Listen up: What marketers need to know about ‘listening devices’

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Why tap a command into your phone when you could get the same result from simply uttering a few words? Voice and listening technology is increasingly advanced and, combined with AI, more intelligent than ever. With so much buzz around the technology, you’d be forgiven for thinking that our future virtual assistants will resemble Samantha in Her or Jarvis in Iron Man. We may not be quite there yet, but things are moving quickly.

Almost every smartphone now sports some kind of voice assistant, and according to Google, 20% of the queries on its mobile app and Android devices are voice searches. The technology isn’t confined to mobile devices; it’s finding a place in our homes too. Sales of the Echo grew an average of 342% during the last half of 2015, and Amazon estimates that it will sell ten million devices in 2017. Meanwhile, Google Home is set to hit UK shelves soon. So what’s the appeal of these ‘listening devices’?

Boasting the potential to revolutionise how people interact with brands, major tech players have eagerly invested in bot platforms and brands are getting on board; there are countless examples including Sephora serving up automated beauty tips on Kik and Copa90 giving football fans a quick fix of sport news and results via Facebook Messenger. Thomson has even created a virtual travel agent to inspire and interact with its customers, powered by IBM Watson and Amex is encouraging customers to manage their money via a bot.

But when combined with voice activated devices, the game changes! And it’s not just the usual early tech adopters that are embracing’ listening devices’ such as Echo and Google Home, everyday consumers and families are embracing them too.

With this mainstream adoption comes high expectations of our AI friends; the ability to listen and speak make them more… human. It’s no secret that we assign human qualities to technology, but it is especially true for voice applications. For example, a third of interactions with Robin Labs bots (a company dedicated to evolving voice applications) are reported to be conversational – rather than focusing on a specific task. Such examples are why companies are making efforts to make bots seem human – many are programmed to engage people with chit chat and even tell jokes. The creators of Cortana interviewed real life assistants to learn how they interact with people and what makes them successful.

Why is this important? The more natural the voice sounds, the longer people are willing to listen. Right now, people don't want to listen to voice assistants for very long, limiting their roles. But as technology gets better, that is expected to change.

With expectations of ‘human like’ behaviour from such technology also comes pressure for the listening devices to have ‘human like’ knowledge of local areas and relatable reference points. Companies are already tweaking their products to better serve customers from different locations. When Amazon Echo was released in the UK, Alexa arrived sporting a British accent and her dictionary was updated to British spelling. ‘She’ even understands British terms. For example, if you ask “How tall is the Gherkin?” Alexa will know that you’re not talking about pickled vegetables. Such relatable qualities, brought about through local knowledge, are important considerations for brand looking to make the most of the medium.

It’s not all smooth sailing for these listening and voice activated devices of course.  Research by Creative Strategies found that 39% of those who do use voice assistants on their phone do so in private, just 6% use them in public spaces. 51% use a virtual assistant in the car, but a mere 1.3% would use it at work.

People are still embarrassed to be seen using them in public because it can still seem unnatural.

Likewise, when we researched ‘listening technology’ last year, overwhelmingly people found it creepy: the constant processing of information in the background… the impact on privacy. Inviting their own homes to be ‘bugged'. But the reality is that the tech is proving very popular. As is usually the case, early adopters taking up new technology begin to set a new norm. Once enough people are doing it, everyone thinks “well if no one else is worried, then why should I be?” It’s this sort of herd behaviour that makes something socially acceptable, and is likely to overcome these concerns in time. 

With the freedom for brands to create their own ‘Alexa skills’ (app-like capabilities that users can install to their Echo device as they wish) there have already been plenty of brands jumping on the shift towards voice. Domino's ‘skill’ allows you to order pizza with just a few words, whilst the Spotify skill lets you control playlists hands free. Echo owners can utter a few words to get the latest headlines thanks to Bloomberg or order a ride with Uber. And after seeing that people love to play along with the game show on TV, Jeopardy! released an Alexa skill that allows the whole family to get involved. Meanwhile, The Food Network is helping people cook along with its shows.

The global intelligent virtual assistant market is expected to reach $3.07 billion by 2020, so there will be plenty more opportunities to follow. The medium provides a space where brands can interact with consumers in a truly engaging way. With so much innovation and advancement in technologies, it's likely that interactions with devices may soon look like something out of a movie. 

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