Is Voice Living Up to Its Early Hype, and Is It Worth Investing in for Brands?

Elevate: AI panelists debated the question of the tech's future

Raquel Beauchamp for Adweek

If you thought conference panels were all about a group of experts gathered to enthusiastically agree with one another about a given topic, the panel from Adweek’s Elevate: AI summit on voice-powered discovery and ecommerce would have dissuaded you of that notion.

Think voice is the future? Not so fast, said Tom Goodwin, evp and head of innovation at Zenith Media. “I think people babble a lot of nonsense about the future,” he said. “Voice is a really interesting new tapestry.” Goodwin then warned that voice is “not great for everything,” noting that it’s “extremely good for an input, absolutely terrible as an output.”

Goodwin tempered excitement around voice with a reality check that “we have no idea where this stuff is going.”

“We have to expect that not everything changes everything,” he said. This despite the fact that before delivering those words, panel moderator and Adweek tech editor Josh Sternberg began with an informal poll of the audience and its ownership of voice assistants like Alexa or Google Home. At least half of the audience raised their hands in affirmation.

“Because voice is so new, I think we’re getting way more excited than we should be,” Goodwin said, speaking of voice assistants and companies’ strategic use of voice.

For Vivian Rosenthal, founder and CEO of messaging company Snaps, voice in its present incarnation is less important than the humbler chatbot. “We usually steer brands and agencies toward a chatbot strategy,” she said. “Unless someone is a publisher with a ton of content they wish to share, in its current state, voice isn’t a great place to interact with a brand.” In contrast, “a chatbot is something that works here, now, today.”

And that is a question organizations continue to grapple with: how much to invest in technologies that are currently well developed versus those whose greater potential and likely payoff is in the future.

Like many organizations, it’s an all-of-the-above strategy for Paritosh Malaviya, engineering vp of growth, next gen retail and Ecommerce at Walmart Labs. “Call it IoT, call it voice, call it AI, call it chat,” Malaviya said, “the question is how are you going to serve your customers in all their locations, all those circumstances?”

Malaviya said voice for Walmart “is better for commerce than chatboxes,” giving the example of a customer who, while cooking at home, runs out of olive oil and can just tell their voice assistant to add it to their cart.

But, Rosenthal countered, products with a strong visual component do better with chatboxes.

“If a brand is genuinely torn [between using one or the other strategy], maybe they can be thought about concurrently, because the logic is the same behind them,” she said.

And while Goodwin remained unmoved and skeptical about the lionization of voice and its potential ROI, even as attendee Doug Robinson, CEO of Fresh Digital, challenged Goodwin’s assertions during the Q&A, Goodwin did point to bright spot for voice. “Voice is exciting when you unbundle it from the speaker,” he said.

For Rosenthal, the success of any new-school element relies on the effectiveness of more established practices. “The most important thing a brand can do is think about user experience, and the same thing is true for every medium,” she said.