Speak Up - They’re Listening

​By Samantha Osborne, Managing Director - Mindshare

​Barely a decade ago, the idea of asking a device in your home to order a taxi, read the headlines or turn the lights off was still firmly in the realms of science fiction. But with 11 million Amazon Echo devices sold since mid-2015 and 20 per cent of mobile searches on Android made by voice, our relationship with technology has moved past keyboard, mouse and touch screen to our most natural form of interaction: the voice.

Voice is now a viable consumer proposition thanks to recent developments in speech recognition (error rates are now at human parity at five per cent) and natural language processing (NLP). We can expect further improvements too, as machine learning benefits from continuing investment from the tech giants and the datasets produced by widespread consumer adoption.

Research into the voice technology landscape and its implications for brands and marketers was carried out earlier this year by J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group London and Mindshare Futures. Released this month, the resulting trends and insight report, Speak Easy1, found that voice interaction will redefine not just how we live our lives, but the digital advertising landscape and how brands reach consumers. Key findings centred around consumers’ attraction to voice for its efficiency; their growing reliance on voice assistants and their suggestions; and what that means for brands.

Neuroscience research undertaken for the report showed the brain doesn’t have to work as hard to receive spoken information – backing the 41 per cent of regular voice users who say they use it when feeling lazy. It’s easy to see how this could extend to consumers’ wider decision making: if it becomes easier to speak to a voice assistant than type a search query, it may also prove easier to follow the assistant’s proactive suggestions than think through alternatives. For brands, the opportunity will come in being selected for recommendation ahead of competitors.

The commercial reality of this therefore requires a shift in thinking. Chief Digital Officer of GroupM Worldwide, (Mindshare New Zealand’s parent company), Rob Norman, describes it as a move from “intelligence workers” to “imagination workers”. Writing after Speak Easy’s release, Norman proposed that instead of feeling threatened by a voice assistant such as Amazon’s Alexa simply replenishing a brand at a consumer’s request and storing that brand preference away in its eco-system for next time, those in marketing should instead consider how they could affect that request. “The imagination worker might ask themselves how the consumer knows which brand to ask for and, more importantly, how to maintain or disrupt the inertia of that request – or how to be a ghost in the machine. They might also be encouraged by the idea that in Alexa’s world the consumer has no opportunity to experience the in-store moment of truth, and that this has forced a large-scale reallocation of marketing investment to store promotion.”

Major brands are already testing the advertising waters around voice. In mid-April Burger King launched a TV campaign in the US with a script designed to trigger voice activated Google devices to read a Wikipedia description of its Whopper burger, but was forced to tweak the ads when Google appeared to disable the functionality shortly afterwards. This too will be part of the challenge for brands: reappraising their relationships with Google and Amazon as voice strengthens their role as consumer gatekeepers.

The relationship between consumers and voice assistants will only deepen as technology improves, with 60 per cent of smart phone users agreeing they would use voice assistants all the time if they could have a more human dialogue. Brands therefore need to ensure they understand users’ needs and that their services or content can be accessed easily through voice in a simple, intuitive manner. (At the extreme end of these relationships, the report also found more than a quarter of regular voice users say they’ve had a sexual fantasy about their voice assistants, but it’s worth noting these users are significantly more likely to be young, male and affluent.)

What brands will need on their side in this new AI-driven world, as Rob Norman suggests, is those who can think about how, why, and what if? It will be the role of these imagination workers to keep consumers’ curiosity alive – rather than let the algorithms dominate.

1 J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group and Mindshare Futures (2017). Speak Easy – the future answers to you. Retrieved from http://www.mindshareworld.com/sites/default/files/Speakeasy.pdf