How Personalizing Voice Skills Can Give Your Brand a Digital Boost

Gartner predicts that the smart speaker market will reach $3.5 billion in 2020

By honing the "skills" on Voice devices, you can make it so they market your brand and its values. Sources: Amazon, Getty Images
Headshot of Robert Keenan

We’ve heard the hype. We’ve seen the commercials. It’s hard to turn around and not hear the hype around voice skill devices. Whether it’s Amazon’s Echo family with its “ask Alexa” functionality or the Google Home Devices that are powered by the phrase “Hey Google,” it’s tough for marketers or agencies to go far without hearing some hype around the emerging voice speaker market.

And the hype is real. In a survey by Bright Edge, 31 percent of digital marketers at Fortune 500 companies believe voice is the next big thing. At the same time, Gartner is predicting the market for smart speakers will hit $3.5 billion by 2020.

With these types of growth projections, it’s hard for brand marketers and agencies to ignore the opportunity provided by smart speakers. But it also raises a key question: What’s required to bring a brand to Amazon’s Echo family or Google Home. The first step is defining your skills.

Start with skills

So, what is a skill? According to Amazon, which coined the term, skills are a way to create a more personalized experience on the Alexa platform. On the Google front, skills are called “actions” and, as Google says, actions are a way for users to interact with your content.

When you break it down, a skill is equivalent to the domain name that you use for your website. On the web, you’d define the domain as www.brandx.com. In Alexa, Brand X is the equivalent domain.

And like website domains, skills come in two flavors: branded and unbranded.

Branded skills, as the name implies, are skills that are aligned with a brand itself. A good example here are skills like Forbes’ “Quote of the Day” or Patron’s “Ask Patron” skill, which helps users find and make tequila cocktails. Unbranded skills are a way that a brand can own a sector of a market or a topic. A good comparison on the web front is a site called RateBeer (www.ratebeer.com). RateBeer was launched to help promote the craft beer market. A good example of an unbranded skill is Zyrtec’s AllergyCast. Through AllergyCast, users can learn the pollen counts and other factors that will impact their allergies for the day.

What’s the best approach here? For those that haven’t built an Alexa skill yet, the best option is to take a crawl-walk-run approach.

When you break it down, a skill is equivalent to the domain name that you use for your website.

In the crawl phase, we suggest launching a skill that aligns with your brand. For example, you can launch a simple skill that allows users to find out more information on your product. In the walk phase, brands should look to create more engaging interactions with users that go beyond simple yes or no actions. For examples, in the case of Patron, they have built a branded skill that also allows the user to not only interact with Patron but also gain tips back that they can use to take an action (in this case, making a tequila drink). In the run phase, brands and agencies can look to expand their brand skills while also adding more generic unbranded skills. For example, if you’re manufacturing consumer packaged goods, like an energy drink, you can build a skill for your brand for the drink and then build a skill that captured the more generic energy drink industry sector.

The key here is to get a skill moving. With the growth projections as they are, it’s critical for brands and agencies to get their stake in the ground and begin to learn what will and will not work in this new medium. If you don’t have a skill, then you can’t dip your toe and learn.

Invoking comes next

Once you have your skill defined, the next step is to develop the phrases that will invoke your skill on your device. Think of the invocation as the navigation on your website. Once you have the domain, you now need a way to navigate through the site. The same is true with a voice skill. Once the skill is defined, you need to define invocations that will allow users to engage with and navigate through your skill.

Amazon has a nice resource that can help you understand how to build an invocation. Here are two ways that you can build an invocation for a skill.

First, you can use a particular request to enable the skill. These types of invocations are like longer search strings used in a Google search. Examples here include, “Alexa, ask Brand X about the best dog food for my collie,” or “Alexa, give me the best dog food options for my collie from Brand X”.

The second approach is to build an invocation that simply starts the skill. For example, you can build an invocation that encourages the user to simply say, “Alexa, open Brand X,” or “Hey Google, ask Brand X.” This type of invocation is great for marketers because it provides a simple way to promote your skills in advertising and marketing materials.

During the invocation development phase, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, it’s important for the invocation to either include “Hey Google” or “Alexa.” Second, words like ask, start, open and search can play a key role. Finally, keep in mind that invocations need to evolve. Once your skill is live, it’s critical to monitor and adjust your invocations so that they allow for better user interactivity.

Tools that can help

One of the questions I’ve heard a number of times is: “How do I build a skill?” Amazon has built a toolkit to help develop skills for Alexa. Google also has a nice set of resources for your development team to review.

One suggestion, however, is to look at third-party solutions. There are a number of war stories about the time required to build a skill for one platform. By working with a third-party source, you may find that you have the opportunity to build your skill once and submit it to multiple devices.


@robkeenan11 rkeenan@keenandigitalconsult.com Robert Keenan is the president of Keenan Media, LLC.
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