From Siri to Alexa, voice technology has really captured the public imagination. Speaking to devices has become an increasingly accepted part of everyday life. And as new technologies in turn spawn new patterns of demand, marketers are warming up their vocal cords for a voice-enabled future. Here George Hopkinson, senior research and projects manager at IAB UK talks up what that future might look like.
According to J. Walter Thompson Intelligence, 37% of UK smartphone owners are now using voice tech at least once a month, and comScore forecasts that 50% of all searches will be conducted using voice by 2020.
Voice presents an exciting opportunity for the entire marketing industry. A DAX study found that 79% of media agency and advertising executives believe it will be important to reach audiences through voice-activated devices over the next 12 months. The technology has the potential to not only disrupt the way brands speak to people but to give people a new way to speak back to brands.
But this means that brands need to develop strategies for how they’re going to engage with consumers through voice technology, whether it’s via a smartphone app or a search on a smart speaker. To help understand what the future of voice looks like, IAB UK partnered with Ipsos MORI for ‘Find Your Voice’, a six-month qualitative research project.
The technology has the potential to not only disrupt the way brands speak to people but to give people a new way to speak back to brands.
We started the project thinking exclusively about smart speakers and a future world without screens, but the research demonstrated the continuing importance of screens in tandem with voice. This was just one of the insights that came out of the study. It also emphasised the importance of AI to voice tech’s development, and of ethics and privacy to building consumer trust.
One particularly fascinating aspect of the research asked focus groups to describe their utopian (and dystopian) ideas of where voice tech could go in the future. A key theme in the utopian visions was that voice would act as a sort of personal butler, supporting the consumer and enabling them to become the best version of themselves.
This is especially applicable to voice search – it wouldn’t be the first time that a search engine has been described as a butler, after all. Being able to get answers to queries and access information even more quickly, without requiring our eyes or hands, is a great way that voice can help us be our best selves.
But one of the most vital things about voice is that it’s a two-way street – or, more to the point, a conversation. This is the real opportunity for brands: creating a presence that can have an ongoing exchange with consumers.
There are, of course, issues to consider. In our study, the dystopian vision of a voice tech future commonly involved overstimulation and an excess of noise, but this can be avoided by making sure that messages meet a need and are of high interest or impact. Which, when you boil it down, is the cornerstone of good marketing, whatever the medium.
Establishing a voice
Voice technology presents one fairly unique challenge. Establishing a brand voice is a common consideration – but what does the literal voice of your brand sound like?
Ultimately, voice technology is trying to emulate real human communication – an extremely complicated notion which goes far beyond the words spoken.
Let’s take as an example a brand we’re all familiar with: Coca-Cola. Is its voice a twenty-something? Are they male or female? And does it sound different to Diet Coke?
These are conversations that brands need to start having. Age, gender, nationality and emotional state all play an important role in developing a brand’s voice strategy, as well as considering whether sub-brands share the same voice or have their own personality.
Ultimately, voice technology is trying to emulate real human communication – an extremely complicated notion which goes far beyond the words spoken. We all use subtle facial movements, gestures, and variations in pitch, tone and range to communicate with one another. It will be exciting to see how technology companies incorporate these elements into their voice strategies.
But in the here and now, human communication can prove a good source of inspiration. It’s something we’re all familiar with, so when trying to untangle the knots introduced by voice technology, think about the conversations you have every day. It might be helpful to ask yourself: is this something you would say to a consumer in person? Is that how you’d you say it?
Above all, remember – communication is just as much about listening as it is speaking.
George Hopkinson, senior research & projects manager, IAB UK