NEW YORK — Voice technology powered by assistants like Amazon Alexa presents brands with unprecedented opportunities to reach consumers in the home, in their vehicles and generally on-the-go through mobile. Or at least it will, marketers said at Advertising Week in a discussion on how the current limitations in the field can sometimes lead voice to create more problems than it solves.

“The idea of a hands-free UI does feel really natural for people,” Elliott Breece, product manager at Google and YouTube, told a crowd at the annual trade show. “That doesn’t mean we always get it right.” 

Breece, who spoke on a panel Tuesday that included executives from Universal Music Group (UMG), American Express and the ad agency Havas, noted that voice interfaces are naturally more conversational than web search engines, and open new possibilities when it comes to targeting a message at a user.

“We’re seeing a lot of requests into smart speakers being mood and activity-related, which has created an urgency for us to sort of articulate these audio and lifestyle characteristics of our artists and their music,” said UMG’s EVP of Content Strategy and Operations Barak Moffitt, who moderated the panel.

However, the added layer of complexity and frequent lack of a screen on voice interfaces can make it difficult for the technology to correct itself for latencies or when it diverges off path. Like Breece, other panelists cautioned that marketers must not think of voice as just another ad-supported digital channel, while still keeping in mind that it ultimately must offer utility in the way traditional search does.

“You have to think about how your brand voice extends into a real voice experience,” said Jason Jercinovic, global head of innovation at Havas. “[It] can’t just be like an impression or an interruption — it has to fulfill a utility, a functional benefit to do something.”

“When it goes wrong, it’s painful,” he added.

Close to home

Voice assistants, which first hit the mainstream through Apple’s introduction of Siri to its iPhone products in 2011, are expected to see a rapid clip of adoption thanks to the burgeoning smart speaker market. Adobe earlier this month forecast that ownership of smart speakers like the Amazon Echo or Google Home will rise to about 48% of U.S. consumers after the holiday season this year, up from 32% in August.

More marketers are dabbling in the space, including American Express, which lets its members do things like pay their bills through Alexa. While some of these functions are fairly rudimentary, the “where” of voice is a potentially more exciting prospect for brands than the “what.” 

“We see voice as a technology and a platform that’s helping us to create this emotional connection by bringing us into the homes of our customers,” Stephanie Schultz, VP and head of emerging strategic partnerships at American Express, said. “But [we’re] starting out with some of those more simple tasks that we know are everyday, basic things that our customers need and want, and then continuing to test and learn and evolve from there.”

Other marketers on the panel, including UMG’s Moffitt, echoed Schultz on the emotional strengths of voice technology. At a time when more marketers are trying to shift their businesses to be purpose-led in order to drive value with increasingly conscious consumers, that resonance makes for opportunity.

“Our customers are living more purposefully, more globally and their personal and business lives are more intertwined now than ever before,” Schultz said. “That’s all interwoven seamlessly through technology and devices … voice is a way to help us make our customers’ lives easier.”

Personal versus private

Personalization, another theme at Advertising Week, is also a rich vein for voice platforms to tap into, since the assistants learn more with repeated use. For a company like Google, it can also link up its assistant to other channels that have pre-existing wells of information to draw from, such as its search engine.

“There’s an opportunity for brands to use that data that you have specifically inside of a voice interface because you’re in a logged-in state,” Havas’ Jercinovic said. “You’re able to really personalize that information.”

But amid discussions around voice’s growing ubiquity in the home were also ones around privacy, which remains a barrier to adoption for many consumers. About 48% of survey respondents report being concerned with privacy issues related to voice-activated devices like Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple HomePod, according to recent findings by researcher MusicWatch.

“If you use the data in the right way and deliver functional benefits, you will have deeper engagement,” Jercinovic said. “If you don’t — and we’re seeing some people not make the right decision in that regard — you’re potentially on the side of irrelevance.”

Voice devices’ presence in households also opens up questions around who can access them and share their information. Last year, Mattel notoriously had to scrap plans for a device for children, frequently described as an Amazon Alexa for kids, after being the target of controversy and mounting pressure from parent and privacy groups.

The toy maker’s Aristotle device was not mentioned on the Advertising Week panel, but the types of concerns that led to its cancellation were.

“We see a lot of use among families and among children, especially,” Breece said. To wrap up the panel, he added that marketers have to do a “better job understanding what to do with these public devices, and what personalization means on a semi-public device.”

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