How voice technology is changing everything for brands

In the brave new 'brandless' world of voice, the race is on to seize early-mover advantage. But how can brands redefine themselves in this voice-operated environment, where consumer decisions are outsourced to an algorithm?

The interface is simple. You use a trigger word – "OK, Google", "Alexa" or "Siri" – ask a question and get a response. But behind that exchange is a rapidly evolving world of technology, with tendrils that have spread into how we search, shop and interact with companies.

Already, 62% of Brits are using or happy to use voice-operated devices, according to Mintel, to listen to music, search, check the news and shop.

This is turning traditional marketing disciplines on their heads, says Scott Galloway, clinical professor of marketing at the New York University Stern School of Business and founder of research firm L2. He explains: "Voice-based ordering eliminates the need for packaging, design and end-caps, all the things that brands have poured billions into and have spent decades perfecting." In other words, brands are going to have to learn how to redefine themselves in a whole new dimension. 

‘Voice has the potential to greatly impact interaction between humans and computers’ Daren Gill, director, Amazon Alexa

Jim Cridlin, global head of innovation at Mindshare, says: "Voice as a thing, rather than an abstract concept of a brand’s ‘voice’, is a daunting thing to define. 

"It’s conceivable that the brand voice for you is different to how it is for me. Then there is the politics of gender, personality and accents – you have to get it right."

But before brands arrive at that juncture, they have to cope with the changes happening in two areas with which they have already grown comfortable – search and online shopping – thanks to the dominance of the two major players in voice-powered technology devices: Google and Amazon.

Searching for answers

Over the years, we have grown accustomed to typing in keywords and getting a string of results on screen. But no-one wants a smart speaker to spout an endless list of results. They want just one answer.

In the expectation that 50% of all searches by 2020 will be by voice (according to ComScore), Google has subtly been evolving its response to this, providing "Answer boxes" for a couple of years to an increasingly wide range of queries. Powered by the Knowledge Graph, which stores structured and unstructured information to help Google improve its search queries, these boxes fuel the answers provided by Google Home.

"The Answer box is not specific to Google Home but, rather, came about when we moved towards thinking more about mobile and voice – when you need an answer quickly because you’re on the go, not a list of results," Behshad Behzadi, director of conversational search at Google, explains. Google now has an Answers team, he adds, whose goal is to answer every question in the world. "If you ask a question and we’re not answering it, it’s on a list that we want to answer today." 

10% of US households have an Amazon Echo and more than half have their devices in the kitchen

These investments are paying off and greatly improving the stickiness of voice search. Of those who have started using voice in the past six months, 42% are using it daily. In comparison, only 25% of those who started using it more than four years ago still use it on a daily basis, according to Google.

How a brand or a company gets chosen to supply the answer in the box is not something to which Google is willing to apply a hard and fast rule. "The algorithm that selects the answers does so based on the search itself. It’s fair to say that content ranked highest in search is most likely the one to be selected for the box," Behzadi says. "But there is not a formal answer to getting picked by the algorithm. It depends on what the algorithm deems to be the best content, and how it defines ‘best’ is continually evolving."

This opacity also applies to how Google Home selects the best Action to recommend. An Action on Google’s voice platform is the equivalent of a Skill on Alexa. Similar to apps on a smartphone, these are small executable programs designed to access either Google's or Alexa’s voice services and bring products or services to life.

Unlike on Alexa, users don’t have to explicitly enable an Action on Google Home to use it. Also, while it’s possible for users to explicitly trigger an Action, it’s an option that’s not made clear. "The concern is whether Google will charge to have Actions discovered," Joe Evans, senior research analyst at Enders Analysis, notes.

So far, it’s early days for Google in this space, and Matt Bush, Google UK’s director of agencies, has previously said it has no immediate plans to monetise the Action ecosystem.

But how does search work on Alexa? For the most part, Alexa will query several resources available, including Bing, Yelp and a database of enabled Skills, including WebMD for medical queries.

Daren Gill, director of Amazon Alexa, says that Amazon has invented and built search functions from scratch within the organisations. "There are teams in place that determine how they want to put answers in place," he says. ›

How to get into the Google Answer box

Digital agency 360i conducted a study to discover the benefits to a brand of being chosen for the Google Answer box, and how to go about getting selected.

"We found a large opportunity to target and engage search behaviour with immediate answers to queries attached to the brand," Jeremy McDonald, search engine optimisation director at 360i, says. The agency found that appearing in the Answer box increased click-through rates by 30%. So what does Google tend to select for the box? According to McDonald, Google’s Knowledge Graph prefers websites that:

  • Most obviously, answer the question.
  • Place the answer high up in the page.
  • Answer directly and use the language of "is", "what" and "how".
  • Be objective and informative. Brands 
  • often try to answer with "our approach is…" and that just doesn’t work.
  • Ideally, make the search term part of the page title.

Alexa is changing online shopping

Search has, arguably, never been Amazon’s priority. The online retailer has stuck to what it knows best – enabling consumers to order instantly using its Prime service via the more than 11 million Echo devices sold so far.

While no comparable statistics exist in the UK, according to GfK, 10% of US households have an Amazon Echo and more than half have their devices in the kitchen. Research conducted by Experian in the US last September found that one in three Echo owners has asked Alexa to order an item.

Amazon Echo UK advert

The tie-in with Amazon Prime, which also includes a grocery delivery service, plus Skills that allow users to order a pizza from Domino’s, a coffee from Starbucks or a taxi from Uber, has turned Alexa into a "shopping machine", Experian’s study concluded.

"Amazon views voice as having the potential to greatly impact human-computer interaction and it will be extremely powerful for removing friction," Gill says.

In the interest of removing consumer friction, if requested to do so Alexa will select the best product based on several factors, Gill adds. "Let’s say a customer asks Alexa to buy toothpaste, without any specifics. Alexa will use algorithms to determine the right product for the person looking for the toothpaste, providing the best decision for the category."

This is no different from how it works on Amazon Retail, he adds. "Best price and the best choice. The challenge is that language has an element of ambiguity to it."

But companies have started to question whether Alexa’s shopping decisions are really the "best price and the best choice" for the customer. With 30% of search queries across all platforms predicted to be screenless by 2020 (according to Gartner), users will become more reliant on whatever Alexa deems best.

With 30% of search queries across all platforms predicted to be screenless by 2020, users will become more reliant on whatever Alexa deems bestGartner

In June this year, research company L2 ordered 450 products via Alexa in the US across the consumer goods, beauty, electronics, healthcare and grocery categories. It found that if brands wanted to be recommended by Alexa, they had to be available to Amazon Prime members. The study also found that if a brand had an Amazon Choice designation, it was given top billing in its category. Choice products are those that are eligible for Prime, have lots of positive reviews and sell wholesale to Amazon.

Brands and voice

So how are brands to survive in a world where choices are made for customers by a faceless algorithm? "In a word: relationships," Andy Hood, head of emerging technologies at AKQA, says. "Voice changes the relationship between the brand and the consumer, and the important thing with any relationship is to maintain it."

For the future of voice and brands, don’t look to the Cannes Lion-winning "Google home of the Whopper" by Burger King, Hood says. "It was a bold prank. It could only be pulled off once."

For the long-term, brands need to consider both how casual and how intimate voice interactions in the home are. "It takes a deliberate and conscious decision to pick up a phone and type a search query, which is why people still ask things instead of looking them up. So voice brings the interaction with a brand to a casual and instinctive action at home, and the brand gets treated as a person. This means you have to sustain the relationship instead of dumping your customer when the stunt ends," Hood says.

The key to sustaining a relationship with the customer is usefulness, Marie Stafford, director of consumer intelligence, trends and insight at JWT Intelligence, says. "Utility is a chance for brands. An obvious one is customer service, having that advice on call in a customer’s home 24/7 could be welcome. Oxo, for example, could deliver recipes. Tide has a Skill that offers advice on removing stains."

Indeed, brands that offer utility are the most used of the 15,000 Skills on Amazon. Last July, David Limp, Amazon’s senior vice-president of devices, revealed that ride-sharing car companies Lyft and Uber offered the most popular Skills. Further research has found that 70% of Alexa owners stream music services such as Spotify.

"We are finding that Skills that are entertaining and reduce the friction it takes to get something done, such as ordering a pizza or checking something related to an account or setting a timer, are the ones most used by consumers," Gill observes.

Brands also need to start experimenting with this technology – and soon, Stafford says. "This tech is in its infancy and there’s a lot of development. We’re encouraging brands to get out there and get playing with it."

Vodafone, which launched a Skill in August that enables its customers to check their bills and data balance, is one brand keen to learn more about how consumers use voice (see box below).

"We were keen to launch a minimum viable product, just to get it out as early and quickly as possible to gain maximum feedback – then potentially pivot once we get insight into how it’s working," Duncan Smith, Vodafone’s head of digital product UK and Ireland, explains.

Domino’s Pizza, which launched its ordering Skill in the UK at the end of July, has taken the same approach. "It’s simple because we were keen to get a perfectly working product quickly to market, look at the data and see how people are using it before taking it further," Tom Ollerton, innovation director at Domino’s digital agency We Are Social, says.

Domino’s is planning for where the technology will be in 18 months’ time, not where it stands now, Ollerton explains. "In the same way that the first smartphones and virtual-reality headsets weren’t very good, Alexa has a long way to go to mature," he says. "In a year’s time, we’ll look back at what voice can do today and laugh." 

Developing Vodafone’s Alexa Skill

In August, Vodafone launched a Skill on Amazon’s Alexa designed to let its customers check their data balances and bills using a simple query.

"This all started when one of our developers got hold of an Amazon Echo and started playing around with it," Duncan Smith, head of digital product at Vodafone UK and Ireland, explains. "He then said, ‘Hey, it would be pretty cool if we, as Vodafone, created some ideas around what we could offer through this channel.’"

So the team at Vodafone brainstormed and came up with a series of ideas, one of which (around billing and resolving commonly asked queries) was selected because it was both useful and could be executed. 

"We got a small group of people to help develop this, just informally and doing it because they were really keen. Once we got a test case to show what we could do, we took it to senior management and they got pretty excited about it. So that’s when we got more formal governance in on it and proper project management," Smith says.

Vodafone wanted to make sure it wouldn’t end up rolling out multiple Skills for each country in which it operates. "We have a group in Germany that created a master global Skill. The UK one fits inside. We also worked closely with Amazon to review the voice Skill’s user experience," Smith adds.

The Skill then went through a period of testing and the team at Vodafone is now coming up with ideas for what it can do beyond this first phase. 

So what’s in this for Vodafone? Beyond being seen as innovative by its customer base, this early-mover advantage could benefit Vodafone in the long run. 

"Alexa, as it is now, won’t be anywhere near what it will be in two years’ time. With this launch, we gain an early-mover advantage and we delight our customers. There’s no reason not to do this early," Smith concludes.

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