As Voice Has Its Moment, Amazon, Google and Apple Are Giving Brands a Way Into the Conversation

Few of their devices’ skills or apps are branded, but that’s changing

One in four searches is conducted by talking, not typing, a figure comScore predicts will reach 50 percent by 2020.
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For decades, listening to ‘the voice of the customer’ has been the Holy Grail for marketers. Now, thanks to technology, they can do it millions of times each day.

According to Google and Bing, one in four searches is conducted by talking, not typing, a figure comScore predicts will reach 50 percent by 2020. That same year Echo alone will account for $7 billion in voice transactions—or vcommerce—per investment firm Mizuho Bank.

Voice is having its moment. People are talking, devices are listening and brands are attempting to insert themselves into the conversation, using Amazon Alexa voice skills and Google Home apps.

With a few choice phrases, consumers can order an Uber or Domino’s pizza on either device. Echo fans can also ask Patrón to help them make a margarita, consult Tide on how to remove stubborn stains, or get Campbell’s or Nestlé to serve up dinner recipes, among other skills.

Currently, only a small percentage of Alexa’s 25,000 voice skills are branded (Amazon won’t reveal how many). You’ll find even fewer in Google’s few hundred voice apps.

But that’s changing. Over the next few years, brand voices are about to get a lot louder.

Shots in the dark

Admittedly, many of those 25,000-odd voice apps are gimmicky—good for getting attention but not much else, noted Layne Harris, head of innovation technology for digital marketing agency 360i. But forward-thinking brands are embracing the technology now, he added, making voice skills a key element of their marketing strategy. Just last week, 360i launched a new practice solely focused on Amazon to help brands navigate the world of voice marketing.

When Patrón launched its voice skill in July 2016, it was part of a broader marketing initiative called the Cocktail Lab, involving 50 bartenders around the globe crafting new tequila-infused drinks, said Adrian Parker, vp of marketing for Patrón Spirits. (The distiller also just debuted an augmented reality app called the Patrón Experience for Apple’s iOS 11.)

Some 350,000 consumers have participated in the Cocktail Lab, said Parker, with more than 10 percent coming via the Alexa Skill. Since launching the lab, traffic to Patrón’s website has increased by 43 percent, thanks in part to Alexa users who spend more time on site and download more recipes.

“Voice was the first platform that allowed us to take what would traditionally be a face-to-face experience in a bar and make that virtually accessible,” Parker said. “Alexa is not only giving us the capability to engage with customers on their terms, it’s also preparing us for the voice-led future.”

Utility is key, said Greg Hedges, vp of emerging experiences at Rain, a digital consultancy that helped create Alexa apps for Campbell’s and Tide. The voice skill can’t merely be memorable; it must also be useful.

“The skills that see the most engagement are not just advertising,” he explained. “They take a step further towards connecting with consumers. They give people a reason to come back, because consumers know they can get the answers they’re looking for.”

For brands like Patrón and Campbell’s, getting consumers to drink more tequila and consume more chicken soup isn’t the only goal, said Charles Golvin, a research director for Gartner.

“They’re also trying to establish themselves as the voice of authority or curator across the broader product category that they serve,” he said. “It’s not just about selling Patrón tequila, it’s about being your mixologist expert. It’s not about selling Campbell’s soup, it’s about being your epicurean guide.”

A focus group of one

With the emergence of Alexa touchscreen devices like Echo Show and the new Echo Spot, brands also need to prepare for a voice+ world where results can be seen as well as heard, said Jonathan Patrizio, head of technical advisory at Mobiquity, a digital agency that developed Nestlé’s GoodNes recipe skill.

Using GoodNes on the Echo Show, home chefs can not only hear step-by-step instructions on how to make Baked Pesto Chicken or Korean Beef Bulgogi, but also see them displayed alongside images. Recipe users can also view the images via a GoodNes visual guide on their laptop’s or tablet’s browser.

“It’s a much more frictionless and natural way of interacting,” Patrizio said. “And if a brand can understand how to play in that domain, they’ve gained a great advantage over their competitors.”

But perhaps the most valuable thing brands glean from voice skills is data. Smart brands are building analytics into their skills and using the data to help drive new products and revenue streams.

“You can learn a lot from the things customers say,” said Hedges. “If Tide learns someone is asking about a specific stain and fabric combination, and it’s not one they’ve encountered before, maybe a new product comes out of that. With voice, it’s almost like a focus group of one.”

A key reason for building a voice skill is to gather data on customer usage and intent, said Patrizio.

“We built analytics into the GoodNes skill, and this lets Nestlé monitor Skill usage in aggregate since the developer doesn’t have access to the actual spoken recording,” he said. “For example, ‘Alexa, ask GoodNes to browse recipes’ is mapped to an intent, and we can track how many people used that intent, or how many times a single user requested this specific intent.”

Analytics can also reveal if the skill is working as the brand hoped it would. At this early stage, that’s not always the case.

Adam Marchick, CEO and co-founder of analytics company VoiceLabs, says that only 30 to 50 percent of conversational interactions are successful.

“It’s like we’re in year two of building web pages,” noted Marchick. “But right now, just giving brands conversational understanding—where they can actually see different voice paths and what’s working and what’s not—is a big step forward.”

The conversation is just beginning

Brands have been forced to react to similar technological upheavals before—notably with the shift to web and then to mobile. This time, though, they’re being more deliberate about it, said Joel Evans, co-founder and vp, digital transformation at Mobiquity.

“In the dot-com days websites were more like glorified brochures. We saw something similar happen when companies started doing mobile apps—they were just a check-off item,” he said. “Thankfully we’re not seeing that in the skills universe. Brands have realized it’s got to be the right experience when it actually gets out there.”

The next few years will see a huge acceleration of the technologies driving computer-human interaction—like artificial intelligence, natural language processing, chatbots and augmented reality. The voice apps we hear (and sometimes see) today may be nothing like the ones we encounter tomorrow. Smart brands are preparing for that now.

“Right now we’re creating the horse and carriage of voice technology,” said Patrón’s Parker. “Give it another 18 to 24 months, and we’ll be building Maseratis.”

This story first appeared in the Oct. 9, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.