Do you have ‘skills’? How will brands leverage smart speakers in the home?

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Will voice interaction prove more of a hit with users at home?

With the recent launch of Amazon Echo to join Apple’s Siri, Microsoft's Cordova and Google Home on the smart speaker market, we are, I believe, at the beginning of a revolution in voice-activated home devices.

Voice-activated personal assistants are not a new idea and are now a standard feature on most contemporary smartphones. However, while observing my non-techie wife and my kids interact with the Amazon Echo that now lives in my kitchen, I realised that people interact with this kind of technology at home in a very different way from how they would talk to their phones in public.

When you consider the money that Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Apple are putting behind this sort of technology (and you can bet that Microsoft and Apple will have home devices out soon enough too) there’s no doubt that this will be an interesting space over the next few years.

The fact that agencies are already starting to develop in-house capabilities around Alexa (the personal assistant that underpins the Amazon Echo) suggests that many brand marketers are keen to explore the potential of voice-interface technology in the home. Just as with six or seven years ago, when there was a sudden surge of brands creating apps, we can expect a similar spike of early adopter brands looking to develop custom ‘skills’ (the Amazon Echo version of apps) over the next 12 months.

In the case of Alexa, it’s fairly easy to develop skills, which Amazon Echo users can then simply find and activate for free. There are already a few thousand skills available. Yet, only a small percentage of those have become popular with users, e.g. skills for ordering courier services, taxis or home food home delivery. The majority of skills so far are experimental and of little real value to brand or user alike.

However, that will undoubtedly change and change quickly. As with apps before, things will go mad over the next couple of years but the winners will be those that use proper AI to crack or significantly improve the natural language understanding of the voice-interface in the long run. Lots of tools will claim to be AI based when they are not; they may have a clever algorithm at their heart but they’re not proper AI machine learning.

The winning brands will be those who deliver skills that are repeatedly useful and usuable, rather than a one-off gimmick or PR exercise. The brands who previously rushed to produce apps that were ultimately unsuccessful have hopefully learned not to repeat the same mistakes with skills. The intimate nature of the voice-interface means that brands who deliver a poor skill risk doing far more damage to their brand than those who produce no skill at all.

For those who get it right, however, the potential is huge. While you might look at Echo first, the services could be built so that they could be extended to other hardware in the future. For example, you might have to have your ecommerce integrated with Amazon Payments but you can then enable ecommerce through Alexa (out of the box you can add stuff to wish-lists or order direct from Amazon by giving Alexa your pin to confirm any transaction).

That said, there will be challenges along the way, with cybersecurity remaining a very hot topic. Connected devices such as web cams, TVs, home security systems and so on have already been identified as soft targets for malicious hackers, so smart speakers (which record a huge amount of user information) represent another potential weakness in the network for hackers to exploits. There are also new debates to be had around data security and whether the growing number of users truly understand the nature of the interaction and the wealth of data they are potentially giving up.

Reservations aside, expect a huge uptake in the usage of smart speakers over the next 12-18 months and an equivalent spike in the number of brands looking to develop their own ‘skills’. The brands who truly integrate AI-enabled voice interaction into customer journeys, rather than treat it as a standalone gimmick or PR opportunity, will be the ones to capitalise on the exciting opportunities and added value that smart speakers enable.

James Cannings is co-founder of MMT Digital.

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