The recent surge in sales for Amazon’s Echo voice assistant (aka smart speaker) has garnered a lot of attention. Rightfully so, its success is evidence of more widespread consumer demand for voice experiences. And it has numerous implications for the future of many major industries, including ecommerce, entertainment, connected home, and travel to name a few.
The mental model that Amazon has adopted for Alexa Skills, the spoken equivalent of apps, has proven to be a wise one. While one of the greatest challenges of early voice assistants was the lack of clarity for the user as it relates to what was possible (i.e. what they could and couldn’t say), the Skills model puts the decision of what’s possible into the hands of the user. Now Google has followed suit with Actions for Google Assistant.
This approach has emerged as an exciting channel for marketers looking for new ways to cut through the noise. A few months ago, Amazon announced that they’d broken through 10,000 Skills, which represents a 10X increase in less than a year. While reportedly 69% of Alexa Skills have less than three users, the growth trend is indicative of an experimental culture that has quickly developed as businesses strive to find their place in these emerging ecosystems.
While voice assistants represent some great opportunities, they also pose some risks. And it’s important to be aware of the greater impact voice assistants will have on your brand and customer relationships as they continue to see broader adoption.
Handing off control of your customer relationship
Voice-first computing refers to the ability of voice assistants to be the “first point of contact” for all user requests - a gateway, if you will, to fulfill these requests by accessing the appropriate proprietary or third-party services. And this goes beyond smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home to include mobile phones, TVs, and any other voice assistant equipped device. While this approach poses a simplification for users, it also represents an inherent challenge for businesses that offer apps and services on these devices and potentially diminishes their position to simply fulfilling the role of a content provider.
One major implication of first point of contact is that you lose the ability to have one-on-one interactions with your users - there’s someone in the middle. This is, in a sense, a hijacking of your customer relationship and has the potential to draw users away from using your apps and websites. It becomes impossible to customize the experience, trigger recommendations, and message users (to name a few common methods of proactive engagement). While we’ve all seen some reports that point to app fatigue, at the end of day mobile apps and websites are still the top two tactics used to market to customers today. And recent research suggests that Skills have only a 3% chance of retaining users. While mobile apps retain active users at a rate in excess of 11%. Mobile is still one of the top performers.
Losing visibility into usage trends and metrics
Another challenge is that you lose direct control over the instrumentation of your customer interactions. When you consider the incredible maturity of the analytics tooling in place today across web and mobile, we’re starting from scratch with voice assistants. While some basic tooling has emerged and it will continue to improve, the data available today is limited. So, your understanding of your customers’ experience is very limited too. This is a critical piece of the puzzle for businesses who want to continually improve their offerings and provide a differentiated experience with their brand front and center.
Bias is inevitable and not unfair
Last but not least, in certain use cases there is a very clear risk for bias to emerge. Take online retail for example, where Amazon is the clear leader. What incentive does Amazon have to make Alexa a freely competitive market for online shopping? None. In fact, Amazon offers different results today when you use voice search on the Echo versus the Amazon app or website. And it’s not necessarily unfair for Amazon to take advantage of this opportunity, as Alexa and Echo were developed in part to make shopping on Amazon a more convenient and delightful experience. Google’s knowledge graph, on the other hand, is arguably the best in the business, so it’s only natural that Google Home will field search requests leveraging their proprietary service. Not someone else’s. Consequently, Apple’s closed ecosystem approach to entertainment content with Siri is likely to remain the norm. The jury is certainly still out as to how these positions can be sustained as consumers are given more options and preferences for more open ecosystems continue to emerge.
Moving ahead with confidence
In conclusion, it’s important that we all embrace this opportunity to engage in new and exciting ways. But it’s also important to not lose sight of the multi-channel strategy that we’ve all been employing for years. Continue to invest in and evolve how you engage with your customers where they are today, which is on mobile, web, in person...and on voice assistants. And as users continue to adopt new modes of interaction, like voice, VR, and gestures, it’s important to find ways to evolve your existing channels to include these concepts. As consumers get used to using voice, they’ll expect to be able to use it elsewhere. And your mobile app will become less and less enticing to them if it still works “the old way”.