The future of voice tech requires more creativity from brands

7 Nov 2019

Simon Hathaway. Image: Outform

On Alexa’s fifth birthday, Simon Hathaway picks apart the hype around voice-led technology and dives into the true potential of these interactions for brands.

November marks five years since Amazon’s Alexa, the silver-tongued queen of voice assistants, was born. In that time, voice has become an increasingly prevalent platform, with recent research revealing that four in 10 UK households already own smart speakers, while 8bn digital voice assistants are forecast to be in use by 2023.

Over time, our modes of interaction have become ever more seamless: from typewriters to keyboards to touchscreens and now, as it approaches maturity, voice.

Voice represents the latest evolution of our relationship with technology and, as the technology continues to improve, it promises to be the most efficient. As long as you can use your voice, there is no barrier to entry.

This means there shouldn’t be the same generational divide found in social and other forms of new media – something that Alexa cleverly championed in its recent ‘Sharing is Caring’ ad.

‘The focus for voice needs to be brand service, rather than straight commerce and simply brand-building’

Voice-enabled technology has the potential to bring brands closer than ever before to their consumers, with a few big names already making strides in this direction.

Fast food has never been faster with the Domino’s ‘Dom’ Alexa skill, which allows you to groan your hungover pizza order from the sofa. We’ve also seen innovative consumer interaction voice apps from the likes of Patrón, Wrigley’s and Call of Duty, among several others.

However, in spite of the above, voice still has a long way to go before reaching the maturity of other established platforms. There has been much hype about what the future of voice holds, but it has yet to fully deliver upon its potential.

Going public

In reality, voice-controlled shopping is still something of a novelty and tends to only be used by consumers for convenience purchases: replenishing toiletries, refilling the fridge and kitchen cupboards, and so on. We’re not yet at a stage where consumers are willing to go to their voice assistants for bigger ticket items. And perhaps the biggest opportunity is the potential role of voice in physical retail.

Currently, users are comfortable using voice assistants in private spaces such as their car or kitchen and, increasingly, I see people interacting via their mobile device in more public spaces. But what’s it going to take for a customer to start talking to a voice-enabled retail experience in-store?

The opportunity is huge. The FAQs we typically see online, and that might already be managed by some form of bot, can go in-store. This enables a guided retail experience through increasingly complex product offerings – particularly useful in the tech and automotive sectors. The opportunity to update remotely and cut costs in staff training to ensure a consistent message is very real today.

This, of course, must be handled carefully, and brands and certain retail spaces should consider whether they even have the right to play in the space at all.

There are some interactions that consumers will never want to (quite literally) shout about in public spaces. If you’re purchasing medical supplies or less fashionable items such as hair loss remedies, you will likely prefer a more discreet shopping experience. This, too, might be an opportunity with voice.

Be more than present

Brands also need to be more innovative in what they are offering users, whether this be in private or public arenas. As with any other media, brands need to think how best to stand out on the platform.

The fact that more than two-thirds of smart speaker owners haven’t engaged with brands speaks to a lack of creativity. What we’re experiencing now is similar to the social media buzz a few years ago: brands were intent on just having a presence on Twitter, without any thought on how they were going to make best use of the presence from a creative standpoint.

As such, the focus for voice needs to be brand service, rather than straight commerce and simply brand-building. This platform literally grants brands one-on-one conversations with consumers – they need to make sure they are showing up in an engaging and value-driven way. Otherwise, these same consumers may choose to never speak to them again.

By Simon Hathaway

Simon Hathaway is EMEA managing director at Outform, an agency driving transformation in retail.