Amazon Echo Voice Search
Alexander Turtschan

Alexander Turtschan

Head of Media Insights & Innovation Plan.Net Group

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What voice internet means for the future of digital marketing

The screenless internet: A bold prediction for the future

At the end of 2016, Gartner published a bold prediction: by 2020 30% of web browsing sessions would be done without a screen. The main driver behind this push into a screenless future would be young and tech savvy target groups fully embracing digital assistants like Siri and Google assistant on mobile, Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Echo.

While 30% still feels slightly optimistic mid 2018, the vision of an increasingly screenless internet becomes more and more realistic every day. The adoption rate of smart speakers 3 years after launch is outpacing the smartphone adoption rate in the United States. And what’s maybe most surprising, it isn’t only the young early adopter crowd that is behind this success story, but parents and families. Interacting with technology seamlessly and naturally through conversation is making digital services more attractive to a wider range of consumers.

The new ubiquity of voice assistants

And it isn’t only stationary smart speakers that are growing in usage and capability, every major smartphone features its own digital assistant and consumers can interact with their TVs and cars through voice as well. The major tech players are investing massively in the field and within the next few years every electronic device we put in our homes, carry with us or wear, will be voice-capable.

So, have we finally reached peak mobile and can finally walk the earth with our chins held high again, freed from the chains of our smartphone screens? Well, not so fast.
There’s one issue many digital assistants still face, and let’s be perfectly honest here: despite being labeled “smart” they are still pretty dumb.

Computer speech recognition has reached human level accuracy through advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning. But just because the machine now understands us perfectly, it isn’t necessarily capable of answering in an equally meaningful way and a lot of voice apps and services are still severely lacking. Designing better voice services and communicating with consumers is a big challenge, especially in marketing.

Peak mobile and “voice first” as the new mantra for marketing

Ever since the launch of the original iPhone in 2007 and the smartphone boom that followed, “mobile first” has been marketing’s mantra. Transforming every service and touchpoint from a desktop computer to a smaller screen and adapting to an entirely new usage situation on the go was a challenge. And even 10 years later, a lot of companies still struggle with certain aspects of the mobile revolution.

The rising popularity of video advertising on the web certainly helped ironing out many issues in terms of classic advertising. After all a pre-roll ad on a smartphone screen catches at least as much attention as it does in a browser. We figured out how to design apps, websites and shops for mobile, reduced complexity and shifted user experiences towards a new ecosystem. But this mostly worked by taking the visual assets representing our brands and services and making them smaller and touch capable.

Brand building in a post-screen digital world

With voice, this becomes a whole new struggle. We have to reinvent how brands speak to their consumers. Literally. And this time without the training wheels of established visual assets. At this year’s SXSW, Chris Ferrel of the Richards Group gave a great talk on this topic and one of his slides has been on my mind ever since: The visual web was about how your brand looks. The voice web is about how your brand looks at the world.

In recent decades, radio advertising has mostly been reduced to a push-to-store vehicle. Loud, obnoxious, and annoying the consumers just long enough, that visiting a store on their way home from work became a more attractive perspective, than listening to any more radio ads.

On the screenless internet, we could see a renaissance of the long-lost art of audio branding. A lot of podcast advertising is already moving in this direction, although there it is mostly carried by the personalities of the hosts. Turning brands into these kinds of personalities should have priority.

The challenges of voice search and voice commerce

We will also have to look at changing search patterns in voice. Text search tends to be short and precise, mostly one to three words. With voice, search queries become longer and follow a more natural speech pattern, so keyword advertising and SEO will have to adapt.

Voice enabled commerce poses a few interesting challenges as well. How do you sell a product, when your customer can’t see it? This might be less of an issue than initially imagined, though. “Alexa, order me kitchen towels” is pretty straight forward and Amazon already knows the brand I buy regularly. Utilizing existing customer data and working with the big market places will be key, at least for FMCG brands.

But how to get into the consumer’s relevant set? And what about sectors like fashion, that heavily rely on visual impressions? Tightly combining all marketing touchpoints comes into play, voice as a channel can’t be isolated from all other brand communication. Obviously, voice will not replace all other marketing channels, but it might become the first point of reference for consumers due to its ubiquity and seamless integration into their daily lives. Finding its role in the overall brand strategy will be crucial.

Navigating the twilight zone of technological evolution

What may be the biggest challenge of this brave new world of voice marketing is the fact that our connected world isn’t as connected as we would like it to be. The landscape of voice assistants is heavily fragmented and more importantly, the devices act in very isolated environments. While I can tell my digital assistant to turn on my kitchen lights or fire up my PlayStation when using compatible smart home hubs and devices, an assumedly simple task like “Siri, show me cool summer jackets from H&M on the bedroom TV” isn’t as easily accomplished.

Right now, it often is still up to the users to act as the interface between voice assistants and the other gadgets in their living spaces. The screenless internet isn’t the natural endpoint in the evolution of technology, it’s more of an unavoidable consequence of iterative steps in development. For now, we have to navigate through this weird, not fully-realized vision of a connected world and hope for technology to catch up and become truly interconnected. So, let’s find the voices of our brands until they regain the capability of also showing us their connected personality.

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