Voice Commerce in 2020

Charlie Menchaca
Managing Editor
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As voice assistants and enabled devices proliferate, they face lingering skepticism about their ability to drive sales.

It’s hard to go anywhere these days without hearing a digital assistant or seeing a smart speaker.

About 60 million U.S. adults, or 24% of those 18 and older, own a smart speaker, according to the latest Smart Audio Report survey completed in January by NPR and Edison Research. That’s up from 7% in 2017.

Yet questions remain about the actual growth and potential uses for voice commerce. In Path to Purchase IQ’s Trends Report (published in January), only 5.7% of the consumer product marketing executives surveyed said voice-enabled commerce would be the most valuable topic of interest for their organization in the coming year from a list of 13 topics (see page 26).

In our virtual roundtable discussion, experts Ella Duda, Bree Glaeser, Alister Greenwood, Jim Morgan and David Zimmerman share what’s working now in the space and what questions still remain about its future role in marketing.

How does your organization decide which skills/actions to develop for digital assistants?

GREENWOOD: Like all activation utilizing new capabilities, the skills/actions have to be aligned to brand plans as part of our integrated marketing campaigns. For instance, the “What’s new with Oreo?” skill we launched in 2019 was part of our Mystery Oreo flavor challenge.

Mondelez International released a skill for the Amazon Alexa voice assistant as part of the Mystery Oreo flavor challenge.

Have you seen an increase in consumers using voice-enabled technology to order products in recent years?

GREENWOOD: There has been an increase in interaction and usage of smart speakers for “voice ordering” over the last year, but not to the levels expected, causing some agencies to lower their forecast for growth and adoption of voice commerce.

ZIMMERMAN: Good digital marketing is always measurable. It’s what makes digital marketing more effective than traditional marketing. Without the data showing us how our content is actually being found using voice-enabled devices, we can only speculate about success.

What challenges still remain for brands to further adopt voice commerce?

ZIMMERMAN: I have three voice-enabled smart speakers in my home. I have one on my phone, too. However, I’m not convinced the average person is embracing the convenience of this technology yet. Brands that hope to use this channel might find their audience limited.

MORGAN: Without any detail to show what percentage of our sales is currently coming from voice, it’s hard to understand the size of the prize/potential opportunity. Without that, it’s hard to justify prioritizing time, funds and other organizational resources to develop this area further, especially with so many other potential e-commerce and omni-related areas to explore – and more are popping up every day.

GLAESER: They are not wrong [in thinking] that use of skills and actions is minimal in the CPG category and the ROI is not immediate. But virtual assistants should absolutely be included as part of a three-to-five-year omnichannel e-commerce strategy. And if you want to get it right, start now.

DUDA: One of the biggest challenges is to stand out and be identified when visual is not an option. If brands don’t put the work in to develop a proprietary vocal and sonic identity, they will easily be misunderstood and ultimately lost in the screenless internet. Another challenge is being accessible when the interaction is dominated by “Hey Google,” “Alexa” and “Siri.” Most of the time we make a purchase without a direct interaction with the vendor. How are brands going to emerge if consumers do not choose to go directly to the vendor (i.e., “Alexa, take me to H&M”)? And then once they successfully get around the branded voice assistants, how do they keep consumers coming back? They must think about the intention of the sonic and vocal experience.

Tide created premium content on Alexa and became a dominant source of information for category consumers who ask a question about laundry care, The Mars Agency’s Glaeser said.

What would you say is the opportunity cost of not pursuing voice shopping for brands?

GLAESER: The potential impact of ignoring this channel today is two-fold: one, you are neglecting your brand’s “sound and feel,” and two, you are not teaching the artificial intelligence to choose you. In my first point, not controlling how your brand presents to consumers through voice can have deleterious effects on sales performance in the channel in both the short- and long-term. You may find yourself playing catch-up to update your content to be voice-shopper friendly in a few years’ time. Many brands are still playing catch-up on the fundamentals of product detail pages on Amazon and other e-commerce retailers, which tangibly affects their sales compared to competitors who invested more attention earlier. The same thing will happen in the voice channel.

To my second point, many brands overlook the impact that building a skill or action can have on search. Just look at Tide, which has created premium laundry-care content on Alexa and therefore become a dominant default source of information for category consumers who ask a question about laundry care. (In a quick and anecdotal test I did, Tide won 30% of my laundry queries to Alexa). “Asking a question” of Alexa is the number-one use case for the assistant, so this represents a massively underleveraged opportunity for 99% of brands, especially if they have any connection to household activities. Remember that on Amazon you are marketing to a flywheel algorithm, and the sooner you start winning, the stronger you become.

What can brands do to instill trust, so that these consumers can feel more comfortable using voice-enabled technology to shop?

DUDA: Think hard and strategically about the voice that is chosen. Where voice-enabled technology is concerned, the sound is not a part of the message – it is the message. This may seem like a no-brainer, but brands that choose low-cost options (chatbots, synthetic voices), or that partner with an agency that does not have a deep process for the voice selection, will end up with cold, impersonal or cookie-cutter voices that do not instill trust nor bring any value to the brand. Also, work on the messaging of the answers to FAQs and common e-commerce interactions. The more content and the deeper the brand goes into the shopper experience, the more authentic and trustworthy the experience will be. Basically, the less foreign the interaction feels, the more comfortable consumers will be using voice-activation technology to shop.

ZIMMERMAN: Many podcasts are being consumed over voice devices. Building your brand by supporting podcasts will not only find it in front of voice-enabled devices but build a trustworthy brand in the consumers’ eyes (if only by repetition). You have the added advantage of being present on the same device that you hope customers will use to reach you.

GLAESER: Brands should be partnering with retailers to enhance the voice shopping experience. It makes sense for retailers to build voice applications (think Walmart and Kroger on Google, and even Amazon via Alexa natively), and for brands to contribute content and offers. Together the two parties can optimize the shopping experience and make it feel more like the other e-commerce channels [shoppers are] used to. They can also co-fund advertising that educates consumers on the benefits of this new behavior.

How will voice commerce continue to evolve in the near future?

ZIMMERMAN: The next step for voice-enabled commerce could be called “interruptive.” It might be when a device volunteers to a user some information they’ve not yet asked for. When your device notices it’s been a month since you last ordered cat litter, it could recommend that you place another order after it detects that you’re home for the day. This makes virtual assistants more proactive, which could be really helpful. Of course, this brings with it an entire new dimension of privacy problems. However, if we’ve learned anything about voice devices, it’s that people are willing to sacrifice privacy for convenience.

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