The base of the Amazon Echo, a smart speaker home of voice agent Alexa
With projections that more than half of US homes will have a smart speaker within four years, marketers are strategizing about the best ways forward.
A recent study by marketing agency Digitas addresses some ways in which brands can adapt to a voice-controlled world. But one finding in “A Brand’s Guide to Taking Back Control in a Voice-Driven World” (free, registration required) raises the question of how urgent voice-based buying actually is, as an issue for brands.
The Digitas study was conducted online in the US by The Harris Poll among 2019 randomly selected users 18 and older, of which 557 were found to have made purchases using a voice assistant. That is, about 28 percent of the sampled users reported they have made a voice-based purchase.
But a report earlier this month in The Information, citing two unnamed people “briefed on [Amazon’s] internal figures,” relayed that only about 2 percent of the users of Amazon Alexa devices have made a purchase in 2018.
Research firm Strategy Analytics’ latest quarterly data shows that Amazon’s smart speakers have about 41 percent of the total global market, with Google devices second at 27.6 percent, followed by Alibaba, Apple and JD.com.
More time to prepare?
So, it’s possible but unlikely that, if The Information’s sources are accurate, Google Assistant-powered voice devices have a dramatically higher purchase rate than Amazon or the others.
But, if it is similar, that means that marketers have more time to prepare for what may be coming. Or it may even be that smart speakers, by themselves, do not offer the best way to make a purchase and voice-based buying will continue to be a rarity.
Let’s assume for the moment that Digitas’ finding is accurate, and voice-based buying is already fairly popular.
The biggest brand challenge for voice-based purchases, the study says, is that 85 percent of users who make a purchase via a voice agent select the first option presented, called the device’s “preferred option.”
Unlike text-based decisions, which offer multiple screen-presented choices in response to a query, voice-presentation is an audio stream where the overwhelming majority of users agree to the first presented choice. In some cases, the chosen brand isn’t the one the users are accustomed to buying for that product category.
One remedy that voice experts expect to happen — and that the Digitas study promotes — is the idea that voice assistants aided by a text-based screen could provide additional brand options, thus diminishing the advantage that the first voice-presented option automatically receives.
‘Voice in, text out’
Digitas says its research shows that 78 percent of Americans are likely to scroll through additional product options instead of taking the first option if they are given a choice with options on an accompanying screen.
Tom Hebner, Global Head of Innovation at voice tech firm Nuance, described this approach to me last month as “voice in, text out.” The voice interface could send a text list or link to a nearby phone, laptop or connected TV, often with a verbal indication that additional choices are available on that screen.
Digitas’ study also points out that companies can “maneuver your brand into the lead position” for search results by offering the right product-related content and the most relevant associated search terms.
Of course, this is like saying the way to avoid being beaten by your competition is to become first in your product category. Sure, but not everyone can be first in search results for all queries, regardless of how well-tuned their content or associated terms are.
The study also suggests that brands invest in creating voice-powered skills or actions — that is, platform-specific applications. The resulting activity data, it says, “can then be used to help inform consumer experiences on brand-owned content like assistants an the website, resulting in a personalized, unified customer experience.”
In other words, a well-built Amazon Skill application could work in conjunction with a brand’s other digital marketing efforts, such as bots on websites.
The tentative strategy suggestions by a major global marketing agency like Digitas, coupled with the uncertainty about how many users are actually making voice-based purchases, indicates how fluid this space remains for marketers — even as the installed base grows by leaps and bounds.