Insights from the face of voice tech

Today, it’s estimated that one in ten UK households has some variety of smart speaker. Be it an Amazon Echo, Google Home or Apple HomePod, these devices are fast transforming life all around us, ushering Siri, Alexa and their peers into mainstream living. But let’s be real, you already know that. What’s more interesting is how brands can use voice technology trends to send incredible branded experiences straight into people’s kitchens, bedrooms or living rooms.

Lego utilised Alexa in Duplo Stories where the assistant leads parents and children through narratives for inspiring playtime activities. Publicis Sapient worked with client Patron Tequila to develop the Patron Cocktail Lab a virtual assistant to inspire and guide tequila drinkers to explore beyond the slammers and margaritas. And Channel 4 built a ‘human test’, to promote its third series of the show Humans, which remodelled the Turing test, to test whether the user is human or synth.

All of these projects were successful in their respective aims but also generated interesting insights. And last month at Unbound London, their creators took part in an in-depth panel discussion of their actual case studies which highlighted some key insights for brands looking to take advantage of voice technology. From that conversation, here are seven of the most important things to know.

Look to the wordsmiths

How do you design an experience that is basically invisible? Well, with words. Owing to the absence of visual design in smart speaker experiences copywriters, narrative architects and sound designers will have a larger role in creating meaningful experiences.

Big picture: We can expect agencies and marketing teams to start looking to the radio industry in the near future for new hires. Copywriters are also likely to rise in status, granted they pay attention to emerging voice technology trends and learn to adapt their skills accordingly.

Making content accessible is uncertain

When campaigns are highly time-dependent, as was the case in Channel 4’s project, the entire production costs are sunk before it is possible to have confirmation that the voice platform would approve its use.

Big picture: We can expect platform providers to make it easier to pre-approve voice content in the near future. But as demand for access grows, it will be hard to accommodate everyone. Similar to app stores, quality control guidelines and fees will be used to manage this.

External triggers and reminders are required

With voice technology, there’s no visual trigger to activate or call a brand experience to mind, such as we see with app icons on our phones. How do you remind potential customers to use your product when they can’t see it? External, non-voice prompts are crucial in getting people’s attention and drawing them in repeatedly. Unlike apps, there’s no brand icon on a screen to remind them to keep using it.

Big picture: Voice experiences will require external prompts to raise awareness of their existence and external reminders to go back again. It’s not realistic to think users will always have yours top of mind.

The actual audience remains unclear

Because smart speakers respond to commands from whoever issues them, it’s difficult to ensure the content is appropriate to the listener e.g. child or adult. That also makes it hard for brands to target individual users, especially because there are no individual personas like there are on Netflix. Google and Amazon have made head starts into personal voice recognition territory, but there’s still a way to go.

Big picture: We can expect individual voices to be recognised with increasing sophistication and be used as biometric logins to help digital assistants tailor comments and act with discretion.

Voice has consequences for diversity

By making Alexa speak with a warm, motherly voice as a default setting, some have charged Amazon with perpetuating a sexist legacy – the obliging female happy to be bossed around. That’s has been somewhat addressed by the addition of alternative voices, both gendered and non, but controversy was not avoided.

Big picture: The point is that voice is as prone to expressing gender bias and backlash as other forms of media, for which brands should be aware. In the future, we are likely to see a vast range of tones emerge. It will be interesting to see if gender neutral ones prove popular.

Voice-powered business isn’t quite open to all

As there are only a few major voice platforms with limited interoperability, a small number of companies exclusively control the access, and the price of access. By making themselves gatekeepers, conflicts of interest are bound to arise.  Scott Galloway highlights this brilliantly in the above video.

Big picture: We can expect regulation to be introduced to address this but only after the platform providers have proved to abuse their power at the expense of those who can’t gain access. In the meantime, be wary of the power balance, brands are at the mercy of voice platforms here.

The cultural impact is yet to be understood

Owing to the relative newness of smart speakers, the impact of voice interactions on people and society is not fully understood. There have been some early suggestions that children are becoming more curious and less polite. To correct course, some speakers now include a mode which allows the assistants to ignore commands unless they include the appropriate please or thank you.

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Max Kalis Senior Strategist