How This Agency Built Its Own App Using Amazon Echo

Voice skills have become big business for Rain

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Last October, New York-based digital agency Rain worked with Campbell's to find a new way to push out the CPG giant's library of recipes, creating one of the first branded "skills" for Amazon's voice-controlled Echo device, which helped consumers find dinner recipes on demand.

While the agency expected a bit of a PR boost from the Campbell's work, voice and the so-called Internet of Things has actually become a big growth area for Rain over the past year, as more agencies look for ways to tap into emerging devices for brands. Shortly after creating the Campbell's skill, Rain became one of a handful of Amazon's go-to developers tasked with building "skills"—voice apps that let consumers ask questions to Amazon's AI platform named Alexa. Rain even opened up a small satellite office—albeit with one employee—in Seattle to be closer to Amazon's headquarters.

"From an agency level, Amazon helps make some connections with clients," said Greg Hedges, director of strategy at Rain. "People will reach out to Amazon sometimes and then we'll get them to the right people."

In the past year, Rain has signed 1-800-Flowers, P&G's Tide, Yahoo Fantasy Football and Liberty Mutual-owned Safeco as clients, helping to build branded skills that dole out information and entertainment to consumers. For Safeco, the agency built a glossary of insurance terms so that consumers can ask Alexa questions like, "What is umbrella insurance?" or "What does liability mean?" For 1-800-Flowers, users can automatically place flower orders to their friends or family members.

In addition to building branded skills, Rain is also plugged into Amazon Voice Service, the arm of Amazon's business focused on building Alexa into other devices. As part of that, Rain recently built a smartphone app called Reverb that uses Amazon's API so that anyone can use Alexa—whether or not they have an Echo device.

Here's how it works: People download the Reverb iOS or Android app (there's also a website) and log in with an Amazon account. From there, folks are prompted to press a finger on the screen to ask Alexa a question. Just like using Echo, Alexa reads the answer out loud and consumers can then have a back-and-forth conversation with her.

For Rain, the app is a way for staffers to tweak and improve the user experience of branded skills when they aren't nearby to use an Echo.

"We use it to test our skills," Hedges said. "We are always looking to be on top of moving technologies and make sure that we understand them—building this was part of understanding the platform."

Going forward, Rain is looking for ways that marketers can use Reverb. In one scenario, the technology could be built into a branded app for Campbell's, to make it easier for consumers to access recipes without having to press a button. "We've already talked about that," said Hedges. "Amazon democratized the voice experience by opening the door [to voice] and we're helping to further that by opening the Alexa platform up."

Hedges said that the agency is working on other ways to build on the initial success of the Campbell's skill, too. "We want to work [on] the ability not to just get the recipe but also extend that cooking experience into getting ingredients [or more information into] the steps."

It's not the first time that Rain has hacked Echo. In May, Rain software engineer Octavio Menocal created a skill for playing a simple game of rock, paper scissors.

Data informs Rain's investment in Echo. Hedges said that the agency builds Google Analytics into its skills to track stats like how long someone spends with the skill, when they use it, their ZIP code and what questions they ask.

"In the Yahoo Fantasy Football app, I can ask for information about a player," Hedges said. "We're not only capturing the fact that someone asked about a player, we're actually capturing information about what specific player they asked for so that we can see which players are most popular."

Rain is also keeping its eye on Google Home, the company's new home device that's potentially full of marketing data. In December, Google plans to open up its AI platform—dubbed Google Assistant—for marketers and developers to create similar experiences to Amazon Echo.

"We feel like the process that we've honed is applicable to those—while we've built skills, what we've really been building in the end are these larger experiences and then executing them using Alexa," Hedges said.

@laurenjohnson Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.