Best Practices

What is an Alexa Skill and 4 Tips on Creating Your Very Own

7 minute read
Kaya Ismail avatar
Amazon's popular Echo, Dot and Tap, powered by Alexa voice recognition software, are creating new ways of connecting customers with the things they love through Alexa Skills. CMSWire interviewed the experts to glean tips and best practices on getting started building your own.

The way we interact with technology is changing before our eyes — and our ears.

The Amazon Echo product range, along with the Alexa Skills that give it functionality, is driving much of the rejuvenation going on in audio marketing. For those living under non-wifi enabled rocks, the Amazon Echo is a voice-activated device that can perform web searches, stream podcasts, check the weather, compile to-do lists and a whole lot more. All you have to do is say, “Hey Alexa” to get the Echo’s attention.

Nearly 20 million Echos have been sold so far, from the tall Echo original, to the tiny Echo dot, to the screen-donning Echo show — but what are these "skills" I keep hearing about?

What is An Alexa Skill?

Amazon Echo devices all ship with a handful of built-in features. For example, you can ask your Echo to purchase items via Amazon for you. But if you want to expand the Echo’s functionality, you’ll need to install Alexa Skills, just like you would install apps on a smartphone. The arrival of the Alexa Skill is feeding the growth of voice search and is — quite frankly — changing our lives.

“The adoption of smart home devices which has [turned] audio into a whole new ball game,” says Assaf Gad, the VP of Marketing for NYC-based Audioburst, the search engine for audio content. “Now, we are controlling our homes and interacting with brands through voice activation via a small device resting on our kitchen counters. Audio is an efficient form of interaction, so it’s no surprise that brands and content creators are thinking of ways to use this advancing technology to engage an audience,” he continued.

How To Build An Alexa Skill

Before you start building your Alexa Skill, it’s important to identify the type of skill you want to build. At the time of writing, there are four Alexa Skill types:

Custom Alexa Skill

This is the most advanced skill type, and thus, the hardest to build. With a custom Alexa Skill, you control the requests made by the user, as well as the words they use to trigger the Skill.

Uber’s taxi-hailing Alexa Skill is a good example of a custom skill, although the custom skill type also covers things like interactive games and directory searches.

Amazon’s Instructions: How to build a custom Alexa Skill

Smart Home Alexa Skill

If you want your Alexa Skill to interact with other smart home appliances like smart lightbulbs or security systems, you’ll want to build a smart home Alexa Skill. The Hue Alexa Skill is one example of a smart home Alexa Skill. Users can use smart home Skills to lock their doors, change the volume on their stereo system or to switch off the lights.

Amazon’s Instructions: How to build a smart home Alexa Skill

Flash Briefing Alexa Skill

Building a flash briefing is perhaps the easiest route into Alexa Skill building, which is why so many of them already exist. "Today is History" is one such Skill, as is the "Joke of The Day" Skill.

Flash briefing skills are designed to be daily go-to skills that users listen to during their morning routine. The user simply has to say, “Alexa, what’s my flash briefing” to get Alexa talking.

Amazon’s Instructions: How to build a flash briefing Alexa Skill

Video Alexa Skill

Want to build an Alexa Skill for the Echo Show? For that, you’ll need to build a video skill, which enables users to request video playback, change channels and so forth. The Food Network’s video Alexa Skill makes for a good example to follow.

Amazon’s Instructions: How to build a video Alexa Skill

Learning Opportunities

Tips For Building an Alexa Skill

To get some inside insights into the best practices for building an Alexa Skill, CMSWire spoke to a number of brands who have already ventured into the Alexa Skill market.

Their expert advice covers everything from ensuring your content makes sense audibly, to being patient with Amazon’s Alexa Skill approval process.

David Marine

David Marine is the SVP of Marketing at Madison, NJ-based Coldwell Banker Real Estate. He helped his company develop two Alexa Skills in 2017, the first of which was The Home of The Week Skill, while the second was named The Gen Blue News Skill.

“[My advice to new Alexa Skill builders is] know your audience and don't make a Skill for the novelty of it. All too often brands get caught up in making Skills that have a wow factor, but lack in practicality. In our case, we had research that informed the creation of both of our Skills, and this made development easier. We knew we wanted to reach both buyers and sellers, and real estate professionals alike, and we made sure to tap into their interests and curiosities.

Be sure to also think about whether your Skill makes sense audibly. Using sound and voice can be a successful way to reach users and consumers, but it’s important to think about whether this is the best medium for your brand. Too often, brands try to shoehorn a Skill that might be best suited for a website, video or mobile app.”

Christen Daniels, Authentic

Christen Daniels is director of marketing at Richmond, VA-based Authentic, a digital marketing agency. Daniels helped launch the Authentic Digital Marketing Tip of the Day Skill. “There were three big takeaways from our experience building an Alexa Skill," she said.

  1. Do your best to use the technology stack you have - Familiar and existing technology speeds up development and is easier to use.
  2. Think through your skill's lifecycle, paying particular attention to its content and how that will be updated - For our daily tip skill, our developers worked with the marketing team to utilize BloomReach Experience, formerly Hippo CMS (which powers our website), giving marketing users the power to input the content for each tip without the help of developers.
  3. Everything doesn't have to be perfect to launch. Sometimes it's better to get a minimum viable product out there and make improvements from there. "We had many ideas we wanted to include in the initial version of the skill, but the timeline and resources were fixed and didn’t allow for all the bells and whistles we initially planned. However, it worked out perfectly OK in the end as the skill was really well received,” says Daniels.

Felipe Godoy, RingByName

Felipe Godoy is Director of Customer Experience at RingByName, a cloud-based VOIP business phone service. Felipe helped RingByName launch the RingByName Alexa Skill. “While it may not be a mobile app, Customer Experience is just as critical for your skill. If your skill requires you to connect to your platform, create an account, or link in any way, make sure that the process can be performed in as few steps as possible. Provide support and examples. Your users will have an even shorter attention span than normal," says Godoy.

Also, he advises, once you submit your skill [for approval], be patient. The approval process for your skill can take time and may require repeatedly answering questions from the approval team at Amazon — often from multiple people who appear not to share information about your skill.”

Ben Lamm, Conversable

Ben Lamm is the CEO and Co-founder of the conversational intelligence company Conversable. Conversable partners with big brands like Shake Shack and Whole Foods to help them build Alexa Skills and other customer-facing touchpoints.

"The best way to build an Alexa skill is to not approach it as if you're 'building an Alexa skill.' Instead, hone in on exactly what your customers need and figure out how to adapt Alexa, a zero-UI interface, to meet that need or business objective,” says Lamm.