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How the 'age of ask' is transforming mobile commerce

Building voice-based interfaces for Amazon’s digital assistant requires a keen understanding of customer needs.

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There are more than 10,000 Amazon Echo skills available for the Alexa digital assistant, according to recent reports — an impressive number for a platform that’s just over two-years-old. While brands’ opportunities on it are currently limited to repetitive, utilitarian tasks, more sophisticated engagements are on the way, meaning marketers should be thinking now about how to develop a successful skill.

Already, consumers can order Domino’s pizza, flowers and Uber rides, and dim household lights, among other things, using Alexa’s “skills” — the platform’s voice-prompted interfaces. Going forward, voice-driven interactions are shaping up as a key consumer engagement strategy across a wide array of actions and categories. There are challenges for brands — encouraging repeat use and discovery — but Amazon is trying to address these. For those looking to get into the space, the key is to provide a valuable experience, plan an overall conversational strategy and pinpoint ways to drive discovery across channels.

“You want to make a meaningful and human conversation with the consumer that enhances their life in some way,” said Greg Hedges, director of strategy at the digital consultancy Rain. “Consider Tide: They sell detergent, but they can provide value in the conversational space by connecting consumers to stain-removal information in their skill.

“Safeco, with its Insurance Advisor, skill can help demystify insurance while laying the foundation for connecting interested leads with its bevy of independent agents,” he said.

The age of ask

The rapid adoption of voice-driven digital assistants such as Alexa suggests we are entering the “age of ask” and brands that aren’t strategizing against it risk being locked out of a key 21st-century marketing channel, according to Hedges. Smartphones play a pivotal role for digital assistants, which can be accessed directly from a phone, while access from smart speakers or other devices is also typically managed through a phone.  

Through Alexa — named after the ancient library of Alexandria — consumers can search the internet for anything they’d ordinarily use a search engine for just by saying “Alexa,” “Amazon,” “Echo,” or “Computer” and then giving a command. So far, consumers aren’t waiting around for brands to get on board the digital assistant train. According to analytics firm and Amazon partner VoiceLabs, 24.5 million voice-first devices will ship this year, resulting in 33 million in circulation.

While Alexa is the current leader in digital assistants — in part because the platform makes it easy to purchase everyday items through Amazon — competitors like Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri and others are also highly focused on this area, underscoring its likely continued growth.

“Consumers are flocking to voice,” said Hedges. “By 2020 it’s projected that there will be over 1.83 billion people utilizing voice digital assistants.”

So how can brands leverage Amazon Skills, especially at this nascent stage? Early successes suggest that certain daily routines like ordering coffee or a ride-hailing car are a good match.

“If brands want to achieve deeper customer relationships via Alexa, they need to focus on being much more utilitarian,” said James McQuivey, vice president, principal analyst at Forrester Research. “High-frequency, repetition-ready brands like Uber and Starbucks are already there because they are in the few categories where transactions are easily routinized and reduced to a voice interface.”

Bringing value to voice-driven engagements

Brands in other categories that want to capitalize on Alexa’s popularity should focus on delivering relevant, wanted information as frequently and conveniently as possible.

“If you're a pharmacy, you can't do transactions like purchases on Alexa yet, but you can communicate key information like prescription readiness, CVS ExtraCare point balances, that kind of thing,” McQuivey said. “Financial services firms can communicate balances, confirm funds transfers or report changes in investment portfolios.”

Before diving in, brands should ask themselves whether or not consumers will want to ask Alexa for any information they may have to offer, said McQuivey.

“That's where the company has to be honest with itself about how necessary its information is to users, how likely users are to want that information through a voice interface and whether the voice commands people will have to memorize will be off-putting,” he said.

Currently, music streaming and books, home automation, games and entertainment, and news and podcasts dominate the voice-first market, according to VoiceLabs.

Cracking the code

While providing a valuable experience seems like straightforward enough advice, the vast majority of skills developers apparently haven’t cracked the code. According to VoiceLabs, when a user enables a new skill, there is just a 3% chance they’ll be active with it in the second week. In a report from January, when Amazon boasted around 7,000 skills, just 31% had more than one consumer review, according to VoiceLabs.

These are significant numbers given that the mere act of enabling a Skill means the brand has to overcome the first major hurdle inherent in the channel: awareness. The takeaway for marketers is that, when developing a skill, it is important to have a strategy for driving discovery and engagement from the initial stages.

“Voice platforms are still nascent, and discovery can be challenging,” said Hedges. “Brands need to invest in go-to-market strategies that will drive interested consumers to their voice experiences and maintain the level of awareness and re-engagement that will ultimately help them achieve their objectives in the space.”

Amazon recently unveiled two skills features that may help brands increase relevance and retention. One allows brands to ask consumers for their addresses and, as a result, deliver services specific to their locations. The second is a metrics dashboard that allows brands to track the number of customers using a skill, peak usage times, successful and failed outcomes and which skill features get the most use.

Any chance at successfully implementing an Amazon skill also requires a well thought out, multichannel campaign.

“The key is to understand the role the skill will play in the consumer journey,” said Tom Edwards, chief digital officer, Agency at Epsilon. “Voice experiences should be one touchpoint in a larger ecosystem. Media budget is practically required to get a desirable number of activations and engagements. It's not enough to just build a skill. You have to enhance discoverability across channels.”

Triggering notifications

Looking ahead, voice digital assistants are likely to become increasingly embedded in consumers’ lives, which is why it is important for brands to start understanding now how consumers engage with skills and what actions are most popular.

“The time will come soon where brands will get permission to communicate via Alexa without waiting for a voice command,” said Forrester’s McQuivey. “For example, if you gave your pharmacy permission to notify you via text message that a prescription is available, extending that permission to Alexa is simple.

“Alexa can already recognize the voice of its interlocutor, so adding a simple notification routine that, when I ask Alexa to play a song, [it] then checks to see if my specific voice has any notifications queued up is simple,” he said.

For example, individuals may use Alexa to get the weather forecast and in the same interaction get notified on behalf of CVS that their prescription is ready.

“That's the kind of ecosystem Alexa will eventually become and brands will play starring roles in your voice-based interface experience at that point,” said McQuivey. “That's mainly why brands are trying to get a foothold today, in anticipation of delivering more sophisticated value down the road.

“The big question yet to be seen is whether brands will have to pay Amazon an advertising-like fee for the privilege of being part of your intelligent-agent experience,” he said.

Filed Under: Marketing Mobile Commerce
Top image credit: Amazon.com