Listen Up! Voice-Activated Marketing Is Here

The day after this year’s Super Bowl, headlines were not just dominated by the New England Patriots’ stunning comeback from a 21-3 halftime deficit; What was stunning was the effect of Google’s one-minute TV ad for its Google Home appliance.  It was a promotion that just kept on going right into news media headlines and all over social media for about 36 additional hours.

The ad portrayed people using the device by employing the vocal command: “OK, Google,” to turn on lights, find a replacement for cardamom, find and listen to the sound a whale makes, and how to greet people in Spanish.  The voice command in the ad also activated Google Home appliances located in the same room as televisions tuned into the game.

This event illustrated just how pervasive these voice-activated artificial intelligence (AI) appliances are becoming.  NextMarket Insights, a tech research firm, is predicting that some 30 million households will have a voice-activated AI appliance by August this year.

Do not ignore the power of voice.  The very way in which consumer searches are performed for basic information, especially products and services, is on track for a radical disruption that will sort winners and losers via a fundamentally altered set of rules.  This is not an understatement.  Voice-activated AI appliances are arriving in living rooms faster and with new demanding challenges that very few prescient industry leaders, let alone organizations large and small, are truly prepared to meet.

Voice Technology Is Now

I’m the CEO of an online marketing firm.  But guess what?  I’m also dyslexic.  So here is my expertise and disclaimer of sorts:  I am a long-time user and advocate of dictation technology. I consider myself an early adapter of voice search technology.  When I first started using speech recognition technology about two and a half decades ago, it was impossible to describe the experience as anything close to “artificial intelligence.”  Today it’s totally different.

Speech recognition has come a long way since the 1952 birth of Audrey, Bell Lab’s complex vacuum tube machine, which recognized spoken digits.  By the 80s programs such as Tangora and Dragon Dictate could recognize tens of thousands of words.  What held them back from meaningfully entering the consumer market was that they processed “discrete speech,” which _ is _ spoken _ one _ word _ at _ a _ time.  I can tell you it was both maddeningly pedestrian and very expensive at $9,000 per set-up.

Then, in 1997 everything changed… Dragon Naturally Speaking hit the market as a Windows software add-on that recognized continuous speech and the price dropped.  Two decades later voice-activated AI assistants, working as an app on a smartphone, tablet, or desktop (Apple’s Siri, Google Now, Microsoft’s Cortana and BaiDu’s DuEr) are ubiquitous.

As reported by Apple Insider, Paul Ricci, the CEO at Nuance, which owns Dragon, said, “The real problem is creating a virtual assistant that can understand what the user wants and take action based on anticipating those needs.”

We are very close if not already there.  Voice-activated AI appliances keep up with people’s voice search and command speed, their accents, and even pick out their voice in the midst of a crowded or music-filled room.  The new battle to enter our daily lives and shape how and what we access is between these AI devices, the abilities they possess and ultimately the experiences they deliver.

Who’s Creating The Rules

VoiceLabs.co, a pioneering voice analytics firm, “predicts between Apple, Samsung and Microsoft, two of the three will ship compelling voice-first devices in 2017.”  BaiDu purchased Raven, a voice activated intelligent appliance start-up, this past February.  Even Facebook is reportedly trying to find the right foothold in the market.

In the meantime, Google Assistant via Google Home devices and Amazon’s Alexa on Echo devices are both available at varying costs under $200.  That leaves Google and Amazon to make the rules, for now, on just what voice-activated intelligent appliances do, and tailoring them to what these two businesses do best, which is not the same thing.

Amazon is primarily an online retailer, while Google is principally an information organizing and delivery service.  It should be no surprise that Amazon’s Echo is expected to focus on delivering commerce-oriented experiences, while Google Home will multi-task into improving information organization and delivery, as well as productivity and communication experiences.

The voice-activated AI appliance that will dominate the home market is the one that will deliver the most dynamic and comprehensive user experiences.  Third-party application developers including household brands are joining the voice-activated ecosystem to achieve their voice-activated marketing goals.

SEO Challenges In Different Voice-Activated Ecosystems

In order to evolve and meet customers’ voice-demands, it is crucial that we all become more cognizant on how a voice search diverges from a typed search and how the different AI appliances will treat that search.

At this time, the Google Home’s voice-activated Google Assistant can access Google’s vast technical experience and powerful algorithmic resources to deliver answers for simple to complicated voice requests for information, in addition to tasks such as scheduling and recording shopping lists.  This is because Google has invested heavily in developing and improving its Hummingbird algorithm, within which are two very potent humanizing algorithms: Knowledge Graph and RankBrain.

While Hummingbird is the umbrella search algorithm, it carries within it many other algorithms such as PageRank (uplifts pages with solid content and links) and Top Heavy (lowers the visibility of ad-heavy pages).  Knowledge Graph’s AI intuits what a user is looking for by recognizing and acting upon the relationships between words and therefore context.  RankBrian’s AI interprets sentence-length queries akin to the way human beings speak.

Amazon Echo’s voice-activated Alexa operates under a completely different collage of rules that combine the Amazon store’s offerings with select search engines and “skills,” like smartphone apps, that you choose to load on to it.  For instance, if a user wants Alexa to access and report the weather, it will rely either on Accuweather.com, or a weather skill that the user has loaded.  While the default search engine is Bing, localized searches and recommendations are sourced from Yelp.

In the same manner, Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy has focused on developers and apps, so too has Amazon.  While the website for the Amazon subsidiary Lab 126, which developed the Alexa AI assistant, is a spare cupboard, at Amazon.com there is ample support for skills developers and also for electronics makers to design Alexa-enabled products.

What This Means For Marketing

Battle lines have been drawn, but so far dominance has not been achieved, especially as not all of the contenders have taken the field.  Reviews of Google Home and Amazon Echo are mixed, and depend heavily on what user experience the reviewer was looking to have.  You can place a safe bet that Apple, Samsung and BaiDu are paying attention and incorporating solutions to their competitors’ early missteps into their product development.

So without a clear leader, how can a business position itself to survive this disruption?  The answer is multifaceted and also depends heavily on the business’ current market position.

Large brands and medium sized companies currently with a national or regional market will need to diversify their marketing approaches.  To play by Google’s rules they will at once need to optimize their websites for voice searches that most closely match a voice-activate search.

Large and medium-sized companies will find joining Amazon Echo’s ecosystem hinges on developing an Alexa skill.  Campbell’s Soups has already developed Campbell’s Kitchen for Alexa, which will bring up voice-activated audio recipes depending on the meal and the user’s taste and time requirements.

For the Google Home ecosystem, medium and small businesses that depend on geographically local customers will need to ensure their websites are optimized for voice searches, just like the big brands, with an emphasis on their location.  For businesses that cannot afford to develop an Alexa enabled skill, or if it just does not fit the business model, ensuring that the website is voice-search optimized for Bing and Google will be a must, but so too will being listed in online guides such as Yelp, HomeAdvisor, or Open Table.

Lastly, all business must be ready to adapt these marketing approaches to what Apple, Samsung, or BaiDu will likely create for the artificial intelligence appliance.  And remember: Dominance over what will be the right marketing method for these voice-activated devices has yet to be decided.

If you are looking to get your business ready for the voice activated revolution and want to enter the Google Home and Amazon Echo ecosystems, contact us.  We will design a multi-pronged approach that is right for your unique business and ensure that you meet your marketing goals.

Photo Courtesy Flickr/Howard Lake