The following is a guest post from David Randolph, chief strategy officer at Drum Agency.
When pondering how advanced technology will affect the future, sometimes it helps to get primitive. Take voice — the manner by which humans use vocalizations is embedded in us from infancy. Now, think back to the most frustrating vocal interactions in your life. Did they happen when you encountered an age difference or a language barrier? Or was it a recent interaction with Alexa, Google Voice or Siri?
The latter feels increasingly more likely to be the case because it's rare that voice technologies, ever more popular, actually work correctly. It can be dazzling when they do manage to pull off their tricks, but this is still very limited tech. Siri is astoundingly poor at speech recognition and answering questions intelligently. Let's not even get into voice control in a BMW or on Xbox.
That's hasn't stopped many marketers from asking how they can be better prepared for a voice-first future. Perhaps a fear of underestimating voice stems from many having underestimated the impact of smartphones.
So, is intelligent voice about to disrupt marketing the way smartphones did? Below, I break down the biggest fears and questions looming over the space:
The death of CPG
The idea that most frightens marketers is the example of a consumer blindly ordering whatever Amazon's Alexa recommends. Within seconds, an Amazon Echo can place an order for Amazon house-brand batteries. The transaction is seamless and completely devoid of visual cues, meaning brands like Duracell and Energizer lose out. This signals the end of brand building.
Or not. Haven't generic store brands and boutique brands been invading the realm of huge CPG companies for years? Ninety percent of leading CPG companies lost share to smaller brands in 2016 and 2017, even though their marketplace segments were growing. So voice isn't killing CPGs. E-commerce and social media are the stronger suspects.
Alexa gives preference to certain brands,sure, but regular old Amazon.com already does that visually already. Product placement is always for sale, voice or no voice. And don't you also read reviews for products in the Amazon app? Would voice really change that? Let's not forget how important price is in purchase decisions, too.
Will voice change marketing?
Some people view voice as a search engine that cuts out the fat. Bill Gates famously noted that search engines don't actually deliver an answer, and he didn't just say that because he's responsible for Bing.
So what really changes with search when voice is added to the mix? Low-interest, inexpensive consumable goods are certainly a candidate to be disrupted. Who relishes buying relish in the store or online? As stated in the Amazon example, we can already dictate our grocery lists to a connected device.
You might trust voice AI less to select fine jewelry, or a new pair of running shoes. E-commerce websites already struggle to sell items that consumers can't touch and feel. Imagine if consumers couldn't see those products, either.
Voice will certainly be able to recommend products that are highly rated. High ratings are extremely important for credit cards and hotels. But then voice is only acting as an audio version of ratings found on Nerdwallet and Tripadvisor, or on Google.
Lastly, there are intangible marketable products like insurance or wealth management services. It's conceivable voice could become something of a simulated "influencer" in audio form here. But is a human going to trust the financial advice of an AI? Possibly — but not anytime soon, whether it's delivered in audio form or written out in text.
True voice is a tech revolution away
While IBM's Watson famously won Jeopardy against human contestants, the reality is that an intelligent conversation with a machine is years away for consumers.
Perhaps the solution will be for supercomputing power to exist in the cloud. But again, instantaneous access, computation and response are quantum leaps for wireless tech to make. For information to flow that quickly requires an upgrade to over 215,000 cell towers that would parallel moving from horses to Teslas for transportation. Wireless broadband will eventually become inconceivably fast, but that won't be this year. Or the next.
Overall, voice's delays are related to broader challenges facing technology, particularly in the mobile space. Until intelligent voice offers much stronger consumer benefit, there's little reason for marketers to fully dive in — yet. Voice is similar to other emerging technologies like augmented reality and wearables. Until consumers adopt them in daily life, there's little opportunity for scaled marketing.
Amazon versus Google
Speaking of scale, Amazon and Google — and less likely Apple — look like the front-runners for getting more voice-powered devices into U.S. homes. While Amazon gets most of the press for voice, the tech giant makes the front page for seemingly every word that comes out of its Seattle HQ. Amazon is notable as the company that cracked the code on small, always-listening voice devices with the Echo. For manufacturers and storefronts selling on Amazon, Alexa is an audible retail search engine to optimize. And currently, it dovetails with the same structured data that powers text searching on Amazon. Same words — it's just the spoken word versus the written word.
But Google is fast gaining on Amazon's tail with its own inexpensive home voice devices and smart assistant. Not to mention its software is within arm's reach as an app on most iOS devices, and is built into the OS on all Android devices. A Strategy Analytics report found that Amazon's share of the smart speaker market in the first quarter of this year plummeted, while Google saw rapid growth.
The highest-quality speech recognition is also arguably Google's, made infinitely more valuable by the backbone of the world's most popular and ubiquitous search engine. Google's knack for decoding language comes from quadrillions of real-world searches. When Google responds to a search with a page of links, we are seeing its best "guesses" as to what is being requested. When a searcher clicks a link, they're making Google a bit smarter about information delivery, one micro moment at a time.