How Voice-Activation Is Becoming The New ‘Touch’

The adoption rate of smart speakers with voice assistants grew 140 percent from 2015 to 2016, according to a survey from music streaming service Pandora and Edison Research.

In particular, Pandora usage on these devices grew by a 282 percent year-over-year.

Wit that growth in mind, Pandora sought to get a sense of how the rise of devices such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, and Microsoft’s Cortana is opening up new opportunities for marketers to reach multiple household members in contextually relevant ways they couldn’t before.

The research bears out much of what NPR found in its recent examination of the role of voice-activation and consumers’ media usage. Roughly 65 percent of people who own an Amazon Echo or Google Home can’t imagine to going back to the days before they had a smart speaker, and 42 percent of that group say the voice-activated devices have quickly become “essential” to their lives, NPR’s research said.

Among the obvious points both NPR and Pandora’s separate studies found: listening to music was the initial reason people sought these devices for. But the use cases of have quickly mushroomed.

With Apple emphasizing entertainment as part of its marketing behind its Siri-powered smart speaker, Homepod — which is set to be released in December — the next phase of audio and voice activation may be only just emerging. But it is emerging at a rapid rate.

From Touch To Talking

As Keri Degroote, vice president of research and analytics at Pandora, notes,  it is critical for brands to align their strategies accordingly.

“Voice-activated-everything is spreading like wildfire,”Degroote says. “From what we’ve seen, yes Smart Speakers have just surpassed any fad or experimental phase. The demographics of users (particularly the high proportion of 55+) suggest that this is no longer early adopters, but has hit the mass market. And the frequency with which these devices are used amongst consumers show the true value of bringing them into their homes.”

There is still room to grow in terms of users, functionality and integration – look back on the iPhone’s launch a little over 10 years ago, she adds.

“What brand can you name that doesn’t have a presence on the app store these days?” Degroote says. “And how many brands wish they were on the top of app-store charts in the early days to secure that prime home-screen positioning? It is important brands don’t play catch up in two- or three years’ time and find themselves in the same position.”

Still, Larry Rosin, president of Edison Research, notes that the adoption curve may be different from some of the other technologies and platforms that consumers have popularized since the iPhone emerged.

For example, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, as well as fitness trackers and wearables, have tended to be driven first by younger tech aficionados. The rise of voice-activation has been driven by people who are older and more affluent.

“This is not just a ‘young people’s technology’ like video gaming, for example. It’s much broader in terms of its appeal. So the adoption curve is going to be a bit different than with previous technologies. To start, connected home devices are not the cheapest products. But it depends on how you consider them: if you think of them as a computer, they’re generally not that expensive. If you think of them as a novelty, then you might consider them a bit pricey. For people who can afford these devices, voice-activated devices are quite practical.”

Here are some of the topline findings of Pandora’s study, which was based on interviews with 444 U.S. adults who own a voice-activated smart speaker: Amazon Echo, Dot, Tap, or Google Home:

  • Voice-enabled home devices are creating a rise in audio consumption and music. On a weekly basis, 69 percent of people are regularly tuning into audio content on their voice-enabled smart speakers with 58 percent tuning into music for an average of 4 hours and 34 minutes per week.
  • We now search, make inquiries and buy with our voices. 46 percent of people are checking the weather, 42 percent get a joke, “Easter egg” or converse, and 40 percent are asking general questions on where to find a store or how to cook a particular recipe. 29 percent plan to make purchases with top items being technology, household goods and beauty products.
  • Adoption is beyond fast. While it took many years for there to be multiple TVs in the home, 1 out of 3 people already have 2 or more voice-enabled devices across different rooms in their home.
  • These devices are not just for the young and tech-savvy. 40 percent of these device owners are between the ages of 35-54 with younger Gen Z and Millennials, 18-34 (35 percent) coming in second (35 percent). 
  • Voice-activated devices are also social. 77 percent of people are listening to music on these devices with friends and family: creating new ways for advertisers to engage multiple members of the household at home.

What Does Voice Mean For Marketers?

When looking at the the most popular usage patterns Pandora’s study notes, it’s worth considering whether voice-activation is for all marketers — or just some who can meet a direct question-and-answer response that depends on a certain immediate need.

Can voice-activated assistants have greater impact on the purchase a consumer packaged goods product, as opposed to, say, buy a car or real estate?

“From a short-term perspective, yes it appears that brands that serve immediate needs (like CPG products) are best positioned to capitalize on Smart Speakers,” says Degroote. “This is another way of search functionality, only this time done through voice. Users are already turning to smart speakers and voice assistants to talk, search, entertain, shop, etc in moments where they may have used a screen in the past.

“However, data from a follow up study on the Pandora Soundboard suggests that Voice Assistants are going to be key referral sources for a whole range of consumer needs,” she adds.

Around 60 percent said that they’ll use Smart Speakers to find stores and business locations, suggest entertainment content like TV shows and movies, and make restaurant recommendations in the future.

“We can easily see this evolving to Voice Assistants being the first ‘port-of-call’ on how to maximize tax deductions, or develop a training routine or physiotherapy exercises –a perfect opportunity for more service-based industries to deliver their messaging and offer their services to consumers,” Degroote says.

Advertising And The Company Of Others

As Pandora’s research suggests, the use of voice may have a more social aspect to it as opposed to the smartphone, which has come to represent the most personal of “personal computing.”

Does that mean the advertising we’re used to seeing on mobile and social channels will need to reflect that the voice-activation experience is not necessarily “solo.” What impact is that social aspect likely to have — or should have — on marketing strategies aimed at leveraging smart speakers?

“Brands need to be aware of messaging to consumers on Smart Speakers, or any Connected Home device for that matter (Smart TVs, Fridges, Games Consoles),” Degroote says. “On Pandora, the majority of our listening is on mobile which usually dictates a one-to-one creative approach.”

If a listener is in their car listening via their Connected Dash, the situation changes — they could be with their children or by themselves, which may change the way a brand wants to communicate with them and “show them they know them,” Degroote notes.

“We estimate that over 50 percent of listening via Connected Home devices is done in the company of others, which gives brands the opportunity to reach many listeners at once during a number of moments and occasions,” she adds. “Being able to serve a contextual message to a father playing with his kids on the weekend, or a couple hosting a dinner party for their old college friends on Saturday night provides marketers a great opportunity to reach consumers at key moments that create relevance for their products.”

For Edison’s Rosin, who notes he’s something of an outlier among digital assistant owners: he has one voice-activated device in his kitchen and one in his bedroom. Most people tend to have them in their living room. And that will have a significant affect in the experience that people expect from the media and ads they receive from these devices.

“There is plenty of evidence that most people are using these devices while they’re together, as opposed to being alone,” Rosin says. “Audio has been hot for awhile, and the combination of audio and shared interactivity, suggests that voice and listening is only going to become more central in the way people use computers.”

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How Amazon’s $13.7 Billion Whole Foods Acquisition Will Alter The Grocery Space – And Each Other

After shaking up the retail space for the past two decades, Amazon’s $13.7 billion purchase of Whole Foods represents the e-commerce giant’s latest and biggest move to dominate the grocery space.

Over the year, Amazon has shifted significant resources designed to challenge major retailers like Walmart and Target on the grocery front.

This week, Amazon Dash, the three-year-old device for immediate delivery of consumer packaged goods, has revamped its Amazon Dash Wand barcode scanner with the voice-activated digital assistant Alexa built into the device, Techcrunch reported.

December saw the opening of the prototype brick-and-mortar grocery store, Amazon Go, in Seattle. The Amazon Go concept allows customers to avoid the checkout line by simply walking in and leaving — as long as they have an Amazon Prime account that tallies the purchases automatically.

Amazon’s Challenge

“With physical store purchases still accounting for nearly 90 percent of all retail transactions even after a decade of e-commerce growth, Amazon realizes that continuing large-scale growth over the next 10 years as a company will require capturing a big slice of the physical store purchasing market — so as long as Amazon can make do with higher margins and less overhead than traditional retail stores,” Aisle411 CEO Nathan Pettyjohn wrote in GeoMarketing at the time of Amazon Go’s launch.

The purchase of Whole Foods, shows how Amazon plans to capture the the grocery space, leaving traditional markets scrambling more than ever to attempt to match its services and prices.

“The biggest challenge for Amazon now is that they offer so much choice,” says David Berkowitz, Chief Strategy Officer at marketing tech firm Sysomos. “For instance, there’s regular shipping, Prime, Prime Now, Prime Pantry, and Amazon Fresh. The same box of Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies costs $21 via regular shipping and $15.59 via Prime Pantry; these kinds of price differences are common. As Amazon grows more complex, it will need to find ways to become more streamlined, straightforward, and simple.”

In a conversation with GeoMarketing, Berkowitz related a discussion about Amazon with his parents last weekend. He tried explaining the differences among Prime Pantry, Fresh, and regular Prime. By the time he was done, “I had confused myself and essentially convinced them to stick with going to Costco.” (As a bonus, at Costco, you get the $1.50 massive hot dogs, he notes.)

“That there are now so many ways to order these products — website, mobile site/app, Amazon Smile (web/mobile), Dash, various Alexa-powered devices — adds to the convenience for customers — but only makes it more confusing,” Berkowitz says.

“Amazon will need to proactively address this,” he says. “Instead of making me compare how many packs of cookies are in each box and how many ounces are in each cookie, just show me that this same product is available a few different ways and has a few different costs.”

The Impact On Rival Grocers

Even as this deal has Whole Foods continuing to operate its 431 locations under its 37-year-old brand name, the combination of Amazon’s technology will be felt by consumers and rival grocers quickly. (As the Washington Post reports, investors in Walmart, Costco, Kroger, and Target felt the impact immediately, as shares in those companies fell as much as 13 percent with an hour of the acquisition’s news.)

But even smaller grocers, who have been buffeted by on-demand delivery from the likes of Fresh Direct and Instacart, will need to need to rapidly sharpen their own online/offline strategies.

“The Amazon deal demonstrates the need for grocery retailers to move faster in their digital efforts,” says Jeremy Neren, CEO of GrocerKey, a Madison, WI-based provider of e-commerce and tech services for local grocers and chains. “There was already pressure to do so, given the rise in consumer demand and pressure being put on by Amazon, that pressure only increases with Amazon now having a nationwide brick-and-mortar presence to add to it’s arsenal of digital tools to reach consumers and bring them into their overall ecosystem.”

Rival chains and independents should be thinking about finding partners that not only help them implement cutting edge technology, but also help them think about how to operate in a new environment such as e-commerce, Neren adds.

Furthermore, Amazon’s dominance of the voice-activated, Connected Intelligence space with the Echo’s Alexa. As these devices go mainstream, Alexa will certainly provide a direct line to grocery purchases to Whole Foods, placing even more pressure on rival grocers to also find a way ensure Alexa connects them to customers as well.

“It requires an entirely different operational approach than they are accustomed to operating in to serve their customers in-store,” Neren says. “It’s also important to consider that strengthening your digital presence does not simply mean e-commerce, it means providing more touch points to reach consumers — e-commerce is a component of that, but you must also consider how to augment the in-store experience via digital touch points such as value added native mobile apps.”

Can Amazon Bring Efficiency – And Lower Prices – To Whole Foods?

Whole Foods Market first opened in 1980 in Austin. That was two years after its founders started a vegetarian grocery called SaferWay (a play on the general supermarket chain Safeway).

It wasn’t until the 1990s, when the idea of buying organic food caught on outside of bohemian enclaves and the company capitalized on the embrace upscale consumers were making towards buying products that were at least perceived as being eco-friendly and natural.

But after a spate of aggressive store openings and acquisitions, Whole Foods began to be a victim of two separate perceptions: one, that it was too high-priced for lower-income and mainstream grocery shoppers, and two, that it was failing to keep up technologically with its core upscale consumers’ desire for more on-demand and omnichannel shopping choices.

To address some of those issues, in 2015 the introduction of “365 By Whole Foods Market” represented an attempt to attract millennials with a combination of lower prices and app-based, in-store shopping services and loyalty discounts. But with only four outlets at this point, Whole Foods has clearly had trouble scaling that idea.

Bryan Eisenberg, co-founder of B2C marketing consultancy BuyerLegends and co-author of  Be Like Amazon: Even A Lemonade Stand Can Do It, expects the acquisition to solve Amazon’s and Whole Foods’ respective problems in the current grocery space.

“Amazon has been trying to scale its grocery business for years; it’s where so much of our retail spend is,”Eisenberg said. “Part of the problem for Amazon in that space is that to sell groceries, obviously, you need a local footprint.

“The challenge is that Whole Foods has struggled the last few years,” he added. They’re not a technology company. They’re not good at efficiency. But from a brand perspective, they’re still strong, though people do feel they’re overpriced. Amazon will be able to give those stores the technology boost that they desperately need, Eisenberg said. We have 365 By Whole Foods store near us in Austin. But they haven’t pushed that concept far enough.”

The Endless Amazon Loop

The release of the Dash Wand with Alexa, along with announcement that the Prime members who add funds from a bank account to an online gift card will get 2 percent cash back on any Amazon purchase in the form of rewards/points, which can then be used to purchase of more products sold through Amazon.

That ability to entice shoppers to stay within the Amazon shopping system, which includes streaming video and music, is based on the bottom line idea of efficiency, immediate sales fulfillment, and lower prices than any other shop.

“The merger of the two brands will be great in consumers’ mindsets,” Eisenberg said. “Whole Foods does command some brand loyalty – though many people gripe about it being Whole Paycheck – by bringing Amazon to that, the prices have gotten more competitive, but they haven’t been able to shake the idea that they’re an over-priced supermarket. Amazon was able to keep that great ‘people culture’ at Zappos. I think they’ll do the same with Whole Foods, improving the perception of both the culture and the price points.”

From books to electronics to CPG to groceries, the Amazon brand has always been  to allow a user to log-in to its site and apps and get personalized recommendations based on previous purchases. Suggestions are based on what the user searches, and what similarly profiled consumers bought when searching for those products.

“The number one thing you’ll see implemented ASAP: checking out at the register with Amazon Pay,” Eisenberg says. “That’s important because the problem with Whole Foods is that they don’t know if someone walking in is the most valuable customer or the least valuable customer. That’s the same problem Walmart’s had.

“Now, they’ll let people log into their Amazon accounts and they’ll be enabling the ‘endless shelf’ pretty quickly,” Eisenberg says. “Being able to check out and get the data on their customers will have an enormous impact on both companies.”

To realize the potential advantages of owning Whole Foods, Amazon needs to make buying groceries as easy as buying books,” says Berkowitz.

“I get that there are options with Hardcover, Paperback, Kindle, and Audible, so Amazon shows me pricing options, and delivery options too,” Berkowitz says. “Digital options arrive immediately, while physical options have their own delivery times and costs. Amazon now has to do for Famous Amos cookies what it does for John Grisham novels.”

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