In 1964, Marshall McLuhan wrote a book that became a touchstone in marketing, communications and nearly every social science. In "The Medium is the Message," he unpacked a simple yet revolutionary idea: The advertising medium through which we communicate is not neutral.
Consider a sign placed outside of a business in a strip mall. If you were looking for that place, the sign helps you find it—it’s simple, functional and utilitarian. Now consider a pop up ad. You’re browsing a website and up pops an ad for some other service, product or website—you weren’t looking for it, but now you know it exists.
These examples illustrate a spectrum of utility. At one end are methods like a sign on a building: very utilitarian. But these are also likely to go unnoticed, and often fail to really inform the user about who you are. On the other end of this spectrum sits the pop-up ad—rarely as utilitarian or helpful, but sure to be both noticed and informative.
Striking a balance along this spectrum of disruption and utility is what marketers are after—so which medium offers the best solution? Today, voice technology and digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home are the answer.
Voice-enabled technology is more than just the latest darling in the tech space right now. These platforms do something fundamentally different, and something completely utilitarian—they let the consumer talk first.
Want your product to be seen on Facebook? Buy that ad! Not very utilitarian, but at least people might see it. People aren’t seeing it? How about a sponsored post? It looks like the thing that people want from Facebook… only it’s really your advertisement. Backlash against sponsored posts? How about a brand ambassador? Maybe a real person who subtly (or not so subtly) drops hints on Instagram that they’re using your product will do the trick. These are all versions of masking interruption with utility.
The problem? Eventually, people see through it. Eventually, there are consequences against "sponsored posts" or "paid content" showing up in a person’s Twitter feed. At some point, there’s a Fyre Festival to make people rethink (or at least pause) about paid promoters.
The reality is that it’s not enough to appear utilitarian—the consumer actually needs to come first. Whether it is a radio ad, a television commercial, a sponsored tweet or roadside billboard, each method we implement carries an extra message from the medium. And for now, by virtue of what they are, voice assistants carry a friendly, helpful message of utility with them that won’t offend.
Why voice, and why now? Hyundai built a Google Home integration to start your car, Tide’s Alexa Skill is there to help you remove stains, and the Starbucks Reorder skill for Alexa does, well, just that. Sure, there are many skills that don’t represent a focus on utility. And "smart" things still often fall flat. But the Cambrian explosion of technology that we're seeing today represents another massive shift in human evolution, wherein technology is poised to once again automate parts of our lives that took so much effort. In that way, voice is the new tractor—here to do for us what the tractor did for the agriculture industry. As an interface, voice is the closest we've come to the pure utilitarian side of that scale.
So maybe now we can finally stop trying to figure out new ways to interrupt people with conversations they don’t want to have—consumers didn’t ask advertisers to occupy space in their heads, but that’s what ends up happening. There may come a day when platforms like Alexa and Google Home become overcrowded spaces, evolving into another channel that interrupts. But for now, voice is a genuinely useful medium through which we can interact with a customer, disrupting a long and somewhat aggressive advertising tradition.
Efficacy shouldn’t be measured in dollars alone. The bigger question isn’t whether sponsored posts result in sales in the short term, but rather if they actually put a company in a better position with the consumer. Isn’t that what marketers are really after? Not a better billboard to get the same customers, but instead perhaps a better model to create loyal brand advocates.
If that’s what you’re after, Voice is the medium to consider.
Jason Herndon is Director of Technology Innovation at RAIN.