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From search to smart speakers: Why voice is too big for media companies to ignore

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Voice technologies are hot right now. Consumers are increasingly using voice-driven services on smartphones and smart speakers, which is changing the way content is sought out and consumed. This escalating trend has clear implications for marketers, content creators, and consumers.

Here’s how this market is evolving and what it means for media companies.

Mobile and the rise of voice-based tools

Nearly ubiquitous smartphone adoption has created opportunities for a plethora of new products and services, including those driven by voice. Perhaps the best known of these are personal digital assistants like Siri, which was introduced by Apple in 2011. It was followed by Alexa (Amazon) and Cortana (Microsoft) in 2014, and Google Assistant in 2017. Today, nearly half of US adults (46%) use these tools.

And as voice recognition programs become more accurate, they are impacting online search habits. In 2016, Google reported that 20% of searches on Android were already being made using voice. GlobalWebIndex also observed that, in the 34 markets it covered, 25% of those aged 16-24 had used voice search on their mobile in the past month. In fact, by 2020, comScore predicts that half of all searches will be conducted by voice.

Voice on Smart Speakers

Smart speakers are one of the top consumer tech trends right now. The 2018 Digital News Report, produced by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, found that in major markets such as the US, UK, and Germany, usage of these products had more than doubled over the past year.

Question: Which, if any, of the following devices do you ever use (for any purpose)? Base: Total 2017-18 sample in each market. Source: Digital News Report 2018, Reuters Institute.

A March 2018 study from and the voice app company, PullString, found that “19.7% of US adults [about 47.3 million] have access to smart speakers today. That is up from less than 1% of the population just two years ago.” By 2022, according to Forrester Research, 50% of US households will have a smart speaker.

The rapid adoption of voice technologies – from voice search to smart speakers – is noteworthy, especially when benchmarked against the take-up of many other more established technologies.

Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2017) – “Technology Diffusion & Adoption”, published online at and, Voicebot Smart Speaker Consumer Adoption Report 2018

Why these technologies are growing

Typically housed in shared spaces like the living room and/or kitchen, smart speakers can be used by multiple people. Google has noted how “in a short period of time, voice-activated speakers have become part of people’s routines.”

Reasons for this include the ability to use the technology while doing something else (multi-tasking), the fact that people speak more quickly than they can type (speed), and increasingly “human” interfaces.

Indeed, “People perceive the devices as more than just an electronic toy.” Google found that “they’re more akin to another person or a friend.” In 2017 research with over 1,600 users of voice-activated speakers, 41% said that using the technology feels like they’re “talking to a friend of another person.” All of these traits are only going to grow as these technologies continue to evolve and improve.

What this means: Four key considerations

Given the rise of voice-enabled devices and tools, here are four strategic considerations and opportunities for brands and media companies:

1. Ensure your content is optimized for voice search

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) never stands still, but the voice revolution presents some new challenges. Recognizing this emerging trend, back in 2016, Campaign advised “savvy marketers” to “write content in a natural, conversational voice that answers the questions your consumers are asking.”

“Website content in the era of voice search isn’t about keywords,” they wrote, “it’s about semantic search and building the context related to answering a question.”

On smart speakers, as Trustpilot’s Jason Barnard and Chee Lo have explained, there’s a further consideration. Unlike traditional search engine results on desktop or mobile, where you get a range of options, voice searches tend to be highly specific and typically result in a single response.

As Rebecca Sentance reflected on Search Engine Watch, “the rise of voice search is transforming search engines into “answer engines,” which require a different strategy and set of ingredients for success. This strategy has come to be known as AEO, or “answer engine optimization”.”

There’s a raft of tip sheets and detailed articles on this topic for those new to this topic. In one of them, Bryson Meunier, SEO Director at Vivid Seats, recently outlined 12 recommendations in an article for Search Engine Land, advising: “Focus first on optimizing for conversational keywords and implement Actions for Google to get more traffic from voice search.”

2. Harness opportunities for content innovation and delivery

To date, most activity on smart speakers tends to be functional. Consumers typically ask for a weather updates, jokes, or travel directions. consumption of news content and podcast playback typically fall much lower on the list. But that doesn’t mean that publishers and media companies are not experimenting with content and new interactive formats for these platforms.

Publishers from NPR to Reuters, the New York Times and CNN, as well as local news providers such as the TennesseanIndyStar, and Texas Tribune, are all creating short audio briefings designed to be heard on smart speakers. Apple’s new HomePod will feature content from the Washington Post by default.

Alongside more broadcast-like content delivery, 2018’s Digital News Report noted how “media companies like Quartz are also developing apps (or ‘skills’ as they are known) that allow conversational interaction with the devices.” One such experiment, produced by the BBC in late 2017, featured a 20-minute “interactive science fiction comedy story” for Amazon Alexa and Google Home – called The Inspection Chamber – which encouraged listened to “play your part through voice interactions.”

And in April 2018, Netflix launched an interactive audio drama to promote its Lost in Space reboot. According to Variety: “The audio adventure, which lasts between five and six minutes, features a branched narrative and multiple-choice questions and answers. It was recorded with participation of the show’s cast, and produced in collaboration between Netflix and Google.”

These examples show how international, national, and local players across the media spectrum are experimenting with content being heard through smart speakers.

3. Explore opportunities for consumers to make voice-activated purchases

Jeff Malmad, managing director, Head of Life+, for WPP Group’s Mindshare North America, argued at the Mobile Marketing Association’s Impact conference earlier this year that “depending on your marketing category… 30 percent of your sales will be from incidental loyalty, based on voice searches, and based on voice purchases.”

Although this functionality perhaps lends itself more naturally to other products (Malmad highlighted an advert featuring a couple placing their usual Starbucks order through the Alexa app in their Ford car), voice shopping is predicted to be a $40 billion market by 2022. That’s up from just $2 billion today.

It could be used by media companies for on-going, or one-off, subscriptions, memberships, micropayments, downloads, or access to exclusive content.

Either way, this is an emerging vertical which – like voice technology per se – that cannot be overlooked.

4. Determine if there are new revenue opportunities

Although the eCommerce functionality of this technology remains relatively nascent, companies like CNBC are exploringmore traditional advertising packages, such as sponsorships, on these platforms.

John Trimble chief revenue officer of Pandora, has highlighted the advertising potential, given the ability of consumers to respond to audio messages in a manner not previously possible. As he wrote in Recode earlier this year:

“Radio ads have been around since the days of Marconi, but listeners to this day still can’t respond to an ad the way an Alexa user can interact directly with the device.”

That this happens in an increasingly screen-free environment will require creative solutions in order to unlock the commercial opportunities. Gartner has predicted that “by 2020, 30 percent of web browsing sessions will be done without a screen.”

Screen-less, voice-only platforms, will not only represent a very different way for consumers to find information online. They will also disrupt a number of traditional online advertising models too.

Looking ahead

This technology is still relatively nascent, but it’s playing out against a wider background whereby voice technology is becoming increasingly integrated into our lives. And, in case you’re not yet convinced that the voice market merits your attention, keep in mind that this trend is global and impacting devices of all kinds.

Alibaba sold 1 million Tmall Genie X1 smart speakers in the last four months of 2017, a device they plan to install in 100,000 Marriott hotel rooms across China. And closer to home, Roku TV’s will soon feature built in voice assistants, while Dish already allows you to search and surf for content using voice functionality in their TV remote control.  In the era of the Internet of Things, domestic appliances – such as those from Whirlpool –  can already be managed by Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.

Undoubtedly, voice technology will become all-pervasive. In November, Amazon announced Alexa for Business, “a new service that enables businesses and organizations to bring Alexa into the workplace at scale.” This is just one way that voice-triggered activities – from search through to content discovery and shopping – will move out of the home and into the office and car.

Voice search and screen-less content consumption are areas that are already beginning to take off. And this trend will increasingly impact media and information habits in the future. As a result, understanding the potential – and pitfalls – of this technology is an area that brands and publishers need to be exploring, if they aren’t already.

By Damian Radcliffe, Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism–University of Oregon

Republished with kind permission of Digital Content Next, advancing the future of trusted content