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A week with Amazon's Alexa - what's the verdict?


By Lawrence Weber, partner

October 4, 2016 | 6 min read

“So is she is listening to EVERYTHING we say?”

Amazon Alexa

“Well technically yes, but she only takes notice when we say her name”

“So does she forget everything else she hears?”

“I hope for all our sakes- particularly mine- that she DOES sweetheart”

Half an hour in to our relationship with the Echo- relationship is the awkwardly truthful way to describe the level of my family’s interactions with it after just six days- my daughter asks this poignant question about our polite, always alert, helper. It’s not the concern for our privacy that stands out, it’s that she is already convinced that “it” is a “she”, that Echo is Alexa. Amazon’s anthropomorphic trick- borrowed from Siri and then bettered- appears to work.

Before it springs into life, the hardware sat in our Kitchen can be fairly easily, sized up and understood, like all devices ultimately can be.

Strangely compelling

It’s a sleekly designed Wi-Fi enabled speaker, the first piece of mass hardware truly powered by voice and the first skirmish in the battle between Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon to own your home.

Ask a question prefaced by “Alexa” however and the pretty faultless voice detection, the lights that swivel to towards you as you ask a question and then spin until your answer is conjured up, and Alexa’s “Uncanny Valley” crossing delivery, make owning an Echo a rewarding but somewhat eerie experience.

Eerie not just because the answering part feels a little too real, but- as my daughter points out- It is undeniably odd to know that there is an invisible something- someone?- listening to you in the first place. Something permanently poised to cross in and out of existence. Like a spirit visitation from a friendly but otherworldly librarian.

Although the sense of strangeness has yet to go- give it 2 weeks or a month though and I think it will diminish- a more positive sense of utility and entertainment is growing.

The magic ritual

My Autumn morning ritual of using Hive to turn on heat and light, National Rail to check my daily commute and an actual radio- look them up Millennials- to plunge into the world of John Humphries et al, is replaced with something, quicker, easier and more magical.

My daughter no longer needs to ask me the time, nor how Spurs did last night nor my permission to swap the Today programme for something with a more pronounced beat. Alexa will service those needs quickly and without sighing.

Alexa even has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Dad humour. Just say “Alexa, tell me a joke” and another part of your parental role is replaced.

What can brands learn?

This combination of hardware and software, art and science, of utility and personality, does creates an odd tension in the Echo. It’s these type of combinations though, that will help brands become relevant in the world of receding UI and growing AI.

Here are three things that brands can take from the early Alexa experience

Quality of Voice

Those brands that employ real voices or existing audio to deliver information requests- as opposed to allowing Alexa to read their digital content out loud- have a distinct advantage.

As an example, whereas Sky’s headlines are a bespoke 90 second package delivered by a news reader, The Guardian’s news update uses Alexa to read out long news stories from a data feed. As a result Sky do a much better job of getting and retaining your attention and provide a good benchmark to other brands. If Messenger Bots live or die on the quality of your copy, it’s the spoken voice your brand uses that will win on Echo and it’s soon to be launched competitive set.

Be early, be useful and be easy

Brands provide bespoke services to Echo owners, by means of “Skills”- simple phrases that allow Alexa to complete a task. In crowded markets- i.e. delivering daily news- brands need to become the first choice set via the Alexa App or have a memorable way of being summoned in the first place. Amazon may choose to introduce a searchable experience in the future, but for now the default choice on Echo is-at least for now- the wining choice.

The other point of differentiation is take the strategy of the best apps and concentrate on one very specific skill, for example in the US SyFy have a skill that allows you to catch up on recent episodes of your favourite shows, and use other media to drive people to it.

The magic of context

For all the slight creepiness there is a real sense of magic around Alexa. The other way for brands to stand out is to explore the possibilities of context. How can the location of someone, plus the time of day they are asking, help you tailor your content offering? What data can you take from other digital touchpoints to personalise the experience?

Whatever skills appear in the future and whatever challenges we as consumers choose to throw at Alexa, in our household at least, I am confident our silent, listening friend will be here to stay.

Lawrence Weber is Managing Partner Innovation at Karmarama, a member of the BIMA Exec and chair of the IPA BrandTech group.

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