Why Some Brands Love Voice-Activated Devices Despite Lagging ROI

Brand marketers tend to trail consumer technology habits like an aircraft carrier tracking a fleet of speedboats.

And the same dynamic is playing out now with voice-activated search and device use, which has already passed from early adopter stages to an early market majority, according to Adobe mobile VP Matt Asay.

Google last year reported voice queries as 25% and growing of mobile searches on Android. And an Adobe survey found that more than 20% of US mobile consumers use voice search instead of the keyboard at least daily – prompting the company to launch a voice analytics product, Asay said.

On Amazon Prime Day last month, the most popular purchase was Amazon’s own Echo Dot, its most basic and affordable vehicle for the Alexa voice platform.

That market traction means Alexa is big business for Amazon, but can it be the same for the kinds of developers and brands that have made app stores and search engines the most lucrative assets in the world?

The Long Game

Allrecipes.com, Meredith’s online food and recipe subsidiary, is working with Amazon on Alexa “skills,” developer applications built off its voice platform. The publisher gets little data from Amazon on engagement or results driven by its Alexa skill, said Stan Pavlovsky, president of Meredith Digital, but already sees a clear path to monetization.

“This fits into the long-term vision for how we want to work with brands to participate in the consumer experience, not just display next to content,” Pavlovsky said. The publisher’s Alexa skill has no sales or paid media capabilities yet, “but we have a good pipeline of interest we know will be there and eager to participate when it’s ready.”

The voice marketing and analytics startup VoiceLabs operated an Alexa advertising network that inserted sponsored messages from brands like Wendy’s, ESPN and Progressive into Alexa skills, like a brand call-out on the radio before a program. But the product was shut down after a month due to Amazon’s policy against Alexa ads.

“We heard the message loud and clear that Amazon is not ready for Alexa advertising and that’s fine,” said VoiceLabs co-founder and CEO Adam Marchick. “We’re hibernating the product and that network of advertisers is ready to go whenever Amazon gives the green light.”

Some brands that should be investing heavily in voice are shortchanging innovation budgets because they represent pure losses, with no immediate returns or measurable ROI like other marketing research initiatives, Asay said.

“It won’t generate revenue to start with,” he said, “but smart companies will see these features as part of a broader consumer experience and eventually that profit center will come into the fore.”

Category Killers

Voice platforms aren’t a natural fit for all brands, but they have killer use cases for specific verticals.

Not all rooms in the home are created equal, and the kitchen seems to be winning the early interest from brands.

The 150-year-old Campbell Soup Co. is approaching voice-activated devices as the next generation of home recipe suggestion “in today’s increasingly connected kitchens,” said Yin Rani, VP of integrated marketing, in an email.

“As a company, we are focused on digital and ecommerce solutions that not only represent that future of Campbell, but the future of food commerce,” she said.

And as local business and supermarkets start to upload live inventory details to Google Maps, Apple Maps and Amazon, voice search can be synced with near-immediate home delivery.

With direct connections to sales and delivery services – and thus a performance marketing conversion – voice search “will give us an opportunity to go much deeper into that consumer funnel,” AllRecipes’ Pavlovsky said, pointing to a partnership with Samsung’s smart refrigerator as another example of Allrecipes’ entryway to connected kitchens.

But not all voice use cases come with cooking.

Sony Pictures Television is expanding its portfolio of mobile apps for game show properties like “Jeopardy”, “Wheel of Fortune” and “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” into voice-activated products.

The studio collaborates with the Alexa development team on an app that offers additional questions based off the daily “Jeopardy” categories and is in conversations with Google and Microsoft about their nascent voice platform development, said Geremie Camara, Sony Television’s VP of games.

Though Amazon doesn’t return data that could demonstrably tie the Alexa “Jeopardy” skill to home television ratings, Camara said bumps in Alexa use and viewership during the time when “Jeopardy” airs in certain markets has Sony confident enough to commit to voice product development for its other game shows.

“It’s a nice interchange of the skill reminding people about the show and vice versa,” Camara said. “We can’t track backward yet to attribute potential new viewers coming from Alexa, but the next generation of fans will by necessity be a lot of people who didn’t discover the show through a syndicated TV program.”

Travel is another category with unmet upside in voice search right now, Asay said.

One of the first third-party services Alexa was able fulfill for users was ordering an Uber. And ride-hailing rival Lyft is the only third party featured in an Apple TV campaign promoting consumer usage of Siri.

But voice search remains disconnected from the data that could unleash more serious travel performance budgets, Asay said.

The travel search company Kayak, for instance, updated its Alexa skill in July to allow people to book hotels directly via the voice device, “but it’s divorced from all the data that surrounds you online and helps generate conversions,” Asay said, like known airline preferences, flying statuses, credit card miles deals and stored payment and contact info.

“It’s hard to de-silo voice apps from that data and be as effective as online searches.”

Amazon And The Data Doldrums

For the time being, voice search and voice-activated devices return little to no insights to brands, marketers or developers.

While research and occasional disclosures indicate more and more mobile searches from Google and Apple come via voice requests, the best means of confirming whether queries were spoken is if the user makes a mistake or double prompts the question, thus beginning the search, “Hey Alexa…” or “Siri…,” according to Ryan Sullivan, senior VP of performance marketing services at the Publicis agency Performics.

Google has the most advanced voice analytics options, Voicelabs’ Marchick said, but the value of that data is limited by the scale of Google’s voice-develop ecosystem, which has about 200 third-party voice developer apps available, compared to more than 15,000 on Alexa.

But the dearth of actionable insights from voice devices isn’t a source of contention like data transparency is for walled gardens, since products like Alexa and Siri – the most used voice assistant in the world due to its wide iPhone distribution – are still tending their audiences.

At some point, however, marketers will want to seize ripe opportunities.

Amazon, for instance, can send notifications and prompts to Alexa users, which boosts retention and allows the ecommerce giant to offer consumer benefits like tracking shipments (“Alexa, where’s my order?”).

Lots of developers build good apps that nobody could find or that people use once and forget, Marchick said.

“Retention and discovery are major issues where Amazon right now is figuring out the value and best practices for its own services,” he said. “But you can imagine a world where if they open that up to developers it would be a big boost.”

Marketers are also finding ways to spend now so they hold the pole position when Amazon potentially gives brands the go-ahead with promotional options on Alexa.

Sullivan said one CPG client has spiked Amazon display and search spending in a campaign to add grocery delivery subscribers for paper towels. It’s a “long-term play” based on the assumption that as product discovery and shopping migrates to Alexa, where queries don’t return a full page of products but maybe one or two suggested options, Amazon is going to favor brands with habitual subscription revenue.

 

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