predicting the future

Having evolved from a concept to a certainty, voice assistants and devices powered by artificial intelligence (AI) are set to shape the next generation of modern marketing.

According to the Smart Audio Report from NPR and Edison Research, about 39 million U.S. adults (or 16 percent of the population) already own a smart speaker (a voice command device with an integrated virtual assistant). And Juniper Research predicts that that number will grow to 70 million by 2022, when as many as 870 million voice-assistant-enabled devices across all platforms — smartphones, tablets, PCs, speakers, connected TVs, cars and wearables — will be in use in the U.S. Those systems will include Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant-equipped smartphones.

This fast-moving momentum behind voice technology is more than just hype. Interactive voice assistants will be the next technology to transform brand-to-consumer conversations.

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The Rise of Voice: Why Now?

Based on these latest forecasts, it seems clear that voice technology is poised to be the next go-to technology for consumers and marketers alike. But why now? There are many factors driving the rise of voice-enabled technology, but it all boils down to one main benefit: simplicity. Spoken language is the easiest way to translate thoughts into commands that direct action. Voice technology also eliminates the complexities involved with training people to use new interfaces (websites, mobile apps, enterprise systems, etc.).

Additionally, today’s consumers are perpetual multitaskers who benefit from the hands-free interface of voice-driven systems, which make it easier than ever to place phone calls, retrieve information, request rides via Uber or Lyft, schedule a haircut or a doctor’s appointment, or buy tickets to a sporting or music event. And here is the best part: We can do all of those things while washing dishes, folding laundry or even driving a car.

Voice assistants can also help people navigate the many layers of modern brand ecosystems, which often present dozens of choices for commercial products. For example, with voice-based search tools or voice assistants, people can query thousands of pages of online product catalogs by simply asking a question like “What’s the highest-rated brand of razor blades?” In fact, with nearly 32 percent of U.S. consumers using voice assistants on a daily basis to conduct searches, according to a recent PwC report, voice search is no longer the exception so much as the norm.

Finally, voice technology provides value in facilitating familiar, friendly brand interactions. For example, the use of Alexa Skills offers an intuitive channel for consumer-tailored content. A brewery, for example, can develop an Alexa Skill that helps people choose the type of beer to purchase based on the weather, their mood or the perfect accompaniment to the snack they may be purchasing. Tracking the progression of this selection process would ultimately create a feedback loop that would help business owners and marketing leaders develop their next awareness campaigns or product promotions.

Related Article: Searching for Brand Success With Voice Assistants

Beyond the Wow Factor: Voice Marketing Efforts Examples

The rise in popularity of devices like Amazon Alexa and virtual assistants like Siri and Google Assistant represents a paradigm shift in human-to-machine interaction. Brands that do a great job of integrating these assistants will deliver a seamless and unique consumer experience that will help them build stronger relationships with early adopters of their brands and, by extension, bigger initial audiences.

For marketers looking to implement voice marketing strategies, here are a few considerations to bear in mind, along with some examples of things you can do to stay ahead of the curve.

1. Use Voice for Human-Oriented, ‘Consumer-Simple’ Marketing

Voice technology is ushering in a next-generation approach to transitioning the sales funnel from traditional ecommerce channels to smart voice assistants. For example, the best use cases today are enabling on-the-spot, top-of-mind purchases — i.e., “Alexa, send me a four-pack of Schick Hydro 5 razor blades.”

However, interactions like that aren’t always flawless. I’ve seen demos where the conversation with Google goes something like this:

“Hey Google, I would like to buy a set of razor blades.”

“OK, Gillette seems very popular with our customers in Mountain View. However, Schick Hydro 5 has excellent reviews and is on sale this week from Walmart. Would you like that instead?”

In that example, two brands received great lift: Schick and Walmart. Imagine a world where promotions are built in.

That scenario is different from traditional commerce-driven web searches. With voice, most transactions will start differently and will not be research-oriented, whereas a traditional Google search might involve the consumer typing in the query “men’s razor blades” and then looking at the results, reading reviews and watching videos, etc. However, we should also remember that for a lot of household products with well-known brand names, people already know which brand they want and will most likely enter that as their query.

Voice-enabled searches produce new opportunities to interact with customers, and they provide a more natural way of promoting other brands. The interaction is similar to what might occur when a shopper in a brick-and-mortar store approaches an employee and asks for help finding razor blades. In such a scenario, the employee might respond by saying, “Here are the Gillette razor blades, but you might consider these Schick Hydro 5 blades. They’re on sale this week, and I personally use them and love them.”

2. Focus on Providing Consistent Value and Unique Experiences

The real roadblock for making voice marketing work is finding that “sticky” content that enables brands and consumers to have meaningful, ongoing interactions, instead of one-off interactions followed by consumers losing interest. Johnnie Walker is one example of a brand that puts a priority on delivering a consistent, unique, consumer experience, and its efforts are paying off in spades. For example, the maker of Scotch whiskey has programmed an Alexa Skill that offers consumers the option to choose a label based on personal preferences, buy a bottle, learn a little more about whiskey or partake in a guided tasting. (Users must confirm they are at least 21 years old to access the skill.) This is an excellent example of how a brand can maintain consistent messaging and topical relevance while providing voice content that consumers can interact with.

Shopping is the most natural first step for those looking to get started with voice, much like ecommerce was for mobile apps, but with a greater number of opportunities. For example, imagine how valuable it would be for consumers to have conversations like this with a brand such as Hyatt Hotels:

“Hey Hyatt, do you have a hotel in Jerusalem that’s available on August 16th, 17th and 18th?”

“Yes, we have a hotel in Jerusalem, but unfortunately it is sold out for those dates. Can I help you look for different dates?”

“Hey Hyatt, that’s OK. How about Tel Aviv?”

“Yes, we do have those dates available for the Tel Aviv Hyatt.”

“And do you have a pool at the hotel in Tel Aviv?”

“Yes, we also have a pool and a workout room at that location.”

“Perfect! Please book those dates and send confirmation via email.”

An interaction like that would be just the beginning. Consider a scenario where Hyatt partners with an airline and follows up with “I have booked those dates, would you like me to look into flights as well?” The opportunity to pursue partnered brand interactions will be a game-changer in voice marketing.

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment 

Part of a brand’s digital evolution involves finding the right application, the right people in the organization and the right technology partners. While there is a sense of urgency to get there first, the key to success with voice-guided marketing is finding the right use cases. Keep it simple and keep it centered on delivering a unique customer experience. It’s OK to pick one platform — Google, Siri or Amazon — to experiment with at first and then review the results, iterate to get it right and then extend to the second platform. Today, you can’t go wrong by picking any of those platforms to experiment with before you go all-in on putting forth your own voice applications.

Embrace the Future 

Voice technology may very well replace how people interact with their devices as consumers move from touchscreen mobile apps and websites to voice-driven systems. As you build out a voice marketing strategy, focus on creating unique, engaging customer experiences that deliver real value, and prioritize simple interactions where you can.