Millennial Parents and Their Kids Love Smart Speakers, but Data Privacy Issues Persist

It's a balancing act for marketers

Smart speakers and IoT gadgets are considered part of the family for many millennials. Photo Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Sources: Getty Images
Headshot of Christopher Heine

Google Home and Amazon Echo, if you haven’t heard, are giving millennial parents a glimpse into what a future with actual household robots may look like. Their children are loving the conversational back-and-forth with Google and Alexa, commanding them to play music or answer random questions.

Fifty-seven percent of smart-speaker owners with children surveyed by NPR and Edison Research earlier this year said that entertaining kids was a reason for purchasing a voice-activated, artificial-intelligence-infused device. But it’s not all newfangled, futuristic fun for young moms and dads. And marketers should take note.

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According to new Amobee research that was conducted from July 10, 2016, through Aug. 10, 2017, 9 percent of all digital content engagement (views, likes, shares, etc.) around the subject of voice assistants was related to privacy. Thirteen percent of all such online chatter around Amazon Echo at least mentioned kids, while 6 percent was distinctly related to children. During the same period, 10 percent of all Google Home-related digital content engagement was kids related.

It seems likely that such chatter will evolve into a full-fledged debate about safeguarding kids from voice AI and nefarious data collecting. Forty-five million voice-assisted devices are now in use in the U.S., according to eMarketer, and that number will rise to 67 million by 2019.

Making IoT family friendly

“For parents, the key issue around smart speakers is safety, meaning they need to know that their children are protected from age-inappropriate content or interactions and that their children’s data is secure and won’t be hacked by a predatory third party,” said Amobee’s Jonathan Cohen, principal brand analyst. “Voice-assistant technology can be a powerful enrichment tool, but the fact that kids can potentially be conversing on these platforms before they’re even able to read or write, means the most stringent parental controls need to be in place.”

Cohen said it’s up to connected brands to take precautions “to make the IoT [Internet of Things] ecosystem family friendly” and up to marketers “to communicate how audience privacy is being properly safeguarded.”

The Federal Trade Commission recommends that brands implement best-in-class tools into their IoT systems and devices from the outset to keep unauthorized users from grabbing other users’ data, and it states that marketers should have third-party partners fully on board to eliminate security leaks. For instance, whether it’s a smart thermostat or a souped-up speaker, usage data can reveal to criminals when people are typically in their homes, making it relatively easy to time break-ins for when no one is around. That’s really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how important it is for user data to remain in the right hands—not to mention that if individuals’ information gets stolen, the damage to the device-maker’s or service provider’s brand would be hard to reverse.

Chris Neff, senior director of innovation at marketing agency The Community, said that while companies need to be careful, they can provide easy-order types of services to Gen Y parents that will embolden their brands. He mentioned Uber and Domino’s as marketers that have gotten their smart-speaker skills right, letting consumers order cars and pizzas seamlessly.

“The proper way into the hearts of parents through smart speakers is a split between simplifying their lives and proactively being one step ahead,” Neff said. “Marketing that conveys this [concept] and plays to the notion of help and support will rise above the direction of entertainment. I think the point of divergence between utility and entertainment will in large part align with the age brackets marketers are targeting. Personally, it feels like both uses will grow, but audible entertainment outside of music feels limiting, whereas the utilitarian benefits feel limitless.”

The intimacy of AI

The intimacy with which smart speakers have become part of millennial-led households is downright fascinating. A BabyCenter survey from earlier this year found that 42 percent of parents’ households use either Google’s voice assistant, Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana multiple times a day. What’s more, 22 percent say their virtual assistants are “like another part of the family.” During the upcoming holiday season, it will be intriguing to see how marketers try to drive sales in creative ways via AI devices.

“A brand targeting parents can now create a Christmas skill to entertain the family and in the process educate on the product benefits or drive parents to the brand’s app or website,” offered Diego Prusky, chief strategist and co-founder of The Story Room.

Julie Rezek, North American president at HackerAgency, added, “The opportunity with smart speakers and AI is the abundance of data that can be used to get insights on household profiles and content-consumption patterns that would enable marketers to be hypertargeted and relevant in communications.”

But marketers will have to be careful about how much targeting they do, lest they inspire regulatory institutions like the Federal Trade Commission to start breathing down their necks. “As in-home, voice-controlled AI technology becomes even more prevalent and evolves in terms of substance—more capable of offering real answers to real questions—marketers will need to be increasingly careful to properly follow FTC disclosure and advertising guidelines,” noted advertising lawyer Ronald Camhi.

More generally, Gen Y parents could prove to be crucial in developing the IoT world, marketers suggested, as their families decades from now will likely be considered the first generation of 21st-century home automation.

“As parents look for new and convenient ways to connect and protect their kids, in-home digital assistants will be a huge boon for the modern family,” remarked David Hewitt, group vp, global mobility lead, SapientRazorfish. “For marketers, the early engagement opportunity is currently focused on creating skills and apps that present a value exchange for how we shop, consume content, and most recently connect with friends and loved ones.”

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.