Why brands are just finding their voice with Alexa and its competitors

Marketers are still in the experimentation stage when it comes to interacting with consumers via home speakers.

If a technology PR pro was to ask Alexa, "Where are brands in their navigation of voice-activated smart speakers in their comms strategies?," the sobering response might be "lost."

This relatively new consumer category for the home is also one of the fastest-growing in tech. One in five adults, or 47.3 million Americans, has access to a smart speaker such as Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod, or Google Home, according to a recent study. Each smart-speaker brand is powered by a virtual voice assistant: Alexa, Siri, or Google Assistant, respectively.

Users of Amazon Echo, the market leader in smart speakers with more than 70% of market share in the U.S., can visit Amazon Marketplace and download Alexa "skills," or apps created by third-party developers, including major brands. However, comms experts say most offerings have been juvenile and uninspired, with brands and PR agencies mostly in beta mode with at-home voice technology.

"There are quizzes, fart apps, and dog sounds; it reminds me of when the iPhone came out and novelty apps were all the rage," says James Holland, managing consultant for creative technology at Text100. "Everyone seems a little bit lost about what to do with the voice platform. No one has really given them a purpose yet...I think brands can do that, but they have to do it in a smart way."

Procter & Gamble is one company that has been experimenting with in-home voice technology. "Procter & Gamble brands have been experimenting with voice services to learn how consumer behavior is similar or different on voice compared to online, in-store, etc.," notes Tressie Rose, associate director of media relations and social media for global company comms at P&G.

The CPG heavyweight has created voice activations for laundry detergent brand Tide, such as an Alexa skill that gives users step-by-step instructions on how to remove more than 200 kinds of stains.

"Voice technology is an important emerging opportunity, particularly as technology companies are offering more ways to use voice and improving the user experience," says Rose. "As voice then grows in users and applications, we’ll be positioned to grow, as well."

PR agency APCO Worldwide launched a department in July called the AI Comms Lab to serve as an incubator for ideas like advanced adoption of voice marketing.

"There’s a tendency to think of voice-enabled technology as a new channel for pushing a brand or product message," says Dale Vieregge, APCO’s senior director of digital strategy. "As with many emergent technologies, we have to move beyond what we want a consumer to know, feel, or do, and consider whether, where, and how Siri or Alexa might fit within her journey."

An early focus on utility
When it launched Amazon Echo in 2015, the e-commerce giant wanted to drive more online sales via voice command. Alexa can tap into a user’s order history and place deliveries for laundry detergent or pet food, for example, when instructed.

However, studies show that most people aren’t using their voice for that purpose. A study from The Information estimates only 2% of the 50 million Alexa speakers sold since 2014 have been used to make purchases this year.

Virtual assistants on smart speakers are primarily being used to call up music, the news, or the weather, studies indicate.

"These speakers are outputs for other channels, but it is not a discovery platform," says Holland. "You could put a brand podcast on it, but you would first have to make people aware of the podcast. Otherwise, they’d never put it on their Echo or Google Home."

In addition to using communications to drive awareness, he adds that brands could attempt to have their podcast mentioned on Alexa’s daily "flash briefing" before the news.

At-home voice platforms offer two distinct opportunities for content, notes Patrick Givens, who leads VaynerSmart, the division of digital agency VaynerMedia focused on voice, the internet of things, and digital audio. The first is as a distribution channel for published audio like podcasts; the second, which he sees as more interactive and scalable, is what he calls "conversational AI."  

The Alexa skills that VaynerSmart has developed for Diageo Scotch brand Johnnie Walker fall into the later category. "Mentorship" is a guided tasting experience with a master whisky maker that was previously an in-person experience.

"Diageo came to us wanting to scale it out, and so we tested a range of options," says Givens. "Alexa worked well to hit more scale while maintaining a good amount of the intimacy and interaction of the in-person experience."

Diageo added the "Happy Hour" skill this year, helping listeners make cocktails and find a nearby bar. It’s also been built for updates.

"With voice, it’s our belief that efforts by brands shouldn’t interrupt the consumers’ daily routine, but rather they should help people in some way," says Devin Nagy, director of technology and emerging platforms at Diageo North America. "It’s still early, but we see a mature voice-enabled media environment as another way to help people discover and shop for our iconic brands."

Diageo has promoted its Alexa skills via earned media, Facebook Messenger, and videos on YouTube, among other tactics.  

"We recommend a marketing spend for these that can include PR, advertising, and on-pack promotions," says Givens. "Because one of the biggest challenges in this space is discovery of the content, and beyond that re-engagement and creating a consumer habit around that content."

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