Why personal voice assistants are the next big marketing platform

by Lewis Leong on Nov 9, 2017

Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, Microsoft Cortana, and Apple’s Siri have opened windows of opportunity for marketers to harness the power of voice in ways that just weren’t possible before.

It’s a brave new world where a brand’s sonic identity will become hugely important to engaging users both individually and in our natural clusters, like the family unit at home or in the car or a group of friends gathered around the kitchen counter.

As exciting as this growing medium of engagement is for marketers, there are several unanswered questions around how voice assistants can be employed both as stand-alone channels and as part of the marketer’s already sometimes unwieldy tech stack.

Voicing a few concerns

Yes, voice is an intimate channel and certainly will be there to catch the user in micro-moments of opportunity, but aren’t we already struggling to gather, harmonize, and action behavioral data from a slew of other sources?

As an industry, marketers have recently dumped billions into video to engage consumers—the question now is whether it’s better to stay the course on your video strategy or point your budget at voice. By comparison, the cost of producing audio marketing assets is much cheaper than producing visuals, but audio alone isn’t as memorable.

There’s also no ubiquitous technology yet in place for programmatic audio ads, though Spotify, Soundcloud, and others offer their own platform-centric options. Further, the way we’ll search with our natural voice bears little resemblance to how we type things into search engines—and it’s unclear what that means for 20 years’ worth of search term and keywords learning.

Spotify iPhone app

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Finally, marketers are by now conditioned to think and act in terms of personalizing each interaction for the individual user. But voice assistants are not audible by one user but many, with differing interests and emotive triggers, who are all within earshot at the same time. Does this mean a return to the old-school thinking of grouping audiences by characteristics instead of behaviors in order to target new styles of peer and family cohorts?

Last but not least are the ethical implications of voice assistants that “listen” to everything the user has to say. At what point do marketers draw the line between data collection, targeted messaging, and infringement on personal privacy?

These are complex questions that marketers need to answer quickly, because the market for voice is about to get a lot noisier.

Voice-based AI builds trust

There are multiple reasons that voice assistants are breaking through in today’s market.

First, technical convergence plays a big role. Fast and ubiquitous connectivity at home and on the road, the emergence of AI and chatbots, and a growing number of platform tools for developers to create voice-based experiences are all reasons why voice assistants are becoming the norm.

Amazon Echo Dot

Photo by Piotr Cichosz on Unsplash

Second, voice is being adopted by an unlikely demographic—a quarter of users are 55 and older. Why? It’s the frictionless nature of voice. Just speak and it works; no points, clicks, or touch gestures to master. Because there’s no new technology to learn, adoption is easy. In a recent post, Voice is the New Touch, Pandora for Brands put it this way:

“There’s nothing more personal than communicating with your voice…When we asked smart speaker owners what they use their device for most, we found that personal, human-like interactions ranked especially high…Within any given week 46% of smart speaker users check the weather, 42% want to hear a joke and 40% ask general questions. It’s interesting that something so “human” as telling a joke outranks even the most practical (asking a general question).”

In other words, voice assistants just feel so darn human.

That positive feeling makes it easier to build engagement and trust, which is precisely why brands and marketers should get into voice now.

Voice doesn’t exist in a vacuum

While it’s an exciting new frontier, marketers would be wise to realize that voice is unlikely to be a stand-alone channel. How come?

For starters, consumers are less prone to remember audio-only messages versus combined audio-visual stimuli. Also, voice alone can make for a cumbersome experience in many common use cases—an idea captured by David Pierce in his recent article for Wired:

“As you embrace this chatty-computer future, you begin to see its limitations. Sure, you can book a flight with your voice, but it’s so much easier when you can see the price chart. You can set six timers, but can you remember which one just went off? Voice-only games are fun, but not as fun as a game you can see and touch.”

One early entrant that has identified the failings of the voice-only paradigm and produced a solution to bridge the gap is Amazon’s Echo Show—essentially a voice assistant with a touchscreen. So, Alexa won’t just tell me how to mince a clove of garlic, she’ll show me at the same time. I won’t just hear there’s a sale on backyard hammocks, I’ll see the color choices and be able to tell Alexa to order it.

In effect then, our voice is becoming the mouse or touchscreen—one more input utility of choice that we can use to connect to with, query, and command tools and brands to do our bidding and give us what we want.

The challenge is to allow us to do so in whispers rather than in roars.

It’s a group discussion

A huge amount of mobile marketers’ focus for the last few years (and we’re all mobile marketers now) has been on leveraging the gobs of data they produce daily to create more personalized, contextual experiences for individual users, the mantra being “Don’t market to us, engage me in conversation.”

But people don’t use voice assistants the same way we do our smart phones.

Voice assistants tend to sit on kitchen counters, not stuffed into our pockets or handbags. When we ask Alexa something, what we say and what Alexa says back to us is out there for everyone within earshot. So, if I’m making dinner with my spouse and kids hanging out at the kitchen island, exactly which one of us is your voice-based brand message or marketing call to action going to be pointed towards?

Finally, there are bound to be some things that users don’t want Alexa, or Siri, or Cortana, or any other voice assistant AI to share, or even to know about us. Marketers will have to deal with the issue of trust as voice assistants are always listening for the next command or query.

Recently, Pandora reported that it missed its revenue target due to the fact that its platform doesn’t offer programmatic advertising and the tracking abilities that comes along with it. This means voice is a bold new world for marketers and audio-focused companies like Pandora. The potential is certainly there, but it remains to be seen how the data paths, marketing tactics, creative elements, and workflows to support those use cases will be built and accepted by increasingly sophisticated users. 

Lewis Leong is AppLovin's Content Marketing Manager.