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How Voice-Activation Is Becoming The New ‘Touch’

When the iPhone debuted 10 years ago, the touchscreen changed the way consumers use tech. Now, Pandora's Keri Degroote says, voice is poised to do the same.

The adoption rate of smart speakers with voice assistants grew 140 percent from 2015 to 2016, according to a survey from music streaming service Pandora and Edison Research.

In particular, Pandora usage on these devices grew by a 282 percent year-over-year.

Wit that growth in mind, Pandora sought to get a sense of how the rise of devices such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, and Microsoft’s Cortana is opening up new opportunities for marketers to reach multiple household members in contextually relevant ways they couldn’t before.

The research bears out much of what NPR found in its recent examination of the role of voice-activation and consumers’ media usage. Roughly 65 percent of people who own an Amazon Echo or Google Home can’t imagine to going back to the days before they had a smart speaker, and 42 percent of that group say the voice-activated devices have quickly become “essential” to their lives, NPR’s research said.

Among the obvious points both NPR and Pandora’s separate studies found: listening to music was the initial reason people sought these devices for. But the use cases of have quickly mushroomed.

With Apple emphasizing entertainment as part of its marketing behind its Siri-powered smart speaker, Homepod — which is set to be released in December — the next phase of audio and voice activation may be only just emerging. But it is emerging at a rapid rate.

From Touch To Talking

As Keri Degroote, vice president of research and analytics at Pandora, notes,  it is critical for brands to align their strategies accordingly.

“Voice-activated-everything is spreading like wildfire,”Degroote says. “From what we’ve seen, yes Smart Speakers have just surpassed any fad or experimental phase. The demographics of users (particularly the high proportion of 55+) suggest that this is no longer early adopters, but has hit the mass market. And the frequency with which these devices are used amongst consumers show the true value of bringing them into their homes.”

There is still room to grow in terms of users, functionality and integration – look back on the iPhone’s launch a little over 10 years ago, she adds.

“What brand can you name that doesn’t have a presence on the app store these days?” Degroote says. “And how many brands wish they were on the top of app-store charts in the early days to secure that prime home-screen positioning? It is important brands don’t play catch up in two- or three years’ time and find themselves in the same position.”

Still, Larry Rosin, president of Edison Research, notes that the adoption curve may be different from some of the other technologies and platforms that consumers have popularized since the iPhone emerged.

For example, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, as well as fitness trackers and wearables, have tended to be driven first by younger tech aficionados. The rise of voice-activation has been driven by people who are older and more affluent.

“This is not just a ‘young people’s technology’ like video gaming, for example. It’s much broader in terms of its appeal. So the adoption curve is going to be a bit different than with previous technologies. To start, connected home devices are not the cheapest products. But it depends on how you consider them: if you think of them as a computer, they’re generally not that expensive. If you think of them as a novelty, then you might consider them a bit pricey. For people who can afford these devices, voice-activated devices are quite practical.”

Here are some of the topline findings of Pandora’s study, which was based on interviews with 444 U.S. adults who own a voice-activated smart speaker: Amazon Echo, Dot, Tap, or Google Home:

  • Voice-enabled home devices are creating a rise in audio consumption and music. On a weekly basis, 69 percent of people are regularly tuning into audio content on their voice-enabled smart speakers with 58 percent tuning into music for an average of 4 hours and 34 minutes per week.
  • We now search, make inquiries and buy with our voices. 46 percent of people are checking the weather, 42 percent get a joke, “Easter egg” or converse, and 40 percent are asking general questions on where to find a store or how to cook a particular recipe. 29 percent plan to make purchases with top items being technology, household goods and beauty products.
  • Adoption is beyond fast. While it took many years for there to be multiple TVs in the home, 1 out of 3 people already have 2 or more voice-enabled devices across different rooms in their home.
  • These devices are not just for the young and tech-savvy. 40 percent of these device owners are between the ages of 35-54 with younger Gen Z and Millennials, 18-34 (35 percent) coming in second (35 percent). 
  • Voice-activated devices are also social. 77 percent of people are listening to music on these devices with friends and family: creating new ways for advertisers to engage multiple members of the household at home.

What Does Voice Mean For Marketers?

When looking at the the most popular usage patterns Pandora’s study notes, it’s worth considering whether voice-activation is for all marketers — or just some who can meet a direct question-and-answer response that depends on a certain immediate need.

Can voice-activated assistants have greater impact on the purchase a consumer packaged goods product, as opposed to, say, buy a car or real estate?

“From a short-term perspective, yes it appears that brands that serve immediate needs (like CPG products) are best positioned to capitalize on Smart Speakers,” says Degroote. “This is another way of search functionality, only this time done through voice. Users are already turning to smart speakers and voice assistants to talk, search, entertain, shop, etc in moments where they may have used a screen in the past.

“However, data from a follow up study on the Pandora Soundboard suggests that Voice Assistants are going to be key referral sources for a whole range of consumer needs,” she adds.

Around 60 percent said that they’ll use Smart Speakers to find stores and business locations, suggest entertainment content like TV shows and movies, and make restaurant recommendations in the future.

“We can easily see this evolving to Voice Assistants being the first ‘port-of-call’ on how to maximize tax deductions, or develop a training routine or physiotherapy exercises –a perfect opportunity for more service-based industries to deliver their messaging and offer their services to consumers,” Degroote says.

Advertising And The Company Of Others

As Pandora’s research suggests, the use of voice may have a more social aspect to it as opposed to the smartphone, which has come to represent the most personal of “personal computing.”

Does that mean the advertising we’re used to seeing on mobile and social channels will need to reflect that the voice-activation experience is not necessarily “solo.” What impact is that social aspect likely to have — or should have — on marketing strategies aimed at leveraging smart speakers?

“Brands need to be aware of messaging to consumers on Smart Speakers, or any Connected Home device for that matter (Smart TVs, Fridges, Games Consoles),” Degroote says. “On Pandora, the majority of our listening is on mobile which usually dictates a one-to-one creative approach.”

If a listener is in their car listening via their Connected Dash, the situation changes — they could be with their children or by themselves, which may change the way a brand wants to communicate with them and “show them they know them,” Degroote notes.

“We estimate that over 50 percent of listening via Connected Home devices is done in the company of others, which gives brands the opportunity to reach many listeners at once during a number of moments and occasions,” she adds. “Being able to serve a contextual message to a father playing with his kids on the weekend, or a couple hosting a dinner party for their old college friends on Saturday night provides marketers a great opportunity to reach consumers at key moments that create relevance for their products.”

For Edison’s Rosin, who notes he’s something of an outlier among digital assistant owners: he has one voice-activated device in his kitchen and one in his bedroom. Most people tend to have them in their living room. And that will have a significant affect in the experience that people expect from the media and ads they receive from these devices.

“There is plenty of evidence that most people are using these devices while they’re together, as opposed to being alone,” Rosin says. “Audio has been hot for awhile, and the combination of audio and shared interactivity, suggests that voice and listening is only going to become more central in the way people use computers.”