Within the bubble where I work and live — that of voice assistants, audio and sonic products and solutions — the proclamation that audio has arrived is undeniable. To us, the dwellers of that bubble, the trends are clear, the facts are indisputable, and the patterns difficult to ignore. But in my conversations with marketers and other business function leaders outside of the bubble — professionals who have to deal with an endless flux of new tools, strategies and tactics, all while keeping an eye on time sensitive deliverables and bottom lines — I have discovered the perception is very different. Audio as a category that one can assign to an owner and budget for, the way a marketer now does with mobile and social, has yet to crystalize. Instead, marketers feel as if they are being pelted by random manifestations of audio, from hardware, to software, to content and experiences, and they don’t know exactly what to do or where to start.  

A baseline sketch can explain not only why the emergence of audio is as much of a meaningful disruption as that of mobile and social, but also in what ways this disruption is different. Unless marketers grasp precisely what makes audio both compelling and unique, they will continue to be perplexed by the various manifestations of its presence and growth and will remain unclear about what actions to take, let alone what strategies to formulate and what resources to allocate.

Audio's Value Proposition

Perhaps the best way to explain audio’s value proposition is to focus on two form factors that have quickly gone mainstream over the last five or so years: smart speakers and earbuds.  

Let’s start with some basic numbers.    

Smart speakers burst into the scene in earnest in 2016, when the Amazon Echo and Google Home saw an unprecedented rate of adoption compared to other digital devices, such as the laptop, the cell phone and the smartphone. According to the Business Insider Smart Speaker Report, as of April 2021, 50.2% of U.S. consumers now have a smart speaker at home, with, according to Canalys, an expected growth of at least 21% from 2020. The growth of earbuds is even more astonishing: a 33% year-over-year growth rate in 2021 and a total 310 million units expected to be shipped this year.

The obvious question is: Why is this happening — and why now? With screen hardware — HD TV, tablets and smartphones becoming increasingly affordable (unless, of course, you want the latest high-end iPhone) — why this turn to a medium that seems to deliver not much more but much less (no images, only sound)?

The surge in demand for both smart speakers and earbuds is fundamentally the same as the reason the BlackBerry 7230 was eagerly embraced when first introduced in 2003, and the same reason why the smartphone quickly went mainstream with the arrival of the iPhone in 2007. They both enabled us to do things in situations where using the laptop was not possible or convenient. For instance, with our new handheld devices, we were now able to read our mail while walking down the street, Blackberry in hand, peruse the news and play games while riding the train, and basically do anything that we could do with a laptop — but now literally anywhere. Our physical tethering — to the office or the home, where we needed the Ethernet or the Wi-Fi — was broken.

Related Article: The Future Is Multimodal: Why Voice Alone Will Never Be the Answer

Learning Opportunities

Marketing Implications for the Rise of Smart Speakers and Earbuds 

With smart speakers and earbuds, a new type of liberation is taking place. Namely, we are freed from our reliance on our eyes and hands to do things. Whether it’s a laptop, a tablet or a smartphone, in all cases we had to look, locate, hold, swipe, pinch, tap and put down something. Both our eyes and hands were held captive while we used these devices. In other words, while Blackberry and the smartphone freed us from a specific location, the smart speaker and the earbuds freed us to do those same things in new modal situations. We can for instance listen to podcasts while jogging, or ask for the weather while under the hood fixing our car, or request information about potting plants while potting a plant, or ask for measurement conversions while preparing food. The important thing is that, prior to smart speakers and earbuds, none of this was possible without us having to stop what we were doing, free our hands (and often wash them and dry them), and then type on a keyboard or peck at a surface.

The implications are enormous. For the marketer, a whole new world of situations has emerged that offers radically new possibilities to engage with prospects and customers. Audio as a vehicle to market products and services — that is, good old radio — has of course been around for more than a century, and has remained a relevant, effective and compelling channel to reach buyers and establish and deepen brand loyalty. But up to now, audio has remained a one-way medium, with the listener a mere passive receiver of information. With smart speakers and earbuds, the listener is now also a participant, an initiator of engagements. They ask, by speaking naturally, for things that they want — information, experiences, interactions — and are able to do so with minimal effort and maximal convenience.

The exciting challenge ahead for marketers is to identify those opportunities where the brand can fulfill a need through this simple and elegant, yet powerful, new-old medium. We are already seeing this happening with the latest TV sets that one can buy in Costco: no more tedious tapping on keyboards when you want to bring up a movie or when you want to switch channels: you just click on the remote and ask.

We will soon start seeing calls to action from packages, TV and radio ads, billboards and magazines, storefronts and supermarket aisles, that enable users to go from exposure to a brand to engaging with that brand without doing anything more than speaking. The possibilities are as varied as the situations where our eyes and hands are busy. And if you think about it, and ironically in no small measure thanks to laptops, tablets and smartphones, we are finding ourselves now in exactly such situations almost all of the time.

Related Article: Getting Started With Voice? Think Mobile

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