In-Scope: All voice, no action

Peita Pacey is the Head of Strategy for OMD Sydney, bringing forward-thinking direction and strategy to a multitude of client challenges.

“Quick, panic, run!!! Voice is coming, and if you don’t already have it all figured out, you’re already dead in the water!!”

Ok, not an actual quote, but if the hyperbole bordering on hysteria in our global industry press is anything to go by, it wouldn’t surprise me if many marketers were having panic attacks at the thought of the looming tidal wave on the horizon that is Voice Technology. You’ve already heard the statistics – “by 2020, over 50% of all search commands will be done via voice”; “by 2019 over 35% of all consumer computing will be screenless”. “Smart home voice assistants use to grow 1000% by 2023”.  “Voice, the new frontier for Australian brands”, “57% of Aussies are using voice search”.

At a superficial level, it would be natural to interpret these statistics as a statement that Australians are adopting voice technology at the fastest rate of new technology ever – and you’d be right.  But that doesn’t mean that we are not at the very infancy of this journey, nor that voice-first approaches to communication strategies should be embarked upon immediately.

At present time, brands are using voice technology to provide elements of search, utility and entertainment to customers and consumers. Some great examples are Scout FM who will help you find your perfect podcast,  Tide who will help you get rid of stubborn stains, Purina who will help you find your perfect pup or Patron who will help you mix your perfect cocktail.  Utilised as a platform to drive brand preference and customer retention, there are only limited examples of instances where ‘skills’ (that’s app in voice terms) are being used to drive commercial outcomes.

Both Amazon’s Alexa with its 20k skills in Australia, and Google Home with its 10k skills are still very focused on using VUI (Voice User Interface) to deepen the brand relationships it holds with existing customers and familiar consumers. Right now, the bulk of voice technology is being used to do things like “turn on lights” in the connected home, “give me tomorrow’s weather report”, “turn on the radio, and turn it up louder” or kids asking random questions like “what does a unicorn sound like” or “what does a fart sound like” (or is that just in my house?).

Using it to drive conversion to sales, or even leads, seems to be something we haven’t quite worked out how to do at scale yet. Something, no doubt, developers are desperately trying to solve. In fact, less than 20% of US smart speaker users have ever made a purchase through their devices, and under 2% of Amazon sales are initiated via voice.

If the purpose of using VUI for brands is to reduce brand friction and enhance a more seamless customer experience, what should we be working towards? What could this look like?

At this stage, the key to effective VUI usage for brands is to integrate it into the multi-channel marketing mix, using it as a technology to enhance brand experience, helping people along the customer journey.

One fantastic example out of the UK recently is from the British Heart Foundation, which has developed a ‘skill’ enabling people to donate directly to the charity using voice commands. A great opportunity, but probably unlikely at this stage to really make a huge impact beyond novelty. But if we look at VUI with its true purpose in mind, we can see that if this ‘skill’ could be triggered by an ad on TV or radio (much like the Google Home/Whopper example from 2017), prompting users to donate then and there, it could have a significant impact on conversions in the moment.

The success of brand VUI’s at this stage are critically dependent on their weight of search. With only the top search result being served to consumers, energy has been put in placement which marketers are optimising by using their most sold and most highly reviewed products as entry points for brand connections – it’s essentially a presidential popularity contest, or how many retailers utilise the “loss leader” method to bring in more high value customers. If you are top of the list, your brand will be the single answer to the question asked.

Technology advancements are only adopted at scale when they have solved a major problem. We haven’t yet identified what that one life-changing thing is that we couldn’t do before voice came along. When we discover this, we will see major shifts in both offerings by brands and adoption by consumers. Because we have a tendency to force our old technology behaviours and habits into new and emerging platforms, we will likely have to “unlearn” our current tech behaviour before we see the expected shifts which are sending marketers into a panic now.

So for now, keep planning your VUI roadmap and keep watching the horizon. In fact, we would recommend you even dip a toe in the water and have some fun with it. Your customers and consumers at large are curious about this new era and want to engage with brands in this space – so watch them and listen to what they are really asking for – a way to easily engage, converse and make their journeys even smoother.



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