Industry experts: Amazon Alexa will transform the way brands engage with consumers

Agencies and brand marketers are convinced the Australian launch of Amazon Alexa will see rapid take-up of voice-based interaction, and share their views on the opportunities and potential pitfalls

The arrival of Amazon Alexa in Australia is set to become an even bigger game-changer in the way brands interact with their consumers than mobile apps when they made their debut more than 10 years ago, industry pundits believe.  

Mass market take-up of voice as a preferred method of engagement was the general consensus across agencies and brand marketers speaking to CMO following news that Amazon will bring a localised version of its Alexa voice interaction platform and start shipping Echo and Dot speakers to Australia from February. 

Westpac was one of a number of local brands to announce dedicated skills for Alexa this week. Westpac general manager, Consumer Digital, Travis Tyler, saw voice-based interactions as a revolutionary way for people to interact with their service providers. Using the new Westpac skill, consumers can ask a range of questions about their account balances as well as their last 50 transactions.

For us at Westpac, this kind of technology delivers a more personal interaction with our customers and one that is seamless and allows them bank with us when convenient so as to best fit into their everyday life,” he told CMO. “Our Westpac Banking Skill has been designed with our customers' needs in mind as they continue to look for an easy and effortless way to bank that fits with their everyday lifestyle.” 

Once familiar with voice as an interaction vehicle, Tyler expected customers to make regular use of banking services via Alexa because it is easy to use and fits in with their everyday lives.

“Our Westpac Flash Briefing Skill will also give users of Alexa a great head start on the morning’s finance news and we’re hopeful many will use this information to start their day,” he said.

Versa is a specialist agency that worked with Village Entertainment to create its first skill for Amazon Alexa. Managing director, Kath Blackham, couldn’t emphasis the significance of the launch enough.

“We haven't seen something of this magnitude since apps were introduced in 2007 and, like apps, this will be a game changer for all consumers and brands,” she told CMO. “The growth in Amazon Alexa globally over the past three years has been nothing short of phenomenal and, given the fact that Australians love new technology, we fully expect voice in Australia to follow, if not surpass, this growth.”  

Initially, skills are expected to focus on entertainment and utility, and linking voice command to connected devices such as smart lights.

“Anything that makes a consumer’s life easier, such as ordering a pizza while sitting on the couch, or finding out what's on at the movies, are sure to be most popular with the wider base of users,” Blackham said.

Product designer at digital product studio Ustwo, Scott Burns, said the team was already noticing skills are “growing up a bit”. “We’re moving on from asking Alexa a cheeky joke to it becoming a useful tool in our daily lives,” he said. 

“We expect consumers to be interested in highly utilitarian skills at first, like switching the lights on/off or playing music. There is some learning and behaviour changes that need to take place before consumers begin to trust Alexa with more complex tasks, and with it being a screen-less interface, it does have its limitations.”   

Over time, when people get used to using skills and the technology becomes smarter, voice-based devices will be able to have more complicated interactions with consumers, Dius head of technology, Ricky Yim, agreed. Dius worked with mobile virtual network operator, amaysim, to build its first Alexa skill, which also debuted this week.  

“With the rate at which artificial intelligence and natural language processing are improving, and as people figure out how to design voice interactions more effectively, skills should become more complicated and do more advanced things,” Yim said. “Initially, my view is that most consumers will just use these devices for very basic things.”

Before even jumping on the voice bandwagon, however, Burns cautioned marketers to think about how their brands need to be positioned in a voice-driven environment.  

“Brands need to ask themselves: If our brand is just a voice in the room, what should it sound like and what value can we provide to our customers?” he said.

Related: Google strategist: What it's going to take to build brand in a voice era

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Meanwhile, the biggest pitfall for brands when thinking about developing a skill or voice interaction is not putting the needs of their customers first.

“Consumers have a very short threshold for useless things and that threshold only gets smaller when it comes to voice interaction. So make it useful to people,” Burns advised. “Secondly, this new technology will evolve as more and more people adopt it, so the challenge is, how do we adapt to change? Brands need to approach the design and development of a skill as one that is constantly evolving over time.

“Create the right environment for this evolution to thrive, by partnering with people who understand the nature of product development in the context of user thinking."

Tyler said the Westpac Digital Labs team worked “incredibly hard” to ensure the services provided on Alexa are safe for consumers to use.

“The privacy and security of our customer data is absolutely paramount to us,” he said. “We want to ensure our customers feel protected when using Alexa to interact with us so we have enabled the same level of security provided to our Live customers by our Westpac Live Security Guarantee, which is underpinned by the Westpac Live secure online banking platform.”

As a new device, organisations need to be careful not to overcomplicate things upfront, Yim added. 

“You don’t want to turn people off the technology. If people try and use a skill and it doesn’t work, there are only so many times they will try again,” he said. 

“Also give people something that makes sense to use as a skill. Don’t create a skill just for the sake of it. Something that is faster to do via voice or something that people can do hands-free.”  

It’s also important to measure a skill’s success rate from release and to do this, Yim recommended putting analytics in place. “How many people actually successfully used the skill? How many people didn’t get execute the skill successfully? Then use that information to improve the skill,” he said.    

“Lastly, these devices are in people’s homes, always on and always listening. So if you develop a skill on the Alexa platform, you’re part of that trust relationship with the consumer. Therefore you need to really consider the consumer’s privacy concerns and keep that front of mind.” 

When Versa first started building Alexa skills a year ago, the team underestimated how difficult it would be, Blackham admitted. 

“Building out a simple skill is very different to building an enterprise-level skill and we are very grateful for all the help that we have had from Amazon over the past months in helping us understand the process we need to go through to get skills through certification,” she said.

“We have been incredibly impressed by how strict Amazon is with making sure skills are flawless from start to finish. With voice, there is no room for mistakes, particularly with the voice experience, so the user has be front and centre in a way we rarely see in Web or app design. 

“This makes it incredibly tough for the agency or brand building the skill but will make the Alexa user’s experience much better than anything they have experienced before.”

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