The next time you need help removing a stain from clothing or are searching for cocktail recipes, don't be surprised if help comes in the form of sponsored voice messages from Tide or Johnnie Walker.
After years of hype, Amazon, Google and Apple's vision for the Internet of Things is starting to come to fruition with the rollout of smart home devices like Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple's Siri and its HomeKit, which launched in September. In fact, 6.3 million voice assistants will be shipped in 2016, amounting to $890 million, according to research firm Futuresource Consulting. No surprise then that marketers are hoping to cash in on this new AI technology by embedding voice-activated experiences.
"A lot of what we had done before was so visual in nature—creating videos, websites and apps," noted Greg Hedges, director of strategy at digital agency Rain, which has created branded Amazon "skills" for Tide, Campbell's Soup and Liberty Mutual's Safeco. "[Voice] is now part of what we do—it's the evolution of how we interact as consumers with things."
Notable brands are creating their own "skills," which lets users ask questions and talk to Alexa, Amazon's AI platform. Tide, for example, gives consumers detailed instructions on how to remove stains. After reading the directions out loud, Alexa sends the instructions in a text message with a link to buy laundry detergent on Amazon.com. Johnnie Walker's location-based program helps people find nearby liquor stores that sell its label. Once someone makes a purchase, Johnnie Walker can recommend cocktail recipes. In all, there are more than 4,500 skills, with 700 new skills available in the last week alone, per Amazon. Quaker Oats, Patrón Tequila and Domino's also are on board.
Meanwhile, marketers are just starting to get their hands on Google Home—the internet giant's play to own the living room—and are exploring ways to use Google's trove of data across email, search, maps and more. In December, Google will open up its AI software, called Google Assistant, allowing developers and marketers to build voice skills that are similar to Echo.
"Google has probably the most data of anybody," noted Erin Hauswirth, associate director of strategy at agency Giant Spoon. "Their whole business has been based on people typing a query into a search bar, but if people aren't doing that anymore and instead we're asking questions over a speaker or through a chat interface, they need to be able to promote products, queries, features and entertainment [that way]."
Then there's Apple. In June, Apple opened up Siri's program to brands like Uber and Fandango to build voice apps that work within iMessage. But Apple's so-called walled garden has kept marketers from digging in. And its latest living room entry, HomeKit, just rolled out this fall.
Consumers have been slow to embrace branded skills. In July, Patrón Tequila launched an Amazon skill offering margarita recipes and bartender tips, which has been downloaded by just 7,000 people. Only 17 percent of those consumers—or nearly 1,200—used it more than once. It's no better at Johnnie Walker, which reports that its skill, which launched in September, has been used just 1,200 times (though on the upside, it boasts an average of 13 back-and-forth interactions with users).
Ray Velez, chief technology officer at Razorfish, which created Patrón's skill, suggested those stats are a good start, given Echo is a new brand. "What's different about scale here is we're looking at a trajectory—building something for when a technology like Alexa starts to get at scale helps to follow a trend," he said. "The awareness and the knowledge isn't quite there."
Stephanie Jacoby, Johnnie Walker's vp of brand marketing, pointed to real-time data that can be captured during interactions with Amazon Echo and Google Home. Metrics include how long someone uses a skill, what questions they ask and where they're located. "Now that we've launched, the next few months will be about learning and optimizing," she said. "We want to see where people spend most of their time, what areas are driving repeat visits. We'll be continuously rolling out updates based on these learnings over the course of the year."
Like marketers, agencies also are preparing to join the fray, staffing up on AI talent and exploring ways to create branded content offerings. Earlier this month, holding company MDC Media Partners launched stand-alone agency Born to bring together the creative and technology sides of AI and voice. "It's like the traditional agency 10 years ago when they weren't really serious about digital—now every big creative agency you know can build an app," said Michael Nicholas, Born's chief experience officer. "We fully believe that we're going to see the rise in artificial intelligence agencies."
This story first appeared in the November 14, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.