Originally featured in the February 25th 2018 issue of Campaign Middle East
Long before the smartphone, the television, the radio, and even the printing press, we relied on our voices to communicate. These days we spend more and more time with our faces buried in a screen, although if you were to believe the tech press hype, all that might soon be about to change. There is a voice-powered revolution happening, or so we’re told.
Sales of voice assistant devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home spiked last year and are expected to grow exponentially in the foreseeable future. With smartphone ownership long past saturation point, the big tech players see voice as the next great frontier for how they might embed themselves into our lives.
And rightly so. Google says that 20% of searches on Android devices in the US are currently done by voice, and ComScore expects voice searches to rise to 50% of all searches by as soon as 2020. You can almost hear brands scrambling around to try and come up with a ‘voice strategy’. But are we getting a little too ahead of ourselves?
How all this will affect advertisers exactly is still very much up in the air. While these stats seem staggeringly high, it’s important to unpack the different types of voice search taken into account here. These stats include using voice as an input to serve up results on a smartphone screen via Apple’s Siri or Google Assistant for example. While we might search differently when using our voice compared to typing a search into our phone, this method ultimately still produces a list of text-based results that can be scrolled through and pondered over.
The real disruption will happen when we also get the results coming back to us through voice. Unlike text-based search, the number of results that a voice platform can serve up will be far fewer. Gone are the pages and pages of listings that can be facilitated through a screen. This is bound to refine the types of searches we make, but also the types of responses we are given in return, fundamentally changing how search works.
For example, instead of searching for “pizza places in Dubai” and being presented with a list of the nearest pizza restaurants, unless you know specifically where you want to order from, you are likely to be presented with only two or three of the most popular options. How Google or Amazon etc. decide on these options will have drastic knock-on implications for businesses. Depending on how well these platforms know you, they can tailor options to your tastes and purchase history etc., but this could make it increasingly difficult for brands to influence the process.
All of this might sound worrying for marketers, but if we look back to the current usage of voice-assistants it’s clear that we might be a bit further off this reality than some would have you believe. The vast majority of interactions with these devices at the moment are to carry out mundane tasks like playing music, getting the weather forecast, setting a timer or asking generic questions. When it comes to actually using these devices to make a purchase, this is still very rare. A recent Business Insider Intelligence survey of 1,000 heavy voice-assistant users found that only 9% had ever used voice commands to actually buy a product.
Some first-mover brands in the US that have gotten a march on their competitors are the likes of Starbucks and Domino’s pizza who have launched Alexa ‘skills’ over the last couple of years. These skills are still quite primitive though and usually only facilitate re-ordering a designated item and having to use a specific trigger phrase to do so.
While voice may not ultimately replace all e-commerce, it could especially revolutionize ‘replenishment purchases’ such as toothpaste or toilet paper, products that can be re-ordered without too much consideration. If your brand can become the default for your customer when she says, for example, “Alexa, buy more washing powder”, this can put you in a very strong position when it comes to customer retention.
Ironically, many of the brands that will reap the benefits in this new landscape will be those that have built up their brand outside of these platforms, maybe even on – shock, horror – traditional channels. So much so, that they are top-of-mind and that consumers actually request them specifically on voice platforms, or have them set as a default order.
While we’re yet to see how ads might be facilitated on voice platforms, Amazon have been in talks with consumer companies like Procter & Gamble and Clorox about paying for higher placement if a user searches for a particular type of product, as well as targeting users based on past shopping behavior to cross-sell complimentary products to them. How will all this play out over the coming years? We’ll just have to wait and see. Or perhaps more accurately, listen.