There are few electronic devices with which you cannot order a Domino’s pizza. When the craving hits, you can place an order via Twitter, Slack, Facebook Messenger, SMS, your tablet, your smartwatch, your smart TV, and even your app-enabled Ford. This year, the pizza monger added another ordering tool: If your home is one of the 20 million with a voice assistant, you can place a regular order through Alexa or Google Home. Just ask for a large extra-cheese within earshot, and voila—your pizza is in the works.
Amazon’s Alexa offers more than 25,000 skills—the set of actions that serve as applications for voice technology. Yet Domino’s is one of a relatively small number of brands that has seized the opportunity to enter your home by creating a skill of its own. Now that Amazon Echoes and Google Homes are in kitchens and living rooms across the country, they open a window into user behavior that marketers previously only dreamt of. But brands’ efforts to engage consumers directly via voice have been scattershot. The list of those that have tried is sparse: some banks; a couple of fast food chains; a few beauty companies; retailers here and there. Building a marketing plan for Alexa has been a risky venture. That’s because, when it comes to our virtual assistants, no one knows what the hell is going on.
But if 2017 was the year that Alexa hit the mainstream, 2018 will be the year that advertisers begin to take her seriously by investing time and money in figuring out how to make use of her. The shift toward a screenless, voice-first future has been slow and awkward. Without a playbook on how exactly to employ this technology, brands have been paralyzed. But the staying power of voice technologies is now universally accepted, and their ubiquity no longer belongs to a far-off future.
A few brands have already begun to infiltrate the space. On Alexa, you can order your regular Starbucks drink, call an Uber, or check the balance of your Capital One account. But soon competition will mount, the wheels will begin to turn, and the experimentation that’s already begun will spread, writ large, throughout the industry.
Amazon’s joke-telling, timer-setting unicorn of a product has become a standard device in homes across the country, and her audience is only growing. This holiday season alone, 12 million virtual assistants will be sold, according to audio advertising firm XAPPmedia. As companies race to catch up to the success of Amazon’s Alexa (Google has come the closest, though it still seems to be following Amazon’s lead), it’s becoming clear that the future is screenless. Alexa’s pervasiveness bring us closer to a new phase, in which the voice interface facilitates seamless interaction with the world around us. We have spent years with our heads down, buried in a rectangular, two-dimensional universe. We’re quickly moving toward a heads-up world, and Alexa is just beginning to prop up our chins.
But there’s a good reason that companies haven’t gotten in on the conversation. Alexa is young and confusing, and its invisible platform, which doesn’t have the universally understood directives (like, say, a back-button) that allow web pages to be easy for anyone to understand, makes it difficult for brands to get a lay of the land. To developers and consumers alike, Alexa is still an enigma. Though most Amazon Echo owners engage their device multiple times a day, they’re typically repeating the same three or four tasks, according to James McQuivey, a principal analyst for ForresterTech.
Even Amazon is continuing to figure out new uses for Alexa—just last month, the company launched a new initiative to adapt the tool for use at work. Cody Simms, a partner at the startup accelerator Techstars, predicts that the experimentation will continue until developers identify a transformative experience: something that shifts the technology from a toy to a powerful tool, the way search engines shaped the internet. “We’re still in the process right now of people even figuring out what those sort of killer experiences are,” Simms says. “We’re starting to see companies really experiment with interesting use cases around voice.”
Once brands do something innovative with a vocal interface, it’s hard for their peers to spot them and adapt. “It’s not like you can turn on the television on Thursday night and see what your competitor’s ads are like,” says McQuivey. Unlike the App Store, which allows you to see screenshots and features for each app, Alexa’s skills don’t offer much ability to explore. To access a bank’s skill, for instance, you have to have an account there. “No one really knows what else is going on here from any of their competitors, or any of their peers, or the brand leaders they want to follow,” McQuivey says. “It’s just making it all very murky.”
There’s another obstacle. Brands seeking to reach us on our devices have defaulted to the same method: interruption. But Amazon has already eliminated that option for Alexa—and wisely so. As users, we’ve been conditioned not to tolerate interruptions from our vocal assistants. Voice technology is designed to give us the information we want, when we want it. To build its critical mass, Amazon knows not to mess with a traditional ad. The first time Alexa piped up to tell you about something you didn’t ask for, the device would likely find a new home in your backyard.
That’s why, this spring, Amazon launched a restrictive ad policy that bans third-party ads from skills, unless those skills stream content. Instead, Amazon is encouraging innovations by subsidizing the developers themselves. (In a statement to Backchannel, Amazon explained that the approach “is focused on delivering a delightful experience for customers, and exploring ways for developers to monetize skills while maintaining the best possible experience for our customers.”)
That move was bad news for VoiceLabs, a company that launched the world’s first ad network for voice assistants. VoiceLabs’s experiment, called Sponsored Messaging, shut down shortly after Amazon’s policy change. The company’s CEO, Adam Marchick, believes that the many brands and developers who were interested in the network proves that the idea was good, even if the ecosystem didn’t support it. “I believe there will be advertising,” Marchick says. “But I believe that Amazon and Google will want it to be viewed as additional content, not pop-up ads. How that manifests will be a good question.”
So far, the only way in is to innovate. Without the option of interruption, third parties will have to create an experience of their own. Nithya Thadani, CEO of digital consultancy RAIN, says that to do so effectively, brands will have to identify a utility that they can provide users—be it entertainment, content, or a transaction. “You want to build a skill or a voice experience that’s going to bring people back,” she says. “And we have found that the ones that are providing real utility are the ones that do that.” Campbell’s Kitchen, for instance, provides dinner recipes that can be read aloud as you cook, while Tide’s can answer questions on how to get out the most persistent stains from clothing. These first iterations may not be sexy, but they lay a foundation for brands to navigate a new environment. Thadani likens this approach to the tortoise and the hare. “Brands who are really doing this well are kind of thinking about this as the long game and understanding that we’ve just hit the tip of the iceberg,” she says. “The goal right now is to learn as much as possible, build engagement with customers, and start to make connections…rather than rushing to a fully formed solution.”
Whereas Thadani didn’t detect an interest in voice from brands six months ago, “today it’s certainly on the radar of a lot of clients,” she says. Meanwhile, Pat Higbie, the CEO of XAPPmedia, has been busy experimenting with companies like Progressive and National Geographic. His company is broadening its services beyond audio advertising to “media and marketing powered by voice” by building experiences for brands. “You’ll see more and more monetization things happening in 2018,” Higbie says, “And then it will be a full-on gold rush in 2019.”
These early interactions won’t necessarily provide additional revenue, but for forward-thinking brands they do hold value. No matter how basic the interaction, connecting with a customer through voice provides a trove of data on how consumers are interacting with a product. Collecting information on how Alexa is used will provide a base of knowledge to position brands to build the more sophisticated tech still to come. Once that “killer experience” is discovered and the confusion clears, these early advertising settlers will be set up to succeed. Starbucks may not be able to take your extra-pump-of-this, hold-the-whip-on-that order via voice just yet, but by enabling, say, regular customers to order their usual venti mocha through their smart speakers, the company is beginning to understand where Starbucks fits into the conversation.
“The expectations shouldn’t be necessarily that any of these brands are going to hit a homerun,” says Aviel Ginzburg, the managing director of the Alexa Accelerator powered by Techstars. “But if you’re not figuring out how you work on this platform and in this environment, you may wake up at the end of the year saying, ‘Oh crap, somebody else just ate our lunch.’”
Mysterious as it may be, Alexa is a powerful tool for brands. The new reality—that voice interfaces are the future of technology—has set in. Ignoring the interface is no longer an option for companies that want to secure their spots in the screenless age. As the competition heats up, the confusion will start to melt. Brands can either get with it now, or get left behind.