The challenge of designing ad formats for the voice era

Voice user interfaces, or VUI (pronounced voo-ee, try it in your best French accent), are hot property right now. There doesn’t seem to be a week that goes by when we’re not reading about another Amazon Alexa brand partnership (most recently a Sonos integration), and with the launch of Apple’s answer to the Echo and Google’s Home Assistant coming in December, rest assured you’ll be hearing of friends’ misadventures with artificial intelligence over the Brussels sprouts before the year’s end.

As novel as it might be to interact with AI as though with a human (at a friend’s house last week, dear reader, his Google Assistant was asked if she could fart, to which she replied “no, but blame it on me if you need to”) there’s something deeper going on.

In 1984, building on work from various Californian institutions, Steve Jobs brought the graphical user interface (GUI) to the masses in the first Macintosh. This shift from interfacing through code to use of a mouse pointer made computing accessible to the everyman, changing the world forever. Since then, we’ve moved on from cursors to fingertips, an interaction model we now take for granted. Why is this timeline important? Because we’re on the brink of the next milestone in the evolution of human-computer interaction: voice.

Mass behavioural shifts in the way we use something so fundamental to our daily lives are nothing less than revolution. It is our business to understand what VUI means for the future of brand communications, and to do so, we must understand what it means for consumers.

Adoption will be contextually-stepped: scenarios of hands-free convenience will drive familiarity with the concept of interacting with machines using one’s voice. Cooking, driving, climbing a cliff face – wherever your hands are otherwise occupied, there is a place for VUI to flourish as your connection to the world. An estimated 50% of online searches will be performed using voice by 2020, with reports showing 40% of connected adults are already using voice search at least once a day. Coupling hands-tied scenarios with the pragmatism of the format (the average person can speak 150 words per minute, but type only 40) will slowly lead to mainstream use in a wider range of contexts.

Screens won’t disappear, and this won’t happen overnight. But it has already started, and we must think about connecting the dots with the visual worlds we create. With users performing voice search for everything from restaurants (proximity is 3x more important than with text search) to product research (~50% perform it using voice), brands must think on how to integrate into these increasingly important screenless moments. There’s one snag: currently no ad formats exist on these platforms (in April Amazon banned ads on Alexa altogether).

I’m willing to bet this will change in the next 24 months, as adoption increases (60% of current users have been using VUIs for less than a year). The inevitable arrival of ad formats, coupled with some creative thinking to make sure content sounds great from Siri means we can start building branded content that sounds as good as it looks. A recount of Guadaloupe’s sands whilst preparing a creole recipe delivered, all by voice of course, by a travel agent? Why not. Once there, she’s prompted to further interact with the brand: an opportunity to capture data and build deeper emotional connections. Link these factors to on-screen collateral (including optimisation of Google 'featured snippets'), and you’ve successfully built VUI into your integrated campaign.

When formats become available, we’ll be taking more than a few leaves out of the radio advertising guidebook, playing our 10-second spots between lines of a recipe, or delivering our jingles to top and tail weather reports just as we’ve done for decades on FM. As the most recent Rajar report showed us, radio is still going strong and consumers are ripe for engagement in an audio-only mindset. Moreover, digital listening racks up a whopping 511 million hours weekly,with DAB grabbing the lion’s share at 74% of that, proving users are already consuming audio-first content through digital mediums as standard.

Skeptical? It’s early days and although almost all smartphone users with a voice activated assistant have tried it at least once according to the Economist, that doesn’t mean they’re doing so daily. If you needed one more indicator VUIs are on the rise, consider Apple’s decision to include call functionality from its latest Watch. With a tiny screen and Siri fully integrated, the company that made touchscreen mainstream is, for the first time, advocating its users to go about their daily lives without their phones in hand.

By building brand communications into users’ VUI mental models, we make it par for the course. If we wait until an ad-free voice landscape has been established, it will be an assault on the senses many will not tolerate, and we risk our brands’ safety in doing so.

Gracie Page is creative technologist at Y&R London

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