Voice assistants are changing the way marketers reach customers, but other speech technologies are still the foundation of customer relations. It’s hard to think of an industry more transformed by technology than marketing. It was only a few short years ago that those of us who follow these sort of things were writing about the importance of a mobile-first content strategy. While those devices are still at the heart of most marketing strategies—and are also an important part of bringing speech technologies to the masses—other screenless devices are becoming an increasingly important part of the marketing mix.

Consumers Embrace Alexa, Siri, and All Their Friends 

The numbers are clear: People love their AI assistants. Search Engine People found that 60.5 million people in the U.S. already use digital assistants to conduct searches and place orders; 20% of mobile searches on Google are done using voice, and a whopping 87% of B2C marketers think virtual assistants and chatbots will play an integral role in consumer interaction by 2021.

The companies behind these digital assistants know that if they are going to continue their growth, they can’t rely on customer buy-in alone. They also need businesses to get behind the technology and create content for users. In February 2017, Amazon launched an Alexa hub for marketers in which brands find a link to the Alexa Skills Kit or an agency to help them.

“Technologies that revolutionize the way consumers interact with a marketplace also tend to reconfigure its dynamics and reshape the companies that sell into it,” writes Niraj Dawar in “Marketing in the Age of Alexa,” from the May/June 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review. He continues, “AI platforms and assistants will likewise change the game for brands and retailers, altering the relative power of players in the value chain and the underlying basis of competition.” But the path isn’t entirely clear for these technologies just yet.

Speed Bumps Still Ahead for Digital Assistants

Despite their growing popularity, there may be limitations inherent to digital assistants. “Virtual personal assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Home have become increasingly popular, but their ability to be used as marketing tools is limited,” says Scott Horn, formerly CMO of [24]7.ai, now with PrismHR. “Today, Alexa has the problem the Apple App Store initially had, where there are a lot of skills to choose from, and the things of value are buried. Companies need to find a way to stand out, and they need to provide consistency across different channels.”

“Companies will have to figure out whether these platforms are discovery platforms or browsing platforms, and then will they only be used for first-party ads or opened up to media buys?” Horn asks. Of course, where money is involved, companies tend to figure these things out. “If it’s the latter,” Horn continues, “they’ll have to determine the value of advertising. For example, if you ask, ‘Is there a great turkey recipe?’ the system could respond, ‘Actually, Whole Foods has a great deal going on right now.’ In the long term, Amazon knows what you’re buying, not just what you’re searching for. I could see Google selling search placements over these types of devices.”

Beyond Digital Assistants, Back to Basics

But when we talk about speech technologies, it isn’t all about digital assistants. “Even with the advent of digital channels, voice calls haven’t gone down because voice is the most natural way to communicate,” says Horn. Companies, he says, “are looking for a modern architecture that’s secure and integrates with the rest on their enterprise stack, including marketing.”

Horn believes that speech technologies will continue to transform based on consumer intents and expectations. He says, “Today, 50% of the phone calls we handle occur when someone’s been online, so that voice agents have a good idea of what the consumer has been trying to do. You will see more applications that combine voice and visual technology, so that agents can show offers to consumers if they’re near a screen such as a computer or smartphone. The user will be able to click on what they want while chatting with an agent.”

Chatbots Get Big(ger)

In 2018, hardly a day went by when we didn’t hear about the increasing popularity of chatbots. These increasingly prevalent tools will be working their way deeper into marketers’ bags of tricks.

“Chatbots will become more advanced and human than ever before. More retailers will be implementing conversational chatbots in 2019 to solve customer service issues without having to pass customers off to a real-life staffer,” says Patrick Welch, president and CMO of Bigtincan. “With chatbots able to engage customers seamlessly around the clock, they will completely change the online customer experience game, while saving time and money.”

Speech-related technologies are becoming an integral part of the customer journey and the overall digital experience, but that means marketers have to start thinking a bit differently. Optimizing content for a voice-first world is set to become marketers’ biggest challenge.    


This article originally appeared as “Market Spotlight: Marketing” in the Winter 2019 issue of Speech Technology magazine. For more articles about speech recognition, voice search, and the voice-first revolution, visit speechtechmag.com.