Whatever Happened to Interactive Audio Ads?

Brands are testing their potential, but who's listening?

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Alexa, whatever happened to interactive voice ads? You know the ones: An ad plays on your smart speaker, and you ask it to conveniently add the mentioned items to your shopping cart—anything from detergent to bananas to books. Interactive audio ads were once touted as the evolution of audio advertising. And while platforms, brands and agencies are still in the voice game, the excitement around the technology has faded.

With the emergence of voice-activated speaker assistants, an advertising element was inevitable.

Yet, despite the technology being present in millions of homes and offices around the world, it has yet to fulfill the heavily predicted promise of the rise of voice interactivity within advertising and video commerce.

“The default to ads isn’t that we interact with them. It’s that we don’t,” said business transformation consultant Tom Goodwin. “So they’ve failed because we failed to provide any reason for anyone to interact with a smart speaker. It’s hard enough to get people to glance at ads. Even harder to get them to click. Can you imagine how hard it must be to get them to talk?”

Tech companies bet on voice

According to Insider Intelligence, 123.5 million U.S. adults used voice assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Nest at least once per month in 2022, and 48% of U.S. adults will be monthly users of this technology in the next three years, Insider predicts.

Plenty of major technology companies have placed their bets on interactive voice ads becoming popular.

In 2019, after six months of testing, subscription-based music streaming service Pandora introduced its Interactive Voice Ads function.

Claire Fanning, the company’s then-vice president of ad innovation strategy, told Adweek at the time that its initial tests had shown “unprecedented engagement rates.”

Despite the aspirations, just four years later there is no mention of interactive voice or voice commerce on parent company SXM Media’s most recent media kit to potential advertisers.

Inevitably, ecommerce giant Amazon also aimed to become a major player in the voice commerce space.

In 2021, it began promoting its own version of voice ads to the North American and U.K. markets. By using directions from a list of call-to-action (CTA) prompts to Alexa, consumers could add items to their online shopping carts.

According to Kantar Research, Amazon audio ads that include an Alexa CTA were 1.5 times more likely to generate a statistically significant lift in at least one brand metric such as awareness, consideration or purchase intent compared to Amazon standard audio ad creatives.

One test campaign, produced with health care giant Bayer in 2021, ran for four weeks across Amazon Echo devices in conjunction with British audio network Global.

Created by British tech company Say It Now, the audio ad would promote energy vitamin Berocca Boost through an ad developed by Bayer’s agency teams alongside A Million Ads and Mediacom. It made the product available for purchase to the listener using a simple voice command—“Open Berocca Boost.”

The personal and connected nature of smart speakers enabled the ads to be carefully targeted, while contextual data such as time of day, day of the week and weather further honed relevance and accuracy.

The activity, which was seen as both an advertising tool and a sales channel, reached 1.6 million customers, Bayer revealed, delivering a brand lift of 13.6%. Nearly half of those who engaged requested more information.

Walgreens’ Boots pharmacy chain also tested the technology for a campaign this summer. And while it has yet to receive the results, chief marketing officer Pete Markey said he’ll use the tech again.

It’s annoying that you can be at the forefront of the technology and the market just isn’t there yet.

Simon Dunlop, co-founder, Instreamatic

“Given the additional speech-enabled tech available on a smart speaker, we are keen to test the options to close the gap from ad to purchase with interactive ads,” Markey explained. “It is another example of our focus on commerce-based media—similar to our approach with QR codes, VOD and TikTok commerce ads, all aiming to connect consumers from ad to .com.”

The campaign married a standard radio ad from the brand playing on an Alexa smart speaker with the chance to find out more about its relevant summer products.

“Fifty-three percent of smart-speaker users listen to radio on them weekly, so it is a scaled medium for consuming audio and radio [that] has a strong ROI for us,” Markey said.

Last year, the Ad Council worked with Amazon Ads’ tech on its “What Is Love” campaign, where users would ask that question to Alexa, only to hear a response from community organizer Dianne Hodges, who fronted the campaign to highlight local safe spaces in American cities. This partnership allowed Amazon to showcase the potential of interactive voice ads to the advertising community.

Earlier this year, dog biscuit brand Milk-Bone developed a campaign in partnership with Amazon Ads. It produced more than 20 million impressions and yielded a brand discovery rate of 31% among customers who asked Alexa to add Milk-Bone products to their cart.

Despite the strong results generated by voice-activated ads, the number of media companies exploring the tech remains limited.

Spotify, the world’s largest music streaming platform, has chosen to sidestep the use of voice interaction with the introduction of its own flagship interactive audio ad product, CTA Cards, which it released at the beginning of 2022.

“We’re very focused on continuing to observe what the user behavior is in terms of their proliferation between interview and passive engagement because we know that we have been, and always will be, an audio-first platform. We want to continue, first and foremost, to demonstrate and prove the value of what audio interactivity is for advertisers,” explained Chloe Wix, head of monetization product marketing at Spotify.

Since its launch, Spotify’s interactive ad product has been used for campaigns by Unilever, Brooklinen and Ulta Beauty.

A slow start, but positivity remains

Simon Dunlop spotted the potential of interactive audio ads when he recognized the low CPMs around audio as well as the lack of calls to action, targeting and measurement. He and his team created Instreamatic a few years ago. But it was slow to take hold because of an independent, rather than a unified, approach taken by audio platforms.

“An advertiser doesn’t just want to buy one slice of an audience; they want to be able to have a national campaign, which is going to be across irrespective of all of these publishers,” Dunlop says.

Instreamatic is now focusing on developing AI-powered and contextual audio ads.

“It’s been annoying that you can be at the forefront of the technology and the market just isn’t there yet. And as a startup, the only thing you can do—you can’t hang out and wait for the market to fill in—you have to pivot,” said Dunlop.

While the speed of adoption by advertisers may be slower than expected, there appears to remain positivity around the future of voice-comm as technology evolves.

“There’s a lot to love about interactive audio, but if the reach is limited it’s likely a luxury to build on a solid audio plan or its niche. If Amazon is your principal retailer, it’s great, but if not, I’d prioritize elsewhere,” said Mindshare executive director Robert Harwood-Matthews.

“Things will change fast as they launch retargeting around display, and I’d expect the format to grow,” he added.

In the end, with the way technology is evolving to include more AI-generated content and power virtual characters, brands will be looking to find new ways to stand out from their competitors. Voice might still prove a helpful advance in that respect.

“Whether or not voice-activated advertisements will take off is irrelevant to the fact that brands need to start thinking about their own unique synthetic voice,” said AMP Sound Branding’s head of research and insights, Bjorn Thorleifsson. “So many brands use standard synthetic voices, most noticeably on TikTok. This uniformity hinders the ability to discern between brand-specific content.

In an era where consumers are increasingly embracing smart speakers as a medium for brand interaction, possessing a unique brand voice will become paramount for nurturing trust and establishing brand distinctiveness,” Thorleifsson added.

This story is part of the Audio Awards special feature.

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