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TBWA/Raad’s chief innovation officer examines the role voice will play in the future of e-commerce

By Jennifer Fischer, chief innovation officer, TBWA/Raad

Since Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey, voice interface has been one of humanity’s most popular fantasies about the future – along with flying cars and teleportation.

We will have to see about teleportation, and flying cars are in the infant stages of prototyping; but today, voice is the fastest growing market in technology.

From smart watches to smart speakers, voice is positioned to become the leading interface between humans and tech. In 2017, Apple CEO Tim Cook described how his whole home experience – from the fireplace to the coffee machine – is automated and responds to voice commands given to Siri.

Voice, however, is and will remain an inherently low-bandwidth channel that cannot deliver efficiently rich information – including the type needed to make more complex or novel shopping decisions. This means that screens, in one form or another, are here to stay.

But there is a reason why top players including Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Apple are investing billions in making voice recognition and natural language processing more and more accurate each day, and speech synthesis more natural sounding. And why consumers bite. As of January 2019, there were more than 100 million Alexa devices in the world, a number that is rapidly growing.

Voice as a tech interface will become completely ubiquitous. What does that mean for brands? It has critical implications for how we go to market, the type of content we must produce, the channels where our products need to be sold and the strategic advantages for which we will want to fight. So, it means quite a lot. Let’s dig in.

What can you do to get your brand ready for voice?

1. Develop a brand voice

In the era of voice, any online content may be delivered to consumers by Alexa or Siri devoid of any other kind of material support. That includes website copy, product description or press releases.

This means that this part of your brand ecosystem will suddenly get much more spotlight, with no beautifully photoshopped images or well-crafted animations to help set the tone. It is communication in its simplest form, an aspect on which you might not have focused much previously.

Consistency being a critical constituent of a brand experience, you have to make sure that your organisation has a well-defined brand tone, personality and voice. This chapter of your brand guidelines becomes just as important as any other, and this time we must all remember: Brand guidelines are meant to be implemented as a whole and not to collect dust somewhere on a top shelf.

2. Boost your brand’s mental availability

Compared to retail or traditional online shopping, voice puts more strategic importance on owning a top-of-mind brand position. When consumers have no shelves to explore, no packaging to look at,
what brand of milk or dishwasher liquid will they ask Alexa to order? Consumers need to think about your brand first.

To boost mental availability, brand building is essential and channels like out-of-home and always-on social can be leveraged to make your brand always present in your audience’s mind.

3. Get the basics right

When answering a search query, voice assistants pick up what information they can find online, interpret and redeliver. So the first step to get ready is to make sure that the information you want found exists, is accurate and is easily accessed and understood by search engines.

For instance, if you have showrooms, stores or restaurants, did you fill your Google Local Knowledge Graph? Are the opening times and locations accurate? What about contact details? The same applies to your Amazon page and your website. Is the content clear and up to date? And is it optimised to be easily read by search bots and people alike? This is SEO 101 but, in the era of voice, it is more important than ever.

4. Create voice-ready content

In recent years the marketing industry has gone through an obsession with video content. Video is far from dead and will remain useful, but with the growth of voice it is time for brands to take a more holistic approach to content.

While images will offer additional discovery information on devices that also have screens, text is what gets picked up by virtual voice assistants to answer queries. That text must make sense to the listener.

It is also important to consider that when people interact through voice, they use different types of search queries; they do not type one or two common keywords but use natural language and questions, expressed in many different ways. It is key for brands to build their content so that it caters to all those scenarios for the content to be found irrespective of whether it is Thaddeus or Kevin who asked the question.

5. Sell on Amazon

With $42bn in sales worldwide, Amazon is the uncontested leader in e-commerce. It is the place to sell online, especially if your products fit within daily consumables or are part of a commoditised category.

But the reach of Amazon is only going to grow thanks to Alexa and its handsfree-shopping capabilities. Did you know that Alexa is available today on more than 150 different products from many different manufacturers? Surfing that wave, Amazon most recently launched the Echo Auto, allowing consumers to use the assistant in their car, and created the Amazon Connect Kit that allows developers to embed the Alexa home skills API within thousands more home devices and appliances.

If you have not already done it (what?!), now is the time to build your Amazon retail strategy.

6. Become an Amazon Choice

Being on Amazon is not enough, though. A key challenge when it comes to voice shopping is what happens when a customer doesn’t have a preferred brand.

Let’s say someone is looking for batteries but does not remember a specific brand name – or simply does not care. What does Alexa do? She will make recommendations from within Amazon Choice products. These are selected based on multiple criteria that include positive reviews, low returns, well-priced products, high conversion rates and availability for immediate shipping. This is what premium shelf space looks like in the era of voice shopping. According to OC&C Strategy Consultants, items with the Amazon Choice designation typically see a 3x boost over those without that status.

7. Experiment with voice apps

Today, Alexa has more than 80,000 “skills” linking voice commands to a wide variety of third-party services – from finding the cheapest gas station in your area to giving you the weather forecast or deep breathing lessons. Google Assistant is also growing its “actions” and announced at the I/O 2019 conference last May an Assistant-based framework called Interactive Canvas, which allows developers to build full-screen apps for smart displays that bring together touchscreen inputs, voice and visuals. This makes it much easier for brands to develop voice apps. Of course, and as with all apps, to succeed these will need to play a valuable role in people’s lives, be useful and be well-designed in order to build an audience. The brands that experiment today will be able to lock in early adopters – and the best app names – before the competitors do.

8. Reinvent sampling channels

Let’s imagine an extreme scenario: What if – facilitated by smart appliances, 5G, voice assistants and easy delivery options – all grocery shopping eventually becomes automated through voice assistants? How will people get to try new products? This is when disrupting sampling matters. Whether it is through cross-selling, partnerships or new sampling formats, it is time for brands to experiment. Ask Google “What is Omo Tag?” for some inspiration.

9. Rethink your retail experience

Even as more and more of both daily shopping and brand discovery take place online, retail is not bound to die – but it must evolve.

Over the past few years, brands have focused on solving the pain points of the customer journey. This is not enough to succeed tomorrow. Brands need to make retail not just a fluid experience but one that delights, one that allows for the discovery of new brands and products, one that is worth going to because it delivers something that online does not. And one that builds preference and loyalty.

Yes, technology and design will play a role, but let us not forget the most central part of a real-life experience: people. A positive and rich experience with another human being is more memorable than most things technology can provide. So how can you turn your sales staff into delight-makers?

10. Innovate based on niches and values

In a world where grocery shopping is becoming more and more automated, getting consumers to shift their preferences will become harder and harder. How will brands convince people to make the active effort of updating their weekly pre-programmed shopping list?

The answer largely lies in innovation. Especially innovation that either uniquely connects with
an individual’s values – through purpose, CSR or sustainability – or that uniquely delivers on his or her needs and lifestyle. A key area of innovation should be around services and new business models. For instance, how can brands reduce packaging through easy-refill services while still delivering a premium and differentiated experience for customers?

What’s next?

Tomorrow

As a medium, voice is still in the early stages of maturity and there are still many questions that haven’t been answered when it comes to scaling the opportunity.

How will product recommendations be done in the long term? Will brands be able (or forced?) to pay to get recommended? Or will recommendations only ever be based on reviews and ratings to ensure high levels of satisfaction? Will retailers like Amazon take advantage of voice to create and push their own white labels? How long will it take for all key languages (including all Arabic dialects) to work well with voice?

Answers to these questions and more will be shaped by the many strategic decisions taken by the global tech behemoths over the coming years. Stay tuned.

In a maybe-not-so-far-away future

As AI become more mature and its full potential gets unlocked, we could reach a point when your Google Assistant will be able to make choices for you that are even better than your own.

It will have access to all your past choices and maybe even know based on tracking your body’s and brain’s responses (you thought that heart monitor on your wrist served to give useful information to you only, and when at the gym exclusively?) how fulfilled you were by those choices.
It will know what is in your fridge, cupboards and wardrobes. It will know what you showed interest in – learning tai chi? cutting carbs? Spanish movies? It will know your daily routine, if you walk or drive to work, what time you get home, if you eat out a lot or order in.

So, when you ask Google to book a hotel for your upcoming holiday or order a new pair of sports shoes, the AI will be able to make the decisions in your place and ensure you get the highest level of satisfaction and fulfilment each and every time. It might even anticipate your needs and offer you an answer – or a purchase offer – before you even ask.  Scary or exciting? Maybe both.


Try this with …

Ask Alexa

  • “Tell me a story”
  • “Start deep breathing”
  • “Start 7-Minute Workout”
  • “Ask Question of the Day”
  • “Ask Tide: how do I remove a chocolate stain?”

Note: some of these might require Skills to be enabled first.

Ask Google Assistant

  • “Good morning”
  • “Tell me something good”
  • “Remember that I parked the car on P2.” Then ask, “What do you remember?”
  • “Add eggs to my shopping list”
  • “Help me find a good French restaurant nearby”

Note: If you are using your phone, make sure that you have installed Google Assistant and aren’t just using the Voice Search function.

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