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On Alexa’s 5th Birthday, What Does Voice Need to Do If It Wants to Grow Up

What does Marmite sound like? Should its voice be as divisive as its taste? Do brands borrow a celebrity voice, and does the voice change depending on the age, region, or even occupation of the people it’s speaking to?

These questions probably don’t feature as part of your breakfast routine, but it’s more pertinent than you may think. This month marks five years since Amazon’s Alexa was born; it also marks the rapid rise of Voice-enabled brand interactions.

Alexa has made voice ubiquitous for consumers, and therefore for brands too, as marketers cotton onto the compelling fact that it represents the latest, most efficient evolution of our relationship with technology – because long as you can speak, there is no barrier to entry.

The latest numbers from Artefact reveal that four in 10 UK households already own smart speakers, whilst 8bn digital Voice assistants are forecast to be in use by 2023. Recently, we have also seen plays from the likes of Domino’s, Patron, Wrigley’s and Call of Duty to corner the platform.

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As with any new media, Voice represents a huge opportunity (as well as something of a headache) for marketers. These are the people who have spent several years carefully curating and developing their brand’s voice, and who now have to figure out what voice sounds like in real-life conversations with consumers.

But, before marketers blow their ad spends on chasing the latest trend, they should pause to consider whether the platform is right for their brand in the first place.

You see, the ascension of Voice has been a long-time coming. In reality, Voice-enabled brand interactions are still something of a novelty to most people, and the fact that more than two-thirds of smart-speaker owners haven’t engaged with brands suggests that not enough has been done to effectively engage with the consumer.

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Ultimately, Voice will only reach maturity when it genuinely meets user’s needs and makes their lives easier.

We are also currently in a place where v-commerce is limited to certain sectors. For instance, this week Alibaba boasted about the fact that 810,000 eggs, 76 tons of liquid detergent, and 1.4 million tons of rice were sold through its Voice-shopping platforms on Singles Day. Whilst this may look like a success story, it actually highlights one of v-commerce’s key limitations; namely, that it is predominantly being used for convenience purchases and small ticket items.

For this to change, Voice needs to have a far more substantial presence in physical retail environments. This will open up an area of content and service design that’s largely unchartered, and the main question to ask will be whether this will be something owned by retailers, brands – or, most likely, some hybrid of the two.

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Voice has the potential to enable a guided physical retail experience that can bring value to the consumer in the simplest to the most complex of purchasing journeys. The FAQs we typically see online, and that might already be managed by some form of bot, can go in-store, and we should expect to see more ‘concierge’ Voice-led services being rolled out in environments where bigger ticket items are on sale.

In order to bring true value to the consumer, we should also expect brands and retailers use Voice to help anonymize interactions where consumers may prefer to deal with a faceless piece of technology than a human being. For instance, Voice-enabled transactions could save users a great deal of awkwardness when it comes to the Pharmaceutical sector and any transaction that requires the purchase or collection of embarrassing products – medical or otherwise.

Voice has the potential to bring brands closer than ever before to their consumers, but in order for the platform to reach maturity, a much greater focus needs to be placed on brand service, and how it can help add value to the physical retail experience.

‘What does Marmite sound like?’ is an interesting (if esoteric) question. But a far better one to ask is ‘how can my brand use voice to improve the customer experience at every stage of the purchasing journey?’

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