What does your brand sound like? Is it male or female? Does it have an accent? These are the new questions keeping marketers awake at night.
Voice technology took centre stage at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas with main players Amazon and Google showcasing myriad hardware and software innovations to further simplify our lives. From next-generation smart speakers with advanced machine learning powering natural language conversations to highly personalised voice responses with deep contextual understanding, it's clear that voice has fundamentally shifted the way we interact with technology. Brands that fail to give voice the consideration, investment and creative focus it deserves risk getting left behind.
Voice hits critical mass
Speaking is seven times faster than typing so it's no surprise that people are using voice input to find the information they need and perform tasks faster. When implemented correctly, voice offers a hands-free, frictionless way to use technology that feels more like science fiction than reality. Therefore, it’s not difficult to see why voice has been so disruptive and why it has already become part of our popular culture.
According to Deloitte Global, voice will continue to grow rapidly in 2019, with the US market alone for smart speaker technology projected to be worth US$7 billion by the end of the year - up 63% from 2018. It's a similar picture here in the UK, with 31.6% growth projected, bringing the active user base up to 12.6 million. Now factor in sales of smartphones with integrated voice assistants and you can understand why marketers have been rushing to figure out where their brands fit in a world dominated by voice.
Opportunities for brands
Having a dialogue-based interaction gives brands a real opportunity to redefine their proposition by getting creative and embracing the technology. Teams spend huge effort developing a brand voice, so it's only logical that they take the same care when defining what it actually sounds like. Talent casting, language, words and tone will be key to bringing brand personalities to life in the new medium.
The voice market in both the US and UK is currently dominated by Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant, so brands flock to these platforms to deliver their voice- based experience. Smart speakers such as Google Home and Amazon Echo offer a ‘lean back’ experience with the emphasis on content and entertainment, so brands tend to focus their efforts into two areas: 1) tools that provide some form of utility; and 2) game-like experiences that entertain. Both of these territories offer brands monetisation opportunities (through direct product purchase) and scope for building loyalty / recognition.
Despite voice being a relatively new medium, there’ve been a number of interesting executions that showcase its undoubted potential.
The Johnnie Walker ‘skill’ (Alexa’s terminology for an app) offers users the chance to discover their perfect blend through a series of interactive questions covering flavour preferences and price. Alexa then determines the appropriate whisky for the user's palate, serves up relevant cocktail recommendations and, most importantly, offers functionality to order a bottle.
The Domino’s Alexa skill is every couch potato’s best friend, allowing them to order pizza by simply shouting out the trigger phrase ‘Alexa, ask Domino’s to feed me’.
The majority of these early executions have been quite simple, but brands are starting to become more ambitious. In particular, broadcasters and media brands have started to harness voice to craft multi-layered entertainment experiences.
HBO has launched numerous skills to promote their shows and characters. The most ambitious was Westworld: The Maze, a choose-your-own-adventure style game in which fans were transported into an unknown world and challenged to make life-or-death decisions. The experience featured over 60 storylines with 400 possible choices and more than two hours of gameplay. Production values were particularly high, with voice acting from original cast members and narratives crafted from the show’s writers.
The Esme & Roy skill mirrors the popular US kids show, allowing kids to pick different adventures for Esme, an accomplished ‘monster-sitter’, and her friend Roy, a giant yellow monster with a silly streak. Interestingly, HBO tailored the user experience to the pre-school audience by accompanying voice prompts with an audible chime and imposing an extended delay to allow kids longer to respond to questions.
Even publishers have stepped onto the bandwagon, with Penguin Random House creating a skill featuring the astronaut Tim Peake, co-author of The Astronaut Selection Test Book. The experience is narrated by Peake, includes puzzles from the European Space Agency along with obligatory prompts to order the book from Amazon.
These are still early days but we should be genuinely excited about the next generation of branded voice experiences, especially those that will synchronise with rich media content on accompanying displays.
Brands must seize this opportunity to create stronger bonds with their customers through intuitive, conversation-based experiences that add value and entertain.
In part 2 of this post we will examine voice’s impact on UX design along with the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
Bharat Trivedi, Technical Director