What you need to know about voice-based marketing

We investigate why search marketing is still finding its voice and how voice-based customer engagement is evolving

When Google first demonstrated its Duplex service in mid-2018, it stunned the world by making relatively complex bookings over the telephone using a system that sounded very close to how a human might sound.

It also breathed new interest into a technology that has become both increasingly prevalent in consumer devices, and an increasing source of frustration – the voice-based user interface.

The launch of Apple’s voice-based assistant, Siri, in 2011 spawned a revolution that now sees similar technology embedded in almost every smartphone. While the installed base for smart speakers such as those connecting to Amazon Alexa or Google Home is expected to reach 100 million globally this year.

And yet the technology remains stubbornly unsophisticated in its application, being able to only respond to basic requests in a limited subset of services.

So, is voice poised to revolution human-to-machine communication or become the latest in a long line of technologies whose promise exceeded its capabilities?

Getting into voice early

It is a question some marketers have begun to ask for themselves. Many were present for the local launch of the Amazon Alexa service in early 2018, including Village Entertainment, which offers voice-based services via Alexa enabling customers to enquire about movie sessions, locations and other information and then receive a link to their phones to make a booking.

“We intuitively see voice playing a bigger role going forward with our service offering widening,” says Village Entertainment general manager for marketing and sales, Mohit Bhargava. “From fully voice-enabled ticketing services, where guests can make a transaction with us using voice, through to other applications such as customer service in venue. Our focus and investment in voice will evolve in line with overall market penetration of voice technologies.”

Chief marketing officer at Finder.com.au, Malini Sietaram, also believes integrating voice search into the customer experience is an absolute must for marketers who want to make a meaningful connection with their audience.

“There’s a big opportunity for marketers to monetise through voice search and to tap into localised or ‘near me’ searches, like if a customer is trying to find their nearest retailer, gym or supermarket,” Sietaram tells CMO. “According to Google, these localised searches are skyrocketing in volume and I definitely think this will be an exciting space for marketers to play.”

In January 2019, the company will launch its Finder assistant, which will connect users with the content and financial products they’re searching for and enable partners to quickly tap into voice.

There is certainly a strong potential audience of Australians waiting to tap into voice services. Along with smartphone penetration, Telsyte estimates 3 million Australian households will have a smart speaker by 2022, equating to 30 per cent household penetration.

And as a channel, it has some interesting attributes that could make it increasingly attractive to brands. A recent study by Publicis Media demonstrated a significant memory effect and heightened physiological responses when interacting with smart speakers. The study found voice delivered nearly twice the unaided brand recall of with television and on par with native mobile. Voice also stood out as one of the best experiences compared to TV and native mobile, having been found to be more engaging, fun, helpful, useful, informative and less boring.

But for most Australian brands, it remains a peripheral issue.

“It is till something on the periphery even though there is much higher prevalence of access to voice platforms,” says principal consultant at software consulting firm ThoughtWorks, Ian Kelsall. “It is identified as an add-on at the end, and not necessarily considered deeply.”

ThoughtWorks is, however, working with several clients to explore the long-term prospects for voice and where it might provide a contextual benefit, including US-based Sonic Restaurants.

“On the way to the drive-through, is voice an appropriate place to perform that interaction of making your order ahead of you getting there?” Kelsall asks.

He suspects the reason for tepid enthusiasm is that to date the reality of voice interaction has rarely matched the excitement of the demonstrations.

“One of the challenges of voice is when a user asks a question there isn’t a lot of context for that voice AI to draw on unless the consumer is being specific about their question,” Kelsall says. “Most voice interfaces at the moment, although they are framed as a conversational UI, are not really conversations - you ask for something and it tells you an answer.”

Up next: The implications for search, plus the back-end capability required to succeed

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