Almost every day we hear talk about voice technology; especially so here in Italy, given that Amazon has just introduced Alexa to this market.
Those involved in the worlds of media and communication have been hearing talk of this technology for some time, of course, while the arrival of new devices has stimulated the curiosity of non-professionals around the world, too.
Yet it’s important to bear in mind, what with all the hype, that these new platforms are still at an embryonic phase. We could compare them, for instance, to Facebook back at the end of 2006: rich in potential, freely accessible, but with an important baggage of details still to be worked through. Among these, the modalities of interaction and content discovery and, of course, the thorny issue of monetisation. Continuing the parallel, back in 2006, Facebook did not have brand pages: it was a desktop platform, almost entirely text-based and with no news feed.
This example serves to show how substantial evolutions can take place in a relatively short space of time. Currently, interest in voice is clear and given that experimentation from brands moves in parallel with society itself, it is important to consider how brands can use this channel to reach people in an interesting, useful and engaging way.
The move towards ‘native’ formats
Stories and posts - the social formats most used by brands and by people thus far - have already changed the way companies interact with us. Rather than generating broadcast-style content repeated time and again, we are increasingly seeing a more continuous relationship between brands and their audiences, based on an editorial or more ‘native’ approach.
Voice technology is likely to form an important part of this new way of conceiving and creating content. The so-called "skills", which allow Alexa to carry out tasks and activities, can be developed by brands who seek to supply relevant and engaging content based on a specific context, constantly updated.
The key lies in the activation
A substantial difference when it comes to voice versus other media, however, lies in its activation. For stories and posts on more traditional social channels, it is brands which activate the conversation. For voice technology, it is the audience, the individual, which activates the interaction, based on specific needs at a moment in time. For instance, the question, "Alexa, what is the news today?" leads to the latest, updated content being streamed from Sky or La Repubblica, as preferred by the user.
Voice is unique in terms of this level of personalisation. Targeting can be achieved by a single skill almost entirely on the basis of previous interactions, given that the brand can learn from the questions it receives, day after day.
The private and conversational aspect is different, too. For Alexa, individuals can interact with the skill without this content being public. Contrary to what happens when posting comments on other platforms, which are then accessible to anyone who participates in the conversation.
Voice moves brands further away from linear, broadcast narration and storytelling
To make another parallel, if stories and posts are like cinema, then voice technologies can be seen as similar to video games, whereby communication, messaging and targeting is entrusted to a series of interactions rather than to a linear narration. This is arguably one of the most compelling facets of this emerging media choice for advertisers.
Looking at the current application of skills, it is, above all else, the functional aspect that pushes people to engage in an interaction: if they want to know the news or listen a song or to ask for information. The content will be increasingly relevant and allow users to perform a task, as illustrated already by the first forays into voice from a range of brands, from Purina, to Tide, Johnnie Walker and Patrón – whether offering step by step instructions on how to remove a stain; or advice on the perfect dog breed for your lifestyle; or how to make your cocktail based on the ingredients you already have at home.
The future of voice is full of possibilities and far from defined but we have already glimpsed interesting possibilities for brands. This technology is yet another area in which companies can form part of society, contributing to the conversations of communities, and building, with each interaction, an identity in the eyes of the people who choose to engage with them, all around the world.
Stefano Maggi is co-founder and chief executive of We Are Social in Italy and Spain