Good for your word: Marketing to the voice-first shopper

Voice interfaces promise major shortcuts for customers, from streamlined security checks to brand-less shopping sprees, leading to a complete rethink of marketing. Are you ready for the voice-first revolution?

We’re getting a lot more vocal. It’s five years since Siri’s original release on the iPhone 4S and voice-first technology is causing a major shift in how we search, shop and pay for products and services. The experience is only getting better too. Our voices are proving to be the most natural entry point to our most loved services and the error rate in speech-recognition has improved dramatically. It’s now on a par with human accuracy at around 5%.

It signals the nail in the coffin for paper payments. Nearly 9 out of every 10 transactions in the UK are now electronic.

The Amazon Echo has been the game changer.

Despite over 1 billion iPhones having been sold loaded with Siri, it’s Amazon’s “personal assistant” Alexa that is taking voice-first marketing into the mainstream. Last week the Echo Dot was crowned the most popular item bought during Amazon Prime Day. Actual sales numbers aren’t public but it’s estimated the smart speaker is now in the homes of 35 million customers. Unlike the iPhone, Alexa has only a single entry point (your voice) to a whole world of services.

You can now order a Dominos or Uber without lifting a finger, organise the day ahead via your personal assistant, have your Kindle books read to you and automate your living room ready for your return from work. However, despite their novelty, these remain quite basic chores. We’re still only scratching the surface of voice interaction.

Although users have access to over 10,000 Amazon Echo skills, the choice seems to be overwhelming at first and underwhelming once trialed. Most skills are abandoned after a single use. Over half of our interactions with voice applications are for streaming entertainment services we’re already subscribed to and the next most popular use is to check the weather. But it won’t be long until voice interactions tempt us out of our comfort zone and cause us to open our wallets. The early days of online shopping was no different.

Voice will transform marketing as we know it.

Future generations will have an entirely different set of expectations for marketing to contend with. Advertising can no longer be intrusive and untargeted. Voice search is an ecosystem not a screen and can no longer return pages of possibilities preceded by paid answers. Free platforms will have to find new ways to monetise our attention. Purchases will be blind, predictable and increasingly brand-less. Most marketing departments aren’t prepared for this new world.

It will make the mundane interesting again.

Every monopoly or taken-for-granted customer experience is now up for grabs. Take posting parcels and the long queue in the post office during your lunch break. Hopefully it’ll soon be a thing of the past. The US Postal Service is prototyping a ‘Voice Stamp’ replacement that repurposes their iconic blue collection boxes. The smart readers could one day even print address labels dictated by the sender. Brands on auto-pilot will need to wake up.

Easier banking via selfies and sound.

Old payment systems of passwords, pins and memorable words slow down the security process or can bring them to a grinding halt altogether. According to challenger bank Atom, the average person has to remember 19 passwords for everyday life, meaning a good number aren’t anywhere near strong enough. Over the years this has resulted in the need for customers to jump through more and more hoops to even access their balance. Passwords are also more vulnerable to hacking than biometrics. Our voices are made up of 100 non-transferable characteristics that can facilitate speedy payment of spontaneous purchases.

Present your face to view your balance. Or say a few words to transfer some money. We want to ensure the registration and log in process of banking is as simple, and most importantly, safe as possible.

Voice banking isn’t exclusive to Atom with Santander and a host of US banks also allowing customers to use speech to carry out key actions on their account.

Not everybody is comfortable shopping in the dark.

It’s only natural to tread with caution into bigger purchases. That’s why the total absence of any visuals for voice-first devices limits their sales ability for all but commodity goods for most people. The Amazon Echo Show (with screen) might just be the gateway into mainstream adoption of voice commerce.

Released in the US on June 28, the Echo Show reintroduces the visual element of any interaction. So news briefings are accompanied by videos, knocks at the door have a friendly face, memories have photos and potential purchases include 360° tours. All you need to do is ask.

Watermarking peer-to-peer transactions.

We all occasionally need to lend money or split the tab on a restaurant bill. That’s a problem now solved. PayPal has joined forces with Apple to enable payments via Siri and Google’s new payment API enables the same via Google Assistant. It’s certainly useful but not entirely groundbreaking.

Where it gets interesting is the ability of audio watermarks to add an untouchable verification layer to all types of exchanges between people. Protecting your IP has never been easier. Utilising the lightweight, secure, and publicly-distributed properties of blockchains, audio traces could replace the manual and cumbersome process of verifying witness footage for news publishers, improve the rights management of musicians and ensure digital artists are paid their dues. Financial services will be transformed too, with greater trust in transactions between peers eliminating the need for rating agency approvals or credit rating checks. Audio watermarks could be the backbone for a thriving sharing economy to disrupt just about every industry.

Proof of purchase at the point of redemption.

We’ve all had that last-minute panic of not being able to find your tickets for a train journey or gig. Electronic tickets with QR codes are a step in the right direction but they can still leave you fumbling around to find them on your phone.

Ticketmaster has announced it is launching a passive phone ticketing that automatically checks people into events using ultrasonic audio. If you’ve bought at ticket in advance your phone will transmit an audio signal to the doorman who can wave you in. It also does away with ticket touts and fraudulent sellers. You’ll be pleased to hear the smart whistle is inaudible to people!

Just as online and mobile shopping caught many brands napping, marketers will need to make sense of voice commerce quickly as those issuing the hardware - Amazon, Apple and Google - also control the interfaces and will become impossible to catch.

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