How the voice-first revolution will disrupt media and marketing

Mitchell Long, PHD Australia.

Artificial intelligence (AI) will reach human levels of intelligence by 2029, according to author, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil.

The days of us learning how to ‘use’ a computer will subside and instead computers will adapt to how we instinctively want to interact with them. In just ten years, 50% of all human to computer interactions are predicted to be made via voice-mediated AI. 2029 may therefore be the year we talk naturally to computers, and them back to us as we shift from a screen-first relationship with tech, to one that is inherently voice-first.

This may be 12 years away, but we’re already starting to encounter this voice-first shift today. Google Home and Amazon Echo are among the first wave of truly voice-first devices widely available. For the first time, voice interaction is central to the user experience and no longer an appendage to a touch screen that usually dominates how people use and interact with the device.

In a future where we can converse naturally with computers without needing to tap or type, it becomes apparent that in some situations voice-first tech will entirely replace our reliance on handheld devices. What then becomes more apparent is the fact that this voice-first revolution is going to fundamentally disrupt the world of marketing and media as we know it. So what are some of the implications we might expect?

1. Game the algorithm

As AI develops to understand our individual needs more intimately, we’ll come to rely on it to help manage and curate our lives in the form of a virtual personal assistant (VPA). Being able to simply talk to our VPA will provide an easier and faster way for us to tend to many of our everyday needs; from simple things such as telling us the weather or ordering an Uber, to the more complex such as coordinating dinner plans based on understanding the specific dietary needs of you and your friends.

The VPA will therefore become a gateway to many brands and products as our needs for them occur and with this consolidation spur on the so-called ‘post-app’ era. No longer will we need to open the Domino's app to order a pizza when we can simply ask Siri to place an order for us.

While visual aids will exist via screens and augmented reality, for many low-involvement decisions, visuals won’t be required at all and the VPA will simply voice their responses to us.

In these instances, voice interaction provides a potential threat to the pay-per-click model of search. Listening to a VPA read out the list of blue links that would usually appear in a search results page is hardly a natural user experience, nor would we tolerate our VPA bursting into a Starbucks ad every time we ask for directions to the nearest coffee shop.

Brands will, therefore, be beholden to being recommended as and when a VPA deems them relevant, and these recommendations are subject to the VPA’s algorithm that underpins its decision making.

In a voice-first future, it will be paramount for brands to understand how people call upon their VPAs when the need for their category arises, and as a result how the VPA algorithm makes its decision to recommend one brand over another in response.

If a major factor influencing the purchase of a category is convenience (with people routinely asking for what is ‘nearby’), then physical proximity may be the defining factor that influences which brand is recommended by a VPA.

Alternatively, some VPA recommendations may depend on having a superior quality score from online product reviews and ratings. Whatever the factors driving the algorithm, brands will need to understand and manipulate them in order to influence VPAs to recommend their products and services.

2. Make them ask for you

While big brands attempt to game VPA algorithms to get their products and services recommended, smaller competitors may struggle to get recommended due to inferior physical and mental availability. In these instances, brands will need to completely circumvent the algorithm itself by instead influencing people to ask VPAs for their specific brand in the first place.

This, therefore, reinforces the importance brand salience plays in a voice-first future. More than ever, brands will need to compete to be top of mind for their categories in order to get people to ask for their specific brand when that need arises.

We’ve already seen a more overt example of this with Burger King’s ‘Google Home of the Whopper’, where an AV ad asks, “Ok Google, what is the whopper burger?”, triggering Google Home devices nearby to respond with a description pulled from Wikipedia. While Burger King’s example is more of a novelty, it is indication of a future where brands will be increasingly competing to get people asking their VPAs for their specific product, not category, or in Burger King’s case - a Whopper, and not a burger.

3. Find your voice

A third implication is the importance of sonic branding. Our relationship with technology over the years has influenced how the distinctiveness of brands has been built. Up until now, brands have relied heavily on visually distinctive cues through the success of wide-reaching screen strategies. Yet, in a voice-first world where 50% of computer interactions may not require a screen, successful brands will seize the opportunity to remain distinctive in these audio media moments.

When AI enables us to speak naturally to computers, it will also enable us to speak naturally with brands. Branded bots within Facebook Messenger are an early, albeit novel, example of this happening right now. However, as AI matures, these bots have the potential to bring the personality and distinctiveness of a brand’s voice in audio touchpoints to life.

What is most unclear is how this will work with VPA gateways. For instance, if a person asks Alexa for a product or service, could there potentially be a handover between Alexa and a branded bot to facilitate the customer relationship for that transaction? Time will tell how voice-first branding is monetised by the tech giants of tomorrow.

While more traditional sonic branding elements such as jingles seem out of place in an interactive call and response channel, brands should instead consider how they want to speak with consumers via AI. Creating a branded bot with personality and tone (that is distinctively recognisable when spoken to) may well become a brand’s strongest form of sonic branding in a voice-first future.

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