompromising in nature, such as “No conditions – I’ll stop using voice search first” and “I’m already paying to use the device; do not want sponsored content on top of it.”

This presents an interesting challenge. We know that Smart-Speaker and Voice-Assistant users are, in the main, happy to purchase products via their voice first devices (even from the data gathered in this survey that 28% of those surveyed made voice purchases) but, if they are unreceptive to the idea of commercial product placement, how do advertisers and brands reach them?

The answer is content.

If brands and advertisers can create content that Smart-Speaker users want, or even need, then the ability to “sell” to them via this platform suddenly opens up. You only have to look at Facebook to see how accepting of advertising an audience can be if they really WANT to use access content.

The future of Smart Speaker advertising/promotion is slightly different to Facebook’s “targeted advertising” strategy for me, however; Rather than pre-roll advertisements before content is delivered or “commercial breaks”. With Voice First these messages are too obstructive, they cant be skipped or ignored (like those annoying YouTube pre-roll ads) and largely serve as added noise in a users journey.

I think the real success will be found with ‘branded content’. Content consumers want that re-enforces commercial and brand messages; a baby-development app made by Pampers, Traffic-information provided by BMW… the possibilities are endless and, with the facility that Voice provides can all be accompanied by commercial messages and the option to find out more, if the consumer wishes, with a single utterance. Podcasting company Gimlet Media have already explored this world during their partnership with Oral B in creating the Amazon Echo Skill “Chompers” (which I wrote about here) and I expect many more brands to follow suit.

If you want help adding “voice” to your brand and harnessing the power of Smart-Speaker technology then contact HIVE Content.

Spotify Want a Piece of the Smart-Speaker Pie!

One of the prime uses of Smart-Speaker platforms for many is music provision. Research shows that once a Voice-First device is present in the home audio (and music) consumption soars. For this reason, it makes perfect sense that Spotify has been preparing to launch its very own device onto the market… and it seems the launch date is very close.

Over the last 2 months, the worlds largest streaming service has posted job advertisements and testing videos suggesting it is preparing to go toe-to-toe with Google Home, Alexa and (most significantly from a streaming perspective) Apples Home Pod. Now, having sent out invitations to an event in New York on April 24th, some are touting this to be the grand unveiling.

Spotify recently became a public company meaning they need to boost revenue to attract investors and taking a step into hardware could be seen as a canny move. Plus, if such devices drove subscriptions to their premium service it could be a winner on several fronts. Because of this, I’d expect actual hardware costs to be comparatively low but users would be required to take out a subscription to use the devices.

There are also rumours that an “in-car” speaker has been in development which would be one of the first significant steps in taking voice-assistants on the road and could prove to be a huge market advantage.

In recent months Spotify has been beta testing voice-controls via its iPhone app but it is yet (to my knowledge) to develop a fully functional voice assistant platform. So, to create a true “smart-speaker” they would need to buddy up with the likes of Google or Amazon. Alternatively, the new product could be less a smart-speaker and more a voice controlled music player that provides another way to access Spotify’s services.

The speed of the developments means that there has been little time for speculation in terms of functionality or appearance of Spotify’s new technology. The fact that it could launch later this month is a rumour in itself. However, surely, music will be at its heart and the “sound” is likely to be an improvement on the much-criticised audio quality of Alexa. Another question whether Spotify restrict access to their service on other devices to push their own hardware? Although, given their subscription model, this is extremely unlikely.

The Smart-Speaker market is pretty saturated right now and if Spotify is going to make an impact then it’ll need to stand out from the crowd – and an in-car player may just be the point of difference they need to make that splash!

Can Podcaster’s “Cash In” on the Smart Speaker Revolution?

Podcasting

There is no doubt that the rise of the Smart Speaker is kick-starting an audio revolution. Its a rapidly growing market with usage expected to rise by 130% this year. Plus, we know that those who have already taken the plunge and bought a device are listening to more audio than ever before with some even turning away from tablets and smartphones to complete search functions and consume entertainment.

With more audio being consumed there will, in turn, be more demand for audio and Podcasters are in a prime position to take advantage of this growth. With approximately 5000 podcasts launched into iTunes US every month, Smart Speaker’s not only provide podcasters makers with a new channel via which listeners can discover and access their audio-content but also that potential holy grail of monetising their shows.

Podcasting company Gimlet Media are amongst the first attempting to harness this power by launching its first ever show specifically made for Amazon Alexa. They see Smart Speakers as an opportunity to push their content into a wider world of multiplatform audio, and Alexa is the perfect place to start.

Their “Skill” (the Alexa term for an audio app) is focused on the younger generation. Called “Chompers” it is an interactive programme that uses games and stories to encourage children to brush their teeth. Importantly, the show is sponsored by Oral B and Crest Kids, generating that key revenue.

This is the first step into Smart Speaker’s for Gimlet, who are hoping to create more and more products for both audio and video voice assistants and have hired Wilson Standish, previous director of innovation at the marketing agency Hearts & Science, to be their very first director of voice, charged with growing this side of the business. They clearly see great potential in this market.

At first this move might seem a long way from podcasting but all the same principles and disciplines are involved. As experienced audio producers, podcasters know how to harness the “power of voice” in order to tell a story and engage an audience with is KEY to creating a successful and useful Voice App.

Although currently, major advertisers are allocating a fraction of their marketing budget to these devices, as the audience grows so will the investment. Gimlet claim their “brand advertising” revenue grew by 134% in 2017 and it is here where Smart Speakers excel: Using creative, engaging audio to build strong brand relationships, a benefit that has great appeal to marketers.

For podcasters out there the benefits of these devices is two-fold. Firstly they create a new platform for them to distribute their audio… be it via a bespoke podcast skill (VIDEO: What is an Alexa Skill), via a podcast/audio player or optimising content so it can be used as a flash briefing (VIDEO: What is a Flash Briefing). Secondly, the skills of the good, skilled podcasters are in demand within this brave new audio world. Although we may have to re-assess what we currently consider to be “podcasting”, the ability to tell a story and engage an audience in order to drive brand relations and thus generate sales will be vital in generating the right (and most effective) content for the platform. This is where Podcasters can really take advantage.

 

Want to give YOUR brand a voice on Smart Speaker platforms. We can help, get in touch.

Amazon Alexa’s Laughter Has Been Silenced: What can we learn?

It felt more like a scene from a horror movie than an example of cutting-edge technology but now, Amazon Alexa’s random laughter has been silenced.

As far as creepy tech stories go, this was a good one. Amazon Alexa’s all over the world were spontaneously bursting into laughter for seemingly no good reason and it was freaking people out.

Social media was alight with stories of un-solicited cackling laughter emanating from their voice assistance. Sometimes coming from nowhere and sometimes in response to a request for a simple task. A task that Alexa would then refuse to complete.

Amazon immediately responded, saying they were aware of the problem and putting the error down to the Echo devices: “Mistakenly hearing the phrase ‘Alexa, Laugh’.”

The issue has now been fixed.

The next Alexa update will disable the command “Alexa laugh”, which was creating false positives and replace it with the invocation “Alexa, can you laugh?” which, being a more complex sentence, is less likely to be misheard.

There are two takeaways from these changes.

One: When we are creating our own Voice First App’s it’s important to consider markedly different commands to activate different functions. The closer two commands are, the more risk of confusion and the more frustrating this will become for a user.

Two: Technology cant communicate in the same way as human’s… yet. AI and Voice Recognition are still learning (and improving) but it currently cant listen in the same way as the human ear of decipher audio information in the same way as the human brain (for example it cant read emotion or sarcasm). These devices will get better at understanding what we want but there will always be instances of mistranslation.

This creates an interesting question for programmers. Voice First technology works best when it is as close as possible to natural, human speech but at present, Alexa and her siblings struggle with the nuances of such communication. So, how do we strike the right balance between functionality, simplicity and effortless voice requests?

There is also potential that incidents such as this could negatively impact the population of Voice Assistants into the market beyond the “early adopters”. One of the most disconcerting things about this technology, for some users, is the fact they are “Always On”. This story is a reminder that Alexa is indeed always listening and constantly trying to understand the noises around her, which could put some potential users off.

The positive spin on the same angle, however, is that Alexa is doing exactly what it should be doing: Listening and learning. The more it hears, translates and understands the better the technology will become, the fewer mistakes will be made and the quicker these devices will become an essential part of everyday life.

Amazon Launch Free SFX Library for Alexa

The one complaint I often have as an Alexa user is the Skill’s on offer just sound dull.

Coming from an audio production background I know how powerful voice and sound can be when creating audience engagement and it’s often disappointing to hear Alexa’s uninspiring (yet obviously delightful) tones walking me through my latest Skill discovery.

Sure, there is a time and a place where using the in-built Alexa voice, and nothing more is a necessity and can often be the best option for the job. Equally, there are times when a little creative sound production could really elevate a Skill to the next level.

One of the challenges that developers have faced in creating engaging/enthralling soundscapes for their creations is the sticky issue of rights. Those who have explored the podcasting world will understand how difficult it can be to find royalty and licence free music and SFX to use in online products. But doing so for Alexa has just become a little bit easier.

Amazon has launched an “Alexa Skills Custom Sound Library” chock-full of sound effects, available free to those wishing to build their own Alexa Skills. Home, Sci-Fi and Nature sound all feature in the 14 categories that developers can now explore and use.

Amazon’s suggestion is that developers use these SFX to “enhance” their skills, such as having an “audience applause” when a user answers a correct question on a trivia game. Currently, the clips can only play singularly so anything more complicated than using the SFX as punctuation still involves creating your multi-layered audio independently and playing as external media.

Although the sounds are described at “Unique” the offering is still relatively limited and I predict you will no doubt hear the same three or four popping up in a number of skills on a regular basis. Although we’re unlikely to have Johan Johannsson-esq soundscapes JUST yet it’s a good indication of where Amazon wants the Alexa to go.

What it does demonstrate however is a concerted effort from Amazon to create an audio product that is more engaging and entertaining for its users. No doubt the intention of this move is to encourage developers to “experiment” with audio and push the boundaries of how Alexa sounds as well as what she does.

 

 

User Retention. Voice-First’s BIG Problem (and how to solve it).

Just as with mobile phone apps in their infancy, Voice-First Apps are suffering a problem with audience retention… and Amazon are taking action!

A recent study from ‘Activate’ found that only 6% of users would continue using an Alexa Skill two weeks after activation, and that’s a problem. There is no doubt that the Smart-Speaker market is growing, and growing fast, so why aren’t users coming back to Skills and Apps time and time again as they might with their Smart-Phone equivalents?

The answer is probably quite simple, they just aren’t that good… yet. If you remember when Smart-Phone Apps hit the market they suffered a similar problem. Apps were, largely, gimmicky and fun but very rarely offered any practical use that would command long-term engagement. We all saw someone “hilariously” pretend to drink a pint of beer from their phone, but after 2 weeks that joke wore a little thin and the App would likely be deleted by the user. There were thousands of these Apps that went as quickly as they came.

What happened with Smart-Phone Apps is what ‘Wondersauce’ CEO John Sapogna refers to as “The Shazam Moment”: Shazam (the automatic music-identifying app) was one of the first phone apps to identify and solve a problem. They created a programme that would make peoples lives better and thus users returned again and again. There are now, of course, thousands of multi-million-pound apps that we habitually use on a daily basis but “Shazam” helped opened the flood-gates. Currently, Smart Speaker App’s are waiting for its “Shazam moment”.

So, what is Amazon doing to solve this problem? The tech giants recent over-haul of the Alexa Skill developers console not only allows developers to build Skills with a new, visual interface but also gives real-time feedback on how users respond to the Skill. For the first time, developers are being given access to some key analytical data such as unique customers, utterances and cohort analysis. This will be vital in improving user engagement as Skill-builders can properly gauge the efficiency and user retention of their creations for the first time. Currently, only Amazon are offering this feedback but surely it’s only a matter of time before the likes of Google follow suit?

Obviously, bags of data isn’t going to resolve the issue overnight and the real improvement needs to come from the developers themselves as they identify, and solve real-life problems that will turn people onto Voice-First devices and away from their screens. We know that users love using Smart Speakers for listening to audio and performing internet searches but what else can they deliver that will create that “Shazam moment”?

The Wheel of 7 Skill Needs

In my previous blog-post “What Should My Alexa Skill Do?” I mentioned my “Wheel of Seven Skill Needs” (right) which makes interesting reading alongside a recent ‘checklist’ from Toni Reid, Voice President of Alexa Experience and Echo Devices at Amazon, who created her seven-point checklist for creating a winning Alexa Skill.

1. The skill makes a task faster and easier with voice
2. The skill has an intuitive and memorable name
3. The skill sets clear expectations on what it can do
4. The skill minimizes friction
5. The skill surprises and delights customers
6. The skill delivers fresh content
7. The skill is consistently reliable

It’s a great reminder for any developer as to what they should be thinking about when creating their own Skill and undoubtedly point number 1 is the most vital… why should the user turn to voice in the first place? What does THIS Skill offer that is an improvement on a Smart-Phone, tablet or computer? Currently, the most obvious answer for this is to access information and entertainment and that “Need” has driven the rapid growth of Smart Speakers to this point but for now, we still await for Voice-First’s big SHAZAM!

 

 

 

Facebook to Launch Smart Speaker: What does it mean?

Facebook look set to launch their own Smart Speaker in July 2018.

Just when we thought that Apple would be the last big-time player to enter the race for Smart Speaker domination, along comes Facebook to stake a claim in the world of Voice First.

Reports are that Facebook is preparing to launch not one, but two different Smart Speakers onto the market later this year (the entry-level Alpha and more advance Fiona). Their focus is likely to, as with Apples Home Pod, be sound quality with rumours surfacing about some big money music licencing deals being signed with the likes of Sony and Universal Music.

The other key feature will be a 15″ touchscreen meaning that watching films, TV Programmes and music videos will almost certainly be the devices primary use.

We expect there will, of course, be a heavy social media angle too with voice and facial recognition technology enabling the user to log into Facebook securely via the device.

Whilst Facebook is still currently the market leader in terms of Social Media platforms a recent study by eMarketer showed them losing ground with young users. The company believes that entering the music market will be a key way to build their market share in that demographic with these smart speaker devices the first in a range of expected music and video focused hardware products.

Facebook won’t be the first social media brand to launch its own hardware. “Snap” created its own wearable, camera “spectacles” in 2016 but failed to sell the thousands of devices they expected. With the Smart Speaker market expected to double to over 50million global units in 2018, it’s unlikely that Facebook’s Smart Speaker’s will meet the same fate.

The implications for the Smart Speaker market however, is massive. Not only is it yet another major player to dip a toe in the world of voice-activated technology but it will also affect the way we use social media on such devices. Currently, social media doesn’t play a key role on Voice-First devices with most users continuing to access sites such as Facebook and Instagram on their Smart-Phones. However, if users show an appetite for accessing their social media accounts via Smart Speakers then the likes of Amazon and Google will have to consider how to integrate this into their products. We may even see the very first “voice-designed” social media channels launching in the next 12 months.

Gordon Ramsey on Alexa: Hot Stuff or Hot Air?

Everyone’s favourite angry, acid-tongued TV chef Gordon Ramsey is the latest big name to be found on your Alexa device. Simply ask your Alexa what Ramsay thinks of your latest culinary creation, and he’ll offer up an appraisal – in the form of a foul-mouthed tirade. “Alexa, Ask Gordon Ramsey what he thinks of my sandwich” was met with “How can you do this to food, and f***ing sleep at night?”.

Gordon Ramsey can now turn the air blue on Alexa too.

A simple, fun, neat idea with novelty value. A voice-app that will make us laugh…for a while. A voice app we might entertain our friends visiting us with…for a bit. But an application which does very little to truly enhance our lives, solve our problems, save us time or make our life easier. That is not to demean the efforts of those who created it…perhaps it’s a necessary step in the process.

Remember when mobile phone apps were new and we would download an app which makes it look like you’re drinking a pint of beer? It was impressive use of smartphone technology, and fun…for the handful of times you used it. But what did they do to enhance our lives after the novelty was gone? Now think about the mobile apps you currently have on your smartphone. I’ll bet you have some or all of the following:

  • Apps for getting yourself from one place to another;
  • Apps for consuming video
  • Apps for tracking health or fitness
  • Apps for listening to music or podcasts
  • Apps for social media
  • Apps for gaming

What do all these have in common? They all enhance our lives in tangible ways. How many ‘novelty’ apps do you have on there these days? And if you do have any, when was the last time you used it?

Surely we are striving for Smart Speakers and voice assistants ‘Voice Apps’ which, when used, we can no longer bear to be without. That we come to rely on daily. Like the first time you got a dishwasher after years of washing up by hand. Instantaneously the act of manually washing up feels cumbersome and laborious. In the same way, think of all the everyday ways our phones have revolutionised our daily lives. We have access to any song we can think of without having to physically own or store it. We can get a taxi without needing to make a phone call or have cash. We can download and watch the box-set we’re binging on and watch it on our commute? We’re at a point with smartphones where businesses instinctively, and proactively make enhancing our lives and solving our problems their sole focus. I look forward to the day I hear people saying “there’s a voice app for that”!

Of course, voice-first technology is still relatively new. Perhaps this is part of the process, as it was with mobile apps. It is great to see national newspapers and prominent media outlets reporting on Gordon Ramsey’s foray into this brave new world. Anything which rouses curiosity and engagement with the platform is positive. Because there are applications which, once used, we wouldn’t be without. The issue is that sometimes finding the gems in an Amazon Skills Store can feel like finding a needle in a haystack.

University Trialing Alexa Voice-App in Student Accommodation.

Last week (7th Feb 2018), Georgia Institute of Technology invited all students living in their ‘Towers Residence Hall’ to pick up a free Amazon Echo Dot (Amazon’s mini-Alexa powered Smart Speaker). The offer was part of a trail to see how “Voice-Activated” technology can be used on a student campus.

Users will be asked to install a “Georgia-Tech Skill” onto the device that will allow them to perform specific university-related services alongside the Dot’s existing functionality. Most of these relate to the universities “Buzz-card” a members points card used by students to buy items on campus.

It is also hoped that, being a tech institute, providing students with their own device will encourage them to experiment with their own Voice-First creations.

“When you think about voice recognition and the personal systems that are out there, we thought that there would be an opportunity to build these services, which would help set us apart. At the same time, this would put us on the leading edge of testing and piloting voice recognition.”
James Pete, Dep Chief Information Officer at GIOT.

Whilst currently the Skill has no great groundbreaking features, it is the first incarnation of a Voice-App with great potential. Creating “Smart-Rooms” powered by Voice-First technology is an ideal use of Smart-Speaker technology and adding a location-specific function to those devices creates real value. This added to existing Alexa functions such as messaging, voice-calls and audio playback can only add to a positive User-Experience.

It is yet another example of these devices finding a purpose in public spaces. More and more hotels, hospitals, schools and offices using them to provide fast, real-time information in a frictionless way. Currently, many of these trials, although exciting, are a way-off becoming “essential” to users and rather offer an alternative way to access information for those who prefer, or need voice-control. However, as the technology powering Smart Speakers matures we could see such voice-apps becoming expected, if not essential in the environments in which they are installed.

Alexa Now Sends SMS Messages: Here’s How.

Amazon seems keen to establish their Alexa Smart-Speaker range as a true communication tool. Having added voice-calls to room-to-room communication and conferencing abilities last year, the tech giant has just unveiled Alexa’s latest communication trick.

The latest communication tool to be added to the Alexa toolbox is the ability to send SMS text messages to mobile devices and other Alexa enabled devices… although she won’t be able to read you your messages whilst you’re busy with your hands.

There are two small issues with the service currently, however. One, it’s only available in the US (although usually, Amazon doesn’t keep other regions waiting for long) and Two it can only message Android devices. Amazon tells us there are no plans to add iOS functionality because Apple does not offer their messaging API to third parties.

If the above doesn’t affect you then its dead easy to get started:

1. Hit the “Conversations” tab in your Alexa App and tap on the person icon on the top right of your screen, then hit the “My Profile” section.

2. Flip to button next to “Send SMS” to “on” and you can now use voice command on any Alexa-equipped device to send SMS to a contact.

3. Say “Alexa, send a text message” and Alexia will then ask which of your contacts you wish to send an SMS too.

4. Pick the contact in your Smart Phone address book and say their fill name (as entered in your phone). Alexa will then confirm the number you are sending the message too.

5. You then dictate the text message you wish to send (the audio of which will be sent to the recipient’s phone along with the text version of the message.)

This function has not replaced the Alexa to Alexa messaging that already existed so it’s worth being aware that “Send a TEXT Message” and “Send a message” will both trigger different functions. If however, you are using the latter Alexai will figure out which service is best suited to the action and route it accordingly.

Apple Enter the Smart-Speaker Race with the HomePod.

Apple is finally entering the Smart Speaker race!

Much to the relief of tech-hungry apple-heads everywhere the smart-phone giants have taken the brakes off its (so far ill-fated) exploration into the world of Voice-Activated technology and decided now is the time to get involved.

Having delayed their original pre-Xmas release, Apple has now confirmed that the new “Home Pod” device will be officially launched on Feb 9th in the US, UK and Australia, at a cost of 349 USD (about £240).

CEO Tim Cook, in an interview with the Financial Post prior to release, gave an insight into the companies thoughts when it came to their Smart Speaker offering. He said that the KEY difference between this device and its competitors will be its integration between HomePod hardware and Apple’s operating system iOS:

“Competition makes all of us better and I welcome it. But, if you are both trying to license something and compete with your licensees, this is a difficult model and it remains to be seen if it can be successful or not.”

Reading between the lines Cook is saying: “Sure, Alexa and co may work ‘Ok’ will Apple products but the HomePod’s integration will be seamless” meaning if dedicated iPhone/MAC users want to get the best out of their Smart Devices they are best staying within the Apple ecosystem.

As well as the usual Siri-powered search and smart-home functions you would expect with a Smart Speaker, there is also an emphasis on sound quality with Cook identifying that as a major flaw in their competitor’s devices:

“We think one thing that was missing from this market was a quality audio experience. Music deserves that kind of quality as opposed to some kind of squeaky sound.”

The HomePod will reportedly have the ability to ‘sense the surrounding room” and automatically adjust its internal speakers for the ultimate soundscape. Essentially it will combine a premium home speaker unit (with a large woofer and seven tweeters, audiophiles) with an upgraded version of your iPhones Siri Voice Assistant, enabling voice-controlled audio playback in a similar way to other Smart Speakers on the market.

Finally, Apple has shown its hand, and its a strong one. With Amazon and Google already having established a foothold in the market it will be tough for other brands to break in but, with Apple’s dedicated followers and a strong emphasis on sound quality we predict that they can cause major market disruption in 2018.

Alexa is coming to your Smart-Phone.

We are in the middle of a Smart Assistant arms race.

Right now, Google and Amazon are both battling it out for market dominance and with Apple and Samsung joining the race in the next few months competition is heating up.

There is no doubt that, right now, Amazon is winning that race with around 70% of the Smart Speaker market being held by Alexa. Their latest move is only going to strengthen their position.

Last week the company announced that they will soon be adding voice commands to the Android version of the Alexa app. In other words, you’ll now be able to take you Smart-Assistant with you wherever you go. This follows on from Amazon adding Alexa voice-search to their shopping app last year.

In the coming days, Amazon will release an update that will provide a fully-functioning Alexa assistant via the app you currently use to enable Skills on your device. The update is set to be available via Google Play but iOS users will have to wait a little longer, presumably as the Smart Phone integration will likely steal users away from Apples’ own voice assistant (Siri). Alexa has previously been built into Smartphones, such as the Huawei Mate 9 and the Motorola X4, but this is the first time that it will be widely available via other devices.

Amazon have also announced plans to create a “mobile accessory” kit for developers that’ll make it easier for hardware suppliers to integrate Alexa into products, such as headphones and watches. In other words… You helpfull home-voice-assistant is soon going to be breaking out of her white tube and following you wherever you go (if you want – she’s not a stalker).

Once again this move underlines Amazon’s strategy to welcome as many users as possible into the Alexa eco-system. The idea being that if users already consider Alexa as their default voice assistant they will be reluctant to change, even if the likes of Google and Samsung offer greater functionality and less friction. That tactic appears to be winning the battle but it remains to be seen if it will win the war.

Survey: Smart Speakers Lower Phone Usage.

For years now we’ve seen the popularity and use of Smart Phones growing year on year. More and more of our work and social lives are being connected via our handsets but now, for the first time, a technology is disrupting that trend.

New research shows that Smart Speaker owners are actually starting to turn their back on their phone in favour of performing voice functions.

Accenture and Harris Interactive conducted an online survey of 21,000 people across 19 countries which revealed that 66% of those asked admitted to using their phone less since acquiring a digital voice assistant.

We’re not just talking audio consumption either. As well as choosing their Smart Speaker Device over Mobile to access entertainment services such as music, owners are also making less on-line purchases (58% agree)

and conducting fewer internet searches (56% agree).

Whilst it is true that On-Line surveys aren’t always truly representative of a market, with subjects often showing more of an interest in technology than a genuine cross-section of the public, the size used in this study adds extra weight to the findings.

This data is not just yet another indication that ‘Voice First’ will be leading the way in consumer tech in 2018 but it is also a further warning to Mobile Phone giants Apple and Samsung that they need to join the race very soon. Both companies have suffered delays and issues in the release of their own Digital Voice Assistant but are expected to join the market in the Q1 of 2018. With 21% of the US population already owning a smart Speaker, they have some catching up to do if they are to become major players in this field.

Is Amazon Launching Alexa “Ad-Words”?

We’ve spoken before about the power of Alexa to connect brands directly with consumers and how we believe it will become an essential marketing tool in the future. Well, It would appear that Amazon is preparing to realise that potential.

News organisation CNBC in the US is reporting that the e-tailer is currently having conversations with a whole host of major brands about promoting products and services via their digital assistant and the impact could be huge.

The reports claim “unnamed sources” have leaked information on talks with companies including Procter & Gamble and Clorox which have focused around those brand’s willingness to pay for higher placement in user voice searches, in a similar format to Google paid searches.

Think about that for a moment. We all happily skip past the Google Ads at the top of search results and in seconds reach the organic results that we “trust”. With voice, it’s not so simple. Not only will skipping to a 3rd or 4th search result feel unnatural and time-consuming but also the way we search on voice devices presents a great opportunity for marketeers. If a user wishes to use Alexa to order toilet paper they are likely to say just that; “Alexa order toilet paper”, specifying brands (“Alexa order Andrex Toilet Paper”) feels unnatural and clunky in conversation. This means that paid placement in voice searches could provide a massive advantage in this space. Being first will be everything.

It is also likely that voice search results will be influenced by previous activity. For example, if a user has shown brand loyalty with previous transactions then Alexa’s will likely learn the user’s preference and use that as the default in future. So, an early Ad spend now to gain that top spot could pay dividends long into the future.

Currently, there is very little advertising on Alexa away from “sponsored” Skills built by specific brands and the official Amazon party line is that there are no plans to add advertising to Alexa. However, as Voice grows, more and more consumers use the technology to purchase items and order services, advertisers will be desperate to get in front of them.

These rumours, if true, also show that the major players are now sitting up and taking notice of Alexa as a selling tool. Currently, 36million American’s own a Smart Speaker and that number is growing. They would be foolish to ignore the opportunity and combining it with Amazon’s wealth of consumer data would appear to be an obvious step to create truly targeted voice ads.

For companies exploring this new space its a double-edged sword. Do they get involved now or wait to see how the technology develops? On one side this is still an unproven area and what form of paid promotion proves most effective remains to be seen. On the other, if previous use and past interaction IS going to play a major role in search results the early bird really could get the multi-million-pound worm!

Samsung Get Smart (Speakers).

It will be no surprise to anyone that last quarters Smart-Speaker sales were dominated by Google and Amazon. Whilst the Google Home (25% Market Share) is slowly chipping away at Alexa’s market dominance (67%) there is little else in the way of meaningful opposition … yet.

With 7.4 million devices being sold in Q3 of 2017 alone, the personal voice assistant market is a growing one and its pie that many tech giants are keen to have a piece of.

Set to join the race in early 2018 is the much delated Apple Home Pod along with a new device from Samsung.

A report from Bloomberg has revealed that the Korean tech giants plan to launch a Smart-Speaker device in the first quarter of next year powered by its voice assistant “Bixby” which debuted on their mobile handset the Galaxy S8.

For anyone who has previously used the charmingly named ‘Bixby’ before, the idea of a Smart-Speaker powered by its technology probably won’t get them too excited. To put it kindly, the reviews have been mixed. However, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about this potential new competitor.

If Samsung is going to make an impact in this market they have a lot of catching up to do. Their Smart Speaker must do enough to convince people to ditch Amazon, Google or Apple in favour of a newer device.

Samsung is promising a focus on audio quality, something that has let Amazon’s Speakers down previously, but it’s “connectivity” that could be the real selling point for this new device. Samsung doesn’t just make phones and tablets they also build TV’s, fridges, washing machines and all manner of household goods. This will make it much simpler for them to integrate these devices into a voice-first home. Already Samsung phones link up effortlessly with Samsung Smart TV’s and voice-commands via your Smart-Speaker is the next, obvious step. Currently, devices like the Echo rely on third party “Skills” synchronising with other devices around the smart-home, for Samsung and the 160+ devices that make up their “SmartThings” network, it could all just work.

The futuristic scenario of effortlessly controlling an entire household of devices via a Smart Assistant on your phone would appear closer than before with Samsung in the race. Fridges that remind you when you are low on milk, TV’s that know when to record your favourite show, doors that lock and unlock for selected users are all easier to integrate if created by the same manufacturer.

It’s not just a point of difference for Samsung either. It’s a business model. Whereas Amazon use their Speakers to promote purchases from the Amazon Store and Google directs users to its lucrative search engine (and paid searches), Samsung can encourage users to buy its own products to assist frictionless Smart-Home integration.

We won’t know for sure what the device contains until early next year but even with its slow start, we can see it being a big contender in the Smart Speaker world.

Are Smart Speakers What U2 Were “Looking For”?

Another new application for the Smart Speaker universe…an album launch! Bono, The Edge and… the other one… hold on a second… Adam Clayton (we just asked Alexa who the band members were) will be offering fans exclusive content, both old and new, to accompany the release of Songs of Innocence on December 3rd.

U2 have a track record of experimenting and embracing new technologies when the unleashing a new piece of work. Not always to universal praise or enjoyment it’s fair to say, as anyone with an Apple device would testify when a previous album was automatically downloaded to iTunes whether you wanted it or not.

Based on what we’ve heard, we think the lessons have been learned and can’t see this getting anything besides high praise for masterminding a first-of-its-kind broadcast called “The U2 Experience”. It’s not intrusive, but for fans who activate it, it sounds like a treasure trove of added value and premium content.

With our background in broadcast radio, we can see the potential of Smart Speakers to be the radio of the future. Audio content readily available and personalised in a way ‘linear’ broadcasts simply can’t. Amazon are referring to this venture as a “new type of radio” that will feature historical music, live performances and interviews as well as exclusive new content. The U2 Experience will launch simultaneously across multiple time zones on Wednesday in the UK, USA, Germany and Austria and will be available to Amazon Music account holders via multiple platforms.

Clearly, this works for both U2, using this new platform to reach fans with premium content and a direct route to purchase of their record. For Amazon, a behemoth rock band (brand!) that will publicise Amazon Music as they look to compete with Apple and Google.

We will be watching closely to see if, crucially, this works for the consumer. As ever, an idea is only as good as its execution. Done well, this could be another big moment for Amazon’s Alexa platforms, and Smart Speakers in general. We’ll update our thoughts once we’ve had a play!

Get in
touch

Contact Us

Sign up to our newsletter

If you want to keep up-to-date with the latest industry news, expert views and whatever is making the Hive Content office BUZZ then fill in your details below & we will add you to our newsletter (don’t worry, we won’t bombard you with emails about little blue pills).