Beyond the hype of voice search

Drawing on our latest research, Savvy Insight Director Alastair Lockhart shares some key findings and Savvy’s point of view on the evolving role of voice technology in marketing. The research reported is from Savvy’s Shopper Panel – a monthly online survey of a representative sample of 1,000 consumers.

Over the past couple of years, we have reported the rapid rise in adoption of voice devices, with a combination of product innovation and heavy price discounting ensuring a sharp increase in household penetration. As it stands today 29% of UK homes have a voice assistant – up from 25% in July 2018 and 7% in July 2017. All the evidence suggests that voice will gain further traction over the next few years.

Percentage of UK Homes with a Voice Assistant
July 2017 - 7%
March 2019 - 29%
Source: Savvy Shopper Panel

While the range of uses of voice devices remains fairly limited – largely restricted to listening to music, asking questions and checking the weather – appeal of potential features is very high. According to Savvy’s recent research, 82% of shoppers who own a voice assistant find the idea of being able to look up food recipe recommendations appealing, while the same proportion like the idea of getting recipe recommendations based on the contents of their fridge. 75% would like to be able to get product reviews and 77% say the ability to control their heating by voice is appealing.

From a marketing perspective the technology has considerable commercial potential since it is a highly convenient touchpoint which is accessible from almost anywhere including, crucially, inside shoppers’ homes. This makes it suitable not only for inspiring and educating consumers, but as a means to transact with them conveniently at a key point of consumption.

It is hardly surprising that the majority of marketers are at least considering the role voice could play in their marketing strategies.

The reality however is that there is a lot of hype out there and for many it is not clear precisely what the opportunity is or where it lies. It is important to understand some of the limitations of voice as a marketing tool in order to take advantage of its potential effectively.

The immediate limitation most people associate with voice is the accuracy in recognition of speech. Most of us can share frustrating (and sometimes amusing) examples of times when Alexa has misinterpreted a command. There is no question it’s not perfect, but it’s improving all the time. Google currently claims accuracy of 95% which, given regional dialects and often noisy environments, is impressive. We would suggest that, at the current pace of development, recognition accuracy is unlikely to be a major obstacle for marketers soon.

Appeal of potential voice features
Recipe recommendations - 82%
Control heating - 77%
Product reviews - 75%
Source: Savvy Shopper Panel

Perhaps the most fundamental limitation of voice assistants is based on the very nature of voice communication – verbally, information can only be communicated in a linear manner, word by word. Unlike traditional web search where a user is presented with many responses on-screen by a search engine, voice only works at its best when a query or search has a single and precise response. For example, ‘Alexa, what time does Foot Locker’s Manchester store close today?’ is ideally suited to a verbal response as there is only one answer to the question. However, consider the question ‘Alexa, what sport retailers are there in Manchester?’. The response to that can’t really be communicated effectively by voice as there are many possible answers.

This means that at a fundamental level voice is great for controlling devices, repeating tasks and answering questions where there is one clear answer. Where more complex responses are needed or where there is a need for the user to make a final decision, voice might not be the answer. Of course, artificial intelligence and machine learning have a role to play here, as they have the potential to select the most appropriate response from a number of search results, based on factors such as the user’s profile and previous behaviour. For example, there are many chicken recipes out there, but artificial intelligence can suggest a couple it thinks you might like. Voice assistants with screens also go a long way to address this problem, as they can display a short list of responses from which the user can make a final decision.

Another major consideration for brands is working out the best way to implement a voice strategy. This is not always straightforward as voice SEO optimisation, like standard SEO, is tricky. While brands and retailers with deeper pockets can develop and distribute Alexa Skills and Google Actions, for smaller brands this is often not a viable option. Developing Skills and Actions is not particularly expensive or difficult, however like with smartphone apps the difficulty is to encourage shoppers to download them. We suggest that often the best solution to get voice capability to market is to partner with existing Skills and Actions which are already widely distributed.

Outlook

Whether claims, such as that voice will account for half of searches by 2022, will turn out to be correct is yet to be seen. However, we have no doubt that the role of voice in day-to-day life will increase substantially. Given falling device prices, improving speech recognition and a growing list of tasks voice assistants can complete, we expect that household penetration of standalone devices will reach 35% by the end of 2019. And this is only the tip of the iceberg as the technology is integrated into more devices, apps and vehicles.

Consider for example that Google has incorporated voice technology into Google Maps and most Android phones. It has also launched an iOS companion app. In addition, we are seeing a growing list of appliances and vehicles that have Alexa and Google voice technology built in. Take this into account and it’s easy to see how voice assistants will soon become ubiquitously available. Indeed, we find in our research that 46% of UK consumers are currently aware that they own a device with built-in voice capability, even if they don’t use it at present.

Perhaps more important than the spread of the technology to voice’s success will be the growing willingness of people to use it. We find that older consumers in particular feel awkward talking to voice assistants. But this is changing. As devices are becoming more useful, people of all ages are becoming happier to use them and we already see how voice is becoming a more integral part of a growing number of people’s day-to-day lives. We also have a new generation of consumers set to become adults over the next few years – Gen Z – a group of people who have been brought up with connected technology and feel comfortable communicating with it in many ways.

For marketers we suggest a considered approach. Voice is not a silver bullet, but it has a role as part of a broader channel strategy. An understanding of voice SEO will be essential to make sure brands are represented correctly. And while it is not possible for all brands to develop and deploy successful Skills and Actions, there are many partnerships that can be established as a useful starting point when planning the implementation of voice campaigns.

As a final point, it is also essential when planning voice campaigns that the consumer or shopper is placed at the centre of the strategy. People do not set out to learn about brands – they want to solve problems and will be attracted to use voice when the benefit to them is clear and the user experience is simple.

We expect 2019 will be a critical year for voice where the hype and forecasts start to be replaced with facts, case studies and best practice. What is important now is that brands, big and small, understand the technology, what’s possible and have a strategy to include voice in their channel mix.