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Amazon Echo Voice Search

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.

It can be daunting for a mid-sized company when entering a new international market. Especially so when entering a region as diverse and fragmented as the Middle East. However, no matter where you go around the world, you can’t just copy and paste a strategy that has worked well elsewhere and expect it to succeed in a different market. With digital channels becoming more and more essential in today’s business landscape, here are some key aspects to consider for your digital strategy when entering a new region.

1. Be aware of the competitive digital landscape! Consider having a local website.

You’d be surprised how many companies come to the Middle East and don’t create a region-specific website. Nothing will frustrate your customers more than not being able to find simple information about you when searching online like basic product details, your location and contact information, opening hours etc. According to a recent Gartner report, only 15% of businesses in the region have an online presence. This is quite low hanging fruit, so make creating a local mobile-responsive website your first port of call when entering a new market. Don’t forget to include an Arabic language option for the content on your site, too.

2. Understand your target group’s online search behaviour! Local Keyword Optimization is key.

Speaking of customers searching for you online, it’s important to realize how people’s search behaviour differs around the world. It is essential to treat each market separately when it comes to Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Conducting simple localized keyword searches around topics related to your product or services is a must, as well as doing so for the Arabic language also as the most highly-searched keywords can differ across languages. Don’t forget to include the local country in the meta tags of each of the web pages in the process, and make sure to create business listing pages on Google for your head office and retail locations. Make it as easy as possible for your customers to find out about you online.

3. Get ready for a pioneering social media ecosystem! Reach your target group on Social Media.

With almost 50% of the people living in the Middle East region being under the age of 30, it’s no surprise that social media is incredibly popular here as a form of expression and communication. In such a diverse region, visual channels such as Instagram and Snapchat have become especially popular in recent years as a way of propagating a common visual language. Similarly with video content. YouTube is the most used social platform for video consumption in the region. Saudi Arabia, with a staggering 90+ million active daily video views, has even surpassed the USA to become the #1 consumer of content on this platform!

The Middle East as a region is built on respect for people and culture. Whilst most markets in the region have been adopting a more relaxed approach to social content, countries like Saudi Arabia have far stricter rules regarding the type of messages and imagery that can be leveraged. Despite, or maybe because of that fact, User-Generated Content (UGC) is an extremely popular form of content that brands here try to encourage. The Middle East also has its own community of super-influencers who use Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube to collaborate with brands and communicate a more relatable, yet personal story. This could be a relevant approach to consider when entering a market in the region.

4. Learn how consumers shop online! eCommerce continues to grow.

While some markets around the world embraced online shopping more than 20 years ago, the Middle East has been somewhat slower to join in. Up until recently, most purchases made online would be paid for in cash on delivery as many customers remained sceptical of paying online. This has changed over the past 5 years, with more and more businesses accepting online payments and customers finally feeling comfortable with handing over their credit card information to companies online.

Amazon’s acquisition of Dubai-based Souq.com in 2017 was a boon for the region and signals a validation of the concept of eCommerce here in general. According to the Middle East-based online payment platform PayFort, the eCommerce market here is set to double to more than $69 billion by 2020 with the UAE accounting for $27 billion of that and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia $22 billion, making them by far the two largest eCommerce markets in the Middle East. Food for thought when considering whether or not to facilitate online payments on your local website.

5. Be prepared for your market’s technological fluency! Don’t forget about tech adoption.

In case all of the above didn’t convince you of the importance of a localized digital strategy in the Middle East, maybe these statistics will! Even though many people around the world might consider the Middle East to be a region sticking to its traditions – the population is surprisingly tech-savvy.

Middle Easterners are a very well-connected bunch with more mobile connections here than there are people (128%), higher than in the Americas, Asia-Pacific and Africa. Smartphone penetration is exceptionally high here. At 80.6%, the UAE has the highest smartphone penetration rate in the world according to Newzoo’s 2017 Global Mobile Market Report. Saudi Arabia is not far behind at 65.2%.

When it comes to internet penetration, UAE (99%), Qatar (99%) and Kuwait (98%) are the three highest ranked countries in the world according to the 2018 Hootsuite & We Are Social Global Digital Report. Mobile internet usage in particular is very high, with Saudi Arabia (64%) and UAE (61%) in the top 12 countries globally when it comes to using a smartphone as opposed to a computer to access the internet (StatCounter). Make sure your communication is mobile-friendly.

Last but not least:

While it might seem like a lot to take in, you should consider digital channels as an opportunity rather than a challenge to overcome when entering a new market such as the Middle East. Understanding the region with its 17 countries and how the consumers use digital technology in their day-to-day lives can help you build up a loyal customer base and create a solid foundation for future success.

The formulated essential pillars are representing our knowledge and digital communication experience for a successful market entry in terms of brand and product communication for SMEs.
We, the Serviceplan Group Middle East, are giving an overview of the region, it’s opportunities and challenges not only during insightful business events, but also to people and brands who would like to learn more about it. We summarized our findings in a booklet about the region, which we are more than happy to share with you! Please get in touch by sending an email to middle-east@serviceplan.com.