I recently had to go for my monthly hair cut, and I was speaking to my hairdresser as she was going about her job; you know the usual chit-chat between customer and hairdresser. In between talking about the weather and how her day was going, she started to tell me about how she recently purchased a Google Home Voice Assistant for her home.
Her excitement about its potential was infectious. Between the skilful artistry of making a Mayo man look somewhat respectable, she detailed how she programmed her Google Home Voice Assistant to work with her TV, to turn on her lights, to manage her heating, etc.
My Digital Marketing brain switched on and I asked her
“Do you spend as much time on your smartphone at home, now that you have Google Home Voice Assistant?”.
Her response was that she doesn’t. Instead, now she talks to the strategically placed Google Home Speakers around the house when she wants to listen to Spotify, watch Netflix, Google something, or call her mother. She has moved from a smartphone to a ‘smart home’.
For a marketer, this means less time with eyes on a smartphone screen, which means fewer chances to see an ad.
Last year I was at a talk given by Google’s SVP of Ads & Commerce, Sridhar Ramaswamy, at Dogspatch Labs in Dublin. An audience member raised the question “where is the revenue from Voice Assistants going to come from?”. Sridhar’s answer was “I don’t know, but that doesn’t bother me”. Sridhar said that Google’s plan with Voice Assistants was to be useful, stay relevant and monetization will follow.
You can see that they are investing heavily in Voice Assistants by how developed their Google’s Assistant is; it can understand the context of many questions posed to it better than most competitors, Like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa.
While questions of how to monetise Voice Assistants still remain, (knowing Google I have no doubt that they will find some way to make money), the purpose of this blog is to focus on the current position of Voice Assistants, their future, and the possible challenges they face.
The Current Market
Voice is a very natural way of interaction for us, so it’s not surprising to see that Voice Assistants are rapidly being adopted by consumers and companies alike. Big tech companies have flooded the market with their offerings. We can choose from Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assitant, Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa, Samsung’s Bixby, and IBM’s Watson to name some of the most popular.
This has also led to the rise of Voice Ecosystems, where smart speakers allow the consumer to give verbal commands to the smart objects, for example within their home, like the aforementioned hairdresser. Amazon Echo, Apple Home Pod, and Google Home are the current most popular home Voice Ecosystem speakers.
Amazon dominates about 70% of the Voice Assistant market share(voicebot.ai) and, with the company eCommerce arm, they are in a good position to take advantage of one of the ways Voice Assistants may change our everyday activities, shopping.
Currently, the way most of us shop online is to purchase a few items, which are added to a virtual ‘shopping cart’. With voice assistants, users can verbally order items that they are running low in or out of instantly after noticing. This will mean more one-off purchases.
Digital Marketers are already seeing the impact Voice Assistants are having on search behaviour. Search words are becoming more tailored to mimic natural speech, with more long-tailed searches.
The technology free’s up hands, which has the added benefit of aiding users with physical disabilities. Voice Ecosystems can already verbally manage a lot of everyday tasks, doors can be locked and alarms can be set with voice commands. As adoption becomes more popular more Voice Apps can be expected on the market.
For example, in 2018, Google released Voice Access for android phones, It is an app that lets you control and navigate your device with spoken commands. This is especially useful for people who would have difficulty using a touchscreen.
You can expect to see a plethora of Voice Apps hitting the market in the very near future. This, in turn, will lead to a demand for developers with voice app development expertise(so if you’re looking for a new career path…).
Voice Assistant technology is applicable to many industries. For example, in the Car Industry, as autonomous cars fully take off (pardon the pun) you can expect to find Voice Assistants occupying the car with you. IBM’s Watson is already in General Motors’ OnStar system, Watson helps users navigate traffic, order coffee, and tailors entertainment to the user’s needs (It also allows marketers to better target you based on your location). It won’t be long till you are ordering an automated taxi and verbally telling it where to go.
Voice Assistants will also become more personalized. The default voice on most assistants is female, but this can be changed. As the technology improves, and they learn more about you, the assistants will become more and more like ‘real people’. It wouldn’t be beyond reason to foresee assistants mimicking real people. However, is giving a machine a voice, giving it a persona/a ‘real’ personality? This will throw up some interesting dynamics between machine and human.
Voice Assistants and humanity in the 2013 movie Her.
When a machine becomes conscious is not going to be answered in this blog, I’ll leave the debate to philosophers and sci-fi movies, but it does pose an interesting question and something which we may have to conform in the near future.
Voice Assistants undoubtedly have a lot of pros, but they also have some cons. Security is a big issue. We are inviting eavesdropping into our lives. This is an issue which cropped up with Microsoft’s games console Xbox One. The console originally came with a peripheral camera and listening device called the Kinect. The device was always listening, even when turned off. This is something users did not appreciate and the company had to reassure users that they were indeed not spying on them.
It’s true that Voice Assistants are always listening, but not to everything you are saying. The technology works by using smart algorithms to scrub out background noise and activate when they hear ‘Wake Words’. Siri’s wake word is ‘Hey Siri’, Google Assistants is ‘Ok Google’ or ‘Hey Google’.
Wake Words can be changed by the user. The phrase needs to be long enough to be distinct, easy enough for someone to speak, and simple enough for a machine to recognise. After a wake word is heard the AI records what you are saying and sends the recording to a server where it is deciphered. This process is encrypted.
While companies say they are not spying on you, who’s to say they won’t (or are already)? What if there are future laws brought in to listen for words that are deemed dangerous by the government of the day? Privacy isn’t the only worry with Voice Assistants.
There’s also the issue of impartiality. Many use the technology to do an Internet Search. While it can be useful for the user, it raises concerns over the information the user is receiving. The user only hears one result, the top one. In the age of fake news and misinformation, results given by AI as a matter of fact, with no sources or result options to choose from, raises concerns of information bias.
As the technology for Voice Assistants advances and consumers become more accepting and reliant on Voice Assistants, the challenge for businesses will be adapting their stores and websites to include a Voice Strategy in the user’s experience.
Soon marketers may also have to move from touchpoints to something more akin to ‘listeningpoints’, and developers will have to incorporate Voice Notifications into apps and websites to capture a user’s attention. With these challenges will also come opportunities for those willing to embrace a more conversational relationship with their customers.