This piece on how to rethink brand building in the age of voice was originally posted on CMO.com.

Consumers are Finding Their Voice

Last year, some 35.6 million people were using voice-based assistants at least once a month. And by 2022, a majority–55%–of all U.S. households will have at least one smart speaker in their homes.

The effect of smart speakers and personal digital assistants in smartphones, PCs, car dashboards, and IoT devices will be unprecedented, some experts say. But beyond dollars and cents, what does that mean for marketers? This: Consumers will no longer seek out products on their own but will instead use their assistants to find and recommend them.

Niraj Dawar, a professor at Ivey Business School in London, said the so-called “burden of choice,” with endless aisles of products in stores and mounds of data at the ready, is ruining the customer experience and driving consumers to find digital aids. “There are just too many choices, too many products, too many decisions, too much information to evaluate,” Dawar told CMO.com. “This is true in thousands of product categories.”

This is where voice-based marketing can play a key role. For marketers, it represents yet another tech-driven paradigm shift, said Julia Stead, VP-marketing at call tracking company Invoca. “I see this as becoming the new status quo for brands in the way that mobile has,” she told CMO.com.

Added Dawar, who believes voice-based platforms are about to get even more powerful: “Now you layer on top of that artificial intelligence or the ability to make sense of accumulated data, and you hand the intermediaries [like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft] a tremendous amount of power,” he said. “This is a brave, new world and a very, very different environment.”

To survive, experts said, brands will need to refashion their SEO, brand-building, and data strategies.

Reaching ‘Position Zero’

Colin Morris, director of product management for Adobe Analytics (Adobe owns CMO.com), said when it comes to voice search, companies will have to understand how to make their content relevant and indexable within the context of how a user queries something with her voice and diction rather than typing.

“I think brands have to pay close attention to the interaction between voice assistants and customers in terms of how things are queried,” Morris told CMO.com. “Are they queried through a series of back and forths and refinements? Are there error responses that are triggered? What action does a user take upon the query response? What is the path of the interaction that marketers can learn from? These are all things that marketers will have to consider in the era of voice search.”

It all begins with an understanding of the two main ways voice-based search differs from text-based:

1. Fewer answers: A traditional search page might show eight organic and two paid answers, but that’s not the case with voice-based systems, which are designed to ultimately give users fewer answers–including the correct one. Google Voice, for example, will offer two answers–a primary option and, if refused, a secondary one. Alexa offers up to four possible responses.

2. People talk differently: Google has trained people to search as if they’re seeking references. For instance, a person might type “best deck stains” on a computer, but when talking to Google, the person would ask, “What’s the best deck stain?” Clearly, the stakes have never been higher to become the default answer, a ranking SEO companies refer to as “position zero.”

In voice, “It’s no longer acceptable to be on the first page of search results,” said Greg Hedges, VP of emerging experiences at voice-based marketing agency Rain. “You need to be the top answer, or at least close to it, to ensure your content is the answer to their questions.”

That’s only more magnified in the voice context, which means content needs to be written to include the types of questions consumers would ask, said Justin Smith, founder and CEO of SEO firm OuterBox.

“It’s more important now to ask, ‘How would someone ask that question?’” he told CMO.com. For instance, if you’re selling an accounting product, content that includes the question, “How much does accounting software cost in 2018?” would likely go a long way.

This also means thinking in terms of long-tail keywords. Instead of typing in “donuts,” for instance, consumers would ask their voice assistant, “What’s the best donut shop in North Jersey?”

Learning New Skills

When Apple introduced its App Store in 2009, some savvy brands quickly realized that it offered a new way to create visibility on the iPhone. That led to branded apps. Likewise, when Amazon Echo hit, many brands saw a similar opportunity with Skills, the term Amazon uses for audio-based apps.

To be sure, Amazon is not the only one to see a future for audio-based branded apps. Google has Actions, which lets developers complete tasks in their apps via voice commands. Apple offers Siri Shortcuts, which lets users access apps via voice commands. Microsoft’s Cortana also lets consumers use voice to control apps, a feature, like Amazon, it calls Skills.

So far, Amazon has a big lead. Alexa boasts more than 40,000 Skills, ranging from BBC news updates to Jeopardy! to a command to get your Roomba vacuum to start cleaning. While most Skills have yet to catch on, Hedges said they are a huge opportunity. “We’ve found that even though there is a lot of movement in the space, there is still a lot of white space for brands in various categories because of how many experiences have been built poorly,” he said.

Visibility is another issue. “A skill is a product, and it needs to be addressed and marketed as such, employing a ‘paid, earned, owned’ strategy to ensure your current and potential consumers can find you,” Hedges said. Diageo’s Johnnie Walker brand made a bid for visibility on Alexa with its Happy Hour skill, which let consumers do their own guided whisky tastings at home.

“We don’t want to interrupt what consumers are doing in life with our brand message,” said Devin Nagy, director, technology and emerging platforms at Diageo North America. “Fundamentally, the skill helps consumers make great cocktails by offering different recipes, reasons to cheers depending on the day, and the locations of highly rated nearby bars.”

Additionally, brands now have the ability to have a real voice. Some brands have already done this. Johnnie Walker created an appropriate brand voice that hadn’t existed before. “Voice technology platforms offer our brands, including Johnnie Walker, a new way to deliver engaging digital content at scale,” Nagy said.

Sesame Street has also found its voice by offering Elmo-voiced content to educate children.

“Now is the time for brands to identify and latch onto the unique offerings and functionalities that are exclusive to voice, whether it is to extend something that they already do or whether it’s capitalizing on a voice-specific interaction to get closer to the user. We are still in the early days, so the timing is perfect to start experimenting.”

Get Your Data House In Order

In addition to figuring out their SEO strategies and building their brands on voice platforms, marketers should hone their data strategies to prepare for the voice era. That’s because voice is based on AI and machine learning, which is based on data.

According to Adobe’s Morris, voice is just an additional customer touchpoint that marketers can add to their arsenal. “The analytics that come from voice interactions will help companies build a more single view of the customer, and therefore better understand how and where to invest marketing dollars across the various touchpoints, based on how certain voice assistant interactions influence other channels,” he said.

Barry Lowenthal, CEO of the Media Kitchen, a media planning agency, echoed Morris’ thoughts and added that truly understanding consumer trends in voice is going to require a lot of data, “whether it’s around customer profiles or whether it’s around inventory optimization,” he said.  For example, if a consumer asks Alexa, “What detergent is on sale at Walmart?” then Walmart needs to tell Alexa quickly. “It’s about going deeper into data mining to present the most optimal offers to consumers,” Invoca’s Stead said.

While marketing to algorithms will consume more resources, brands will also need to continue to woo the consumer, who, despite their digital filters, will still ultimately be calling the shots about purchases. “I think that [a personal digital assistant] will get consumers 80% of the way there,” Stead said. “I think it will offer four recommendations and say, ‘Do you want to move forward with any of these?’ but the consumer will still want to step in.”

Debby Haynam

Posted by Debby Haynam

Debby is Invoca's Content and Social Media Specialist. With combined passions for marketing and film production, she is dedicated to storytelling. When not creating marketing content, you can find her trying to find the best cup of coffee in San Francisco.

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