Voice is growing but it still faces significant barriers. Mubaloo's Marcus Carter looks at the challenges and opportunities of this new medium.

There are now a vast number of stats on the use of voice technology; 17% of internet users own a smart speaker (a further 34% are planning to purchase one,) 19% of UK mobile phone users have used a voice command on their phone in the last month. 35.8% of millennials use voice-enabled digital assistants at least once a month.

What I find most telling about these stats is what many commentators do not say; where are the daily usage stats (voice devices were not created to be used on a monthly basis)? What are users really engaging with voice to do? Where are the shopping stats that show digital assistants are helping consumers make regular purchases or purchase decisions?

I have been late to the party, getting my first Echo in early December 2018. I took my time getting it set up and did my research on what it could do and I now use it daily. The problem is that while I use it daily to set reminders and timers, so it is only really fulfilling some base needs. I did use the morning briefing for a while but have since gone back to my mobile to get the news or weather, as I have more control over how I select and consume the information I want.

Since purchasing the device, and given that I work in technology, I have spoken to numerous people about what they use Alexa for, what are the best skills to get, how can I get more out of this device?

I am not alone. Most people I have spoken to are struggling to adopt voice in a more meaningful way, although controlling smart devices was very popular. However, none that I have spoken to are using it for shopping on a regular basis or even the calendar functionality.

I was also surprised at the number of people that have unplugged their Alexa enabled devices; stating that it butted into conversations too often or started playing music in the early hours of the morning.

For me this highlighted that the value of having an echo was not greater than these relatively small, infrequent issues. While this all seems negative, what I did find interesting is that everyone I spoke to does want to use voice and they have invested both time and money into playing with (and showing off) the tech.

Alexa, let’s have a catch up…

41% of people who own a voice-activated speaker say it feels like talking to a friend or another person according to google. I, however, would not describe talking to a voice activated speaker as similar to speaking to a friend, and there is a very simple reason for this: context.

Albert Mehrabian has made a career looking at verbal vs non-verbal communication, and he stated that 7% of communications was verbal (again there are a large number of conflicting stats on this matter and 7% feels low to me - if I need to tell somebody something, the words I use seem important!). What is consistent is the importance of non-verbal communications such as tone of voice and body language. None of the current assistants, Alexa, Bixby, Cortana, Google or Siri, are able to take on this context (yet) and this limits the interaction that they can provide.

Even within verbal communication, people can jump between a number of conversations at the same time and understand the context of a conversation in light of what has been previously discussed. Again, this leads to much shorter engagements with smart devices; they are not part of the conversation, they are simply called upon to perform a task.

Alexa, show me…

Another issue is the lack of screen on many devices. This limits the ability for product discovery as most users are used to (and like) to see what they are going to purchase, or where they are going/staying - making it vital for many purchasing journeys.

The flip side to this is that voice can make repurchases seamless and will likely be very powerful in the purchasing of functional items where there are no emotional or social needs to consider such as toothbrushes, floor cleaner, weed killer and many FMCG products.

Alexa, how many friends do you have?

Onto the best part, Amazon has stated that it has now sold over 100 million devices with Alexa on board, and that they do not make a large number of the 150+ products that have Alexa integrated. They are also only one player in the market (representing around 60%) This means that voice has market penetration and therefore reach, even if we are still working out how best to use it.

Voice is also favoured by the younger generations, with more than 2 in 3 mobile voice users being between the ages of 16 and 34. To me this highlights the likely growth of voice in the coming years and the importance that brands need to place on this emerging channel.

So, what should brands be doing now?

Voice is still an emerging channel; while it has penetration that exceeds most forms of emerging tech, it needs time to reach maturity. Here are three ways that I believe companies should be looking at voice.

1. Making people’s life better

The first is to look at voice as you would any other existing technology: looking at the needs of your customers and assessing if there is a place for voice to improve the customer experience. Whether that’s through better search facilities or the creation of a new skill. If you have any form of automated call centre this would be a great place to start, as these are the earliest forms of voice interaction and they are still so poorly integrated with company data, but they need to provide a smooth experience.

2. Create your voice

There is no doubt in my mind that voice is not going to go away. Businesses are going to spend the next decade implementing voice technologies in many forms. Start to look at how your business is going to sound as part of your brand guidelines. Start to create the digital assets that you are going to need to allow the business to trial voice products and create marketing campaigns.

3. Differentiate the brand

Finally, voice can, like all emerging tech, be used as a differentiator. Look at how voice can be used to engage your audience with more interactive marketing campaigns. But do this with other goals in mind. Don’t treat campaigns with emerging tech like other campaigns you might run. Make sure you are learning how your customers engage with voice, don’t just chase reach. This about testing and learning how you can best use this technology with your audience and market.

For more, next month's (June) issue of Admap will be looking at voice.