Voice assisted technology is fast-becoming the new way to search, and its gaining popularity amongst users means that brands and businesses need to be adapting and preparing their digital marketing strategies now to ensure they’re reaching all of their potential customers.
But how can they do that?
In this report, we’re going to delve a little deeper into the world of voice-assisted technology, looking into how customers are using it, which brands are already factoring it into their strategies, and how you can adapt your marketing strategies now.
The key players
Amazon & Alexa
One of the first names that’s sure to spring to mind when you think about voice assisted tech, Amazon created the smart speaker market with the launch of the Echo and Echo Dot in the US on 23rd June 2015 (released in the UK on 28th Sept 2016).
The original Echo is estimated to have sold more than 31 million units across the globe, but what does Alexa bring to the table for brands?
Alexa allows third-parties to develop Skills for their voice-user interface (VUI) in a similar way to the development of apps for smartphone platforms. Amazon also provides the Alexa Voice Service for hardware developers to integrate Alexa into their own products, such as the Sonos One smart speaker which was released in Oct 2017.
Google launched the Google Home, a direct competitor Amazon’s Echo, in the US in Nov 2016, shortly followed by its release in the UK in April 2017. Its Echo Dot competitor, the Home Mini, was launched in both markets in Oct 2017. Google has also announced the Google Home Max, a more powerful and expensive version that’s designed to compete with premium speaker brands such as Sonos.
Interestingly, Google Home sales have actually surpassed Alexa sales in the UK in the last quarter. And as well as this, Google Assistant allows third-parties to create Actions on Google, which are the equivalent of Alexa’s Skills.
Apple & Siri
Apple launched the first mainstream consumer voice assistant with Siri back in 2011. Siri has been integrated into Apple’s wearable devices - the Apple Watch and AirPod headphones.
Apple also launched the HomePod in February 2018, much later than Amazon and Google, leading many to speculate that Apple’s capabilities in machine learning and access to user data falls short of Amazon and Google, and causes difficulties in product development.
Samsung & Bixby
After first appearing in Korea and the US earlier in 2017, Samsung integrated its voice assistant, Bixby, into Samsung Galaxy S8 and Note 8 devices for UK release in the second half of 2017. The second iteration of the software, Bixby 2.0, is designed to be open source and available to third party hardware developers in a way that’s very much comparable to Alexa.
Microsoft & Cortana
Microsoft’s Cortana assistant initially launched on Windows smartphones in 2014, and expanded across other Microsoft platforms such as Windows Desktop, the Microsoft Edge browser, Skype and Xbox One. It’s also available as a third-party app on iOS and Android smartphones. The first third-party Cortana smart speaker, the Harmon Kardon Invoke, was released in late 2017.
Let’s discuss volumes, behaviours & trends
Current and expected volume
While using voice assistants on the reg is perhaps not quite mainstream in the UK just yet, research by media agency Mindshare suggests that most smartphone owners have used it (60%) and most of those that haven’t are not averse to the idea.
60% of smartphone owners have used a voice assistant
Usage of Voice technology (% smartphone users)
Source: Mindshare Futures Speakeasy Survey, Feb 2017, n = 1,002 UK smartphone users
Why use a voice assistant?
The main reason that people use voice assistant is because it’s often quicker and easier than other methods. 55% of users in the UK say “it’s convenient”, while 52% say “it’s simple to use”, showing that ease and simplicity are two key things to take into consideration when looking at how voice commerce might grow.
55% of UK users state that voice search is convenient
REASONS OF USING VOICE COMMANDS (% OF VOICE USERS)
Source: Mindshare Futures Speakeasy Survey, Feb 2017: Which of the following are reasons that you use voice commands? n = 292 UK regular voice users (at least once a week)
Research from Mindshare Futures Speakeasy Survey shows that searching online is still the main thing people use voice technology for (62% of UK users), followed by more specific queries that are relatively straightforward to execute and solve, such as trivia, checking the weather forecast, and getting directions.
Playing music is also a very popular and a natural use of voice assistants and smart speakers (50%), given the audio interface and the integration of streaming music services in all the main smart speaker products that are currently available.
USES OF VOICE COMMANDS (% REGULAR VOICE USERS)
Source: Mindshare Futures Speakeasy Survey, Feb 2017: Which of the following tasks have you used voice services for? N = 292 UK regular voice users (at least once a week)
Nevertheless, the position of global retail giant Amazon as the lead player in the smart speaker market suggests that the opportunities for commerce (together with the subsequent challenges) are only going to grow.
More importantly, research shows that smart speaker fans like to spend.
82% of smart speaker-owners subscribe to Amazon Prime (compared to 44% of non-owners), 31% say they are spending more money on Amazon/Google since getting a smart speaker and 57% have ordered an item through their smart speaker.
Similarly, research from the Navar Consumer Report: Bots, Texts and Voice (Sept 2017) unveils that 29% of US shoppers already use a voice-controlled interface for online shopping, with another 41% stating they will use it in the future.
The financial markets are also beginning to catch on to this growing tech. Investment firm RBC Capital Markets forecasts that Alexa could bring Amazon $10 billion of revenue by 2020 through hardware revenue and increased product sales.
Whether smart speaker usage drives purchase behaviour, or whether a predisposition to e-commerce and Amazon is driving smart speaker usage, is an interesting debate. What is clear, however, is that Amazon is keen to facilitate the behaviour, and this plays into users’ primary motivations for using voice commands.
As well as the ease of access to its own retail products, Amazon has been keen to open the Alexa platform to brands and retailers through the Alexa Skills program.
How are brands adapting for voice technology?
Now we’re up to date on the current voice technology landscape, what can brands do to make the most of the growing market?
Prominent brands that have used the service in the US and globally include Domino’s, Starbucks and Uber.
Domino’s has already seen promising results since making its one-click Easy Orders option available through Alexa. Two months after launching the Skill, 20% of customers with Easy Orders set up have used Alexa for the service, according to Nick Dutch, head of digital for Domino’s UK.
Restricting the offering to the existing Easy Orders option to date once again demonstrates how voice commands and subsequently voice commerce will be driven by convenience.
What this shows us is that there’s a balance to be made here between driving innovation, and maintaining or ideally increasing customer satisfaction, as shown by the volume of one star reviews all three brands have received in the Alexa Skills Store to date.
Given Google’s own dependence on search driven e-commerce, they would be remiss to let this growth go unchallenged. Actions on Google represents the company’s alternative solution to Alexa Skills - these have not been as heavily publicised as Skills so far, and the implementation for consumers is not as explicit (users don’t have to enable an Action within Google Play, unlike Alexa Skills).
Ticketmaster also launched a Google Assistant integration in October 2017, and Google has now enabled transaction functionality within the Action itself.
Finally, while Amazon’s strengths lie in retail, and Google’s in search, we can expect to see continued development from both companies in the other’s area of expertise.
Amazon will continue to improve the way it surfaces information, even if the goal is still to move the user nearer to a purchase with every query. Alexa currently queries several resources, including Bing, Yelp and a database of enabled Skills, including WebMD for medical queries. Without a heritage in this space Amazon will continue to rely on partners to ensure the quality of its responses, which presents opportunities for technology and data platforms, as well as brands.
On the other side, in August 2017, Google announced a partnership in the US with the world’s biggest retailer, Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart has integrated its products with Google Express, Google’s US shopping service that enables voice ordering through Google Assistant. Since then, many large US stores have integrated their products with the Google Express app. Customers can order products from these stores via voice command using their Google Home device.
What about voice search?
A changing landscape
SEO has always been a changing landscape. While the fundamentals of performing well in search remain the same on a surface level, how we go about each of them changes dramatically on a regular basis.
Voice search doesn’t change people’s need to search, so the fundamentals of what we need to do to rank remain strong. What does change however, is our need to pay attention to our audience’s requirements, and adapt our strategies to account for more than just “money keywords”.
The challenge that voice search throws at us is the advent of the single default answer. It’s “I’m Feeling Lucky” but on a wide, landscape-changing scale.
We know people’s behaviour changes as soon as they expect something to fulfil their needs. Searches including “near me” didn’t grow as much in 2017 as those local searches without this qualifier and, in the United States, searches including zip codes actually declined by 30%.
We expect local to work now, so we’ve stopped qualifying searches. And this is happening to head term searches, too. In 2017, almost 70% of requests to the Google Assistant were expressed in natural language, not using the same keywords people might type in a web search.
All that is speculation, but what do brands need to do now in order to remain relevant and visible for customers as the way they search changes?
Keep complying with Google’s best practice guidelines
It almost goes without saying, but websites that are speedy and built well for people and crawlers, with content that properly answers users’ needs, backed up by authoritative links and mentions, will always be favoured in search. Voice search doesn’t change this, but it does make it more important than ever, as this is simply the basic requirement to be considered the correct answer.
Understand your audience and what they actually need from you
Every website should consider what problem they’re solving for their users, and how they’re solving it. Once you’ve confirmed you are the best choice - and this is an important step – you need to identify how people are finding you. The highest search volume keywords in your industry are only a starting point.
If you’ve identified the problems that your customers or clients have, you have an excellent springboard for looking at common, natural language queries and creating content to fit those. Use common question keywords and tools like ‘Answer the Public’ to research queries, combined with Search Console to see where you might already be ranking and just need to tweak.
Use that knowledge to power voice search
Featured snippets are the best current way to gain success in voice search. Identifying queries that trigger a featured snippet and working to optimise your site for them is a strategy that has worked very well for our clients. In short, the main way to get them is as follows:
- Identify the terms you’d like to perform for and their most appropriate pages
- Place a heading tag on the question you’re answering
- If you’re using a list, make sure <ul> or <ol> and <li> tags are used
- Make sure your answer is the best option
You can use search modifiers to change what Google shows to help you make sure your snippet is the best option. Try removing the current featured snippet domain from search results using “-“ and see what comes up next.
What about the world outside of traditional search?
Virtual assistants and their ‘skills’ have the power to change the way we find products that are relevant to us. Skills are very much in their infancy, however; some of the most popular skills include asking Alexa to bark or meow!
While most skills are poorly-rated and not really that well thought through, this represents a first mover advantage, but it’s well worth considering the audience research you’ve done to find out whether you can genuinely offer added value via a skill. Otherwise, there’s more long-term value in simply improving your website to better capture relevant search queries via mobile and voice.
In summary, there are opportunities to capitalise on voice search now, particularly through audience research, natural language content, and featured snippet optimisation. Incorporate these requirements into your current audience research and keyword plans to create a strategy that works on all platforms.
What are the opportunities right now?
Get used to interacting with the voice assistant that’s in your smartphone, or purchase a smart speaker and discover first-hand the areas of your life where they can (or can’t) be useful.
Use voice and web analytics to establish how customers currently talk about your brand.
- How do they use the Live Chat function on your site or in your app?
- How do they talk to staff in your stores, both on the shop floor and at the till?
- Make a record of and analyse conversations in focus groups
Consider the role for voice within the customer’s experience of your brand, product and services, using all the information you’ve gathered:
- Build a persona and leverage your brand through voice and tone
How can you add value or reduce friction?
- Look at the user journey customers are taking – what search queries are they using early and late in the purchase process, and what content is helping them answer these queries?
- Think about the context of these searches
- What would the queries sound like through voice, and how could audio content answer them succinctly? Think conversationally, like a screenplay rather than fragmented statements
- Optimise your on-site content for voice search as detailed above, ensuring you’re visible regardless of how your customers are searching.
Review the existing Alexa Skills provided by retailers such as Domino’s or early Actions on Google adopters such as Ticketmaster.
Can your brand provide a one-touch ordering service such as Domino’s Easy Order,
or facilitate a multi-search process such as finding concert tickets?
- Can you simplify any other part of the user journey, even after a purchase? How can you keep customers coming back?
- If so, trial an appropriate Skill or Action while access to both platforms remains free. Be sure to provide sufficient guidance and be careful to manage customer expectations through CRM across owned and earned media channels. As we’ve mentioned, many skills are in their infancy and reviews are seldom positive at this stage. Don’t promise more than you can confidently deliver, let the ease and convenience of your added service speak for you.
Preparing for the future
Building partnerships with key players
In search marketing, no mainstream retail brand or agency would underestimate the importance of not only understanding how to build an efficient paid and organic presence across Google and Bing’s search properties, but also having strong partnerships with Google and Microsoft themselves.
The same will remain true in voice commerce, initially with Amazon and Google, but potentially others as the market evolves. Developing joint business plans, having access to key teams across product development and vertical specialisms and having the best access to beta products, training and educational events will all combine to build a point of difference against competitors.
Partners will have varying levels of importance for each brand. Those looking to compete directly with, and independently of, Amazon will need to focus their efforts on integrating with competitor voice partners, particularly Google Assistant. Retailers of a certain size should also think about co-branded marketing activity with such partners to proactively drive usage of their voice products versus Amazon’s.
Brands that already integrate with the Amazon ecosystem across its myriad of retail platforms, marketplaces and fulfilment solutions will need to increase their focus on optimisation across platforms, and their prominence within them. Maintaining a strong and collaborative relationship with all parts of the Amazon business will help shape this approach.
Building your brand
The value of a strong brand cannot be overstated if retailers are to remain relevant in the minds of consumers. The strength of a brand continues to increase in importance within search results (for more info, Epiphany’s Head of Technical SEO, Malcolm Slade, discusses this in Brand: The Only Future Ranking Factor).
Voice commerce will only compound this trend too, due to both Google and Amazon’s even greater ability to control access to brands. Google’s control will come through search and the evolution of the Answer Box, while Amazon’s will be through the recommendation or even direct ordering of relevant products in response to generic product requests.
Retail brands have two choices – master these access points through increasingly specialised search engine optimisation and retailer marketplace prominence, or build a brand strong enough to ensure that customers are asking for you by name. A retailer can no longer succeed through PPC and SEO tactics alone.
The brands that succeed in both aspects will ultimately have the best chance of success in the voice activated future.