Yelp’s Chad Richard On The Current State — And Near Future — Of Voice Activation

For the past several years, local digital guide Yelp has been working to move beyond being perceived as a “reviews site” to a platform that help make transactions between consumers and businesses.

For example, its Request-A-Quote feature, which lets Yelp users get the price of services before making a purchase via the guide platform, saw volume rise almost 30 percent over the past year.

Before that, Yelp expanded its restaurant services beyond its SeatMe and Yelp Now reservations tools with the purchase of former partner Nowait, a mobile platform that lets consumers virtually hold their place in line at casual dining establishments.

Yelp’s transaction business also was rounded out with last year’s $20 million purchase of location-based loyalty and retargeting platform, Turnstyle, which runs an in-store platform that then connects marketing services to consumers’ phones at 3,500 business places.

In a conversation at November’s Yext’s Onward 2017 conference with Yext President and Chief Revenue Officer Jim Steele,  Yelp COO Jed Nachman discussed  how the role of Connected Intelligence systems that power voice activated assistants and chatbots dovetails perfectly with the trajectory the 14-year-old company has taken.

“For voice and chat, you have to have the data to handle real-world interaction,” Nachman said of the company’s Yelp Knowledge, a tool that analyzes businesses’ reviews to help  understand the experience at specific locations.

To elaborate on how Yelp sees the rise of voice activation, we caught up with Chad Richard, Yelp’s SVP, Business and Corporate Development. Richard joined Yelp in 2015.

Before that, he spent six years at Apple as senior director of Worldwide Product Marketing focused on the Cupertino company’s operating systems and internet services, which included acquiring and building up the first mass market voice-enabled assistant, Siri.

GeoMarketing: What’s the state of voice activation and what does it mean for Yelp?

Chad Richard: Voice activation is a rapidly evolving paradigm of human-computer interaction that I’m pretty excited about. The utility of voice assistants and voice activation is especially high when people are on the go, and high quality local content is obviously a vital component to those mobile moments, so Yelp has a big role and opportunity here.

How does the Yelp Fusion API program reflect the influence of voice activation?

Yelp Fusion is a set of APIs and customized feeds for partners and independent developers who want to integrate Yelp content into their apps, websites, and services. Voice-activated devices and virtual assistants is a very popular Yelp Fusion use case and we’re already seeing some cool applications with our data.

How does Yelp work with other voice-activated platforms?

Yelp has partnered with Apple and been integrated into Siri since its launch in 2011. We also supply local data and content to Amazon for Alexa. So, products like Echo and Fire TV products are enabled with Yelp content. We work with Microsoft on Cortana and also collaborate with companies like Hound, both in their Hound products as well as Houndify, their platform where developers can develop their own voice activated applications that are Yelp enabled.

We work with Nuance, which has been part of the roots of all this, from the actual NLP standpoint to understand what people are actually saying. We’re also working with Samsung Voice, in coordination with Viv, a startup launched by the creators of Siri after they left Apple. Samsung bought Viv and it now powers Samsung’s personal assistant, “Bixby.”

So, even at this early stage, Yelp is virtually omnipresent in all the voice ecosystems. We’re powering voice experiences that are really great when you’re on-the-go, making queries to your smartphone, and even on your Echo when you are hanging out at home. You’re already using Yelp when talking to Bixby or Siri on your Android or iPhone.

The other place we’re seeing voice activation starting to grow is in the car. And that’s not just through Apple’s CarPlay, where you’re using Siri. It’s also native in dashboard experiences. So we’re already working with a lot of auto manufacturers via the Yelp Fusion API, and as those interfaces evolve to offer voice, Yelp will help to deliver our great local content as well.

Yelp’s always been pretty successful at getting our content integrated into car dashes, from BMW, Mercedes, Volvo, Lexus, Toyota, Honda, just to name a few automakers. Most of the auto manufacturers are working with us one way or another, either directly or through integrates like Harmon, or others selling into the auto space. In addition to finding great restaurants on-the-go, drivers can also reserve a table via Yelp Reservations so that there’s a table waiting for them when they arrive. Lastly, we’ve made it possible for drivers to “get in line” remotely at a restaurant through our acquisition of Nowait, which is now a part of Yelp Reservations.

How does Yelp serve as the bridge between brands and voice-activated devices?

When you are using voice enabled experience you want answers as opposed to a traditional search experience where you have a high tolerance for scanning various search results to find what you were really looking for. Yelp is a trusted source for high intent searches because we are able to deliver accurate information that’s highly relevant. This serves brands and businesses well by connecting them directly with the consumers via voice services.

How do you perceive the challenges for brands when it comes to using voice-activation?

One of the tough things about voice activation is for the assistant to really understand what consumers are really asking for. It means having as much content about the user as possible — such as identity, location and preferences – to having speech pattern technologies that can break down the query into specific nouns. If someone says  “Hong Kong café,” are they talking about a café in Hong Kong? Or are they talking about the Hong Kong Café down the street?

There are a million examples of how disambiguation becomes extremely important for these assistants to be smart and efficient for users.

There is the natural language processing and identity extraction side of all of this but its further complicated by the fact that these assistants are built with a broad range of data sources and therefore don’t just rely on Yelp data. We work closely with partners to help ensure they know when a question is best answered by Yelp.

How do you expect voice activation to shape marketing at the local level?

For us, voice represents an incredibly exciting human-to-computer interaction capability where local data is highly relevant. If you think about what Yelp’s been focused on for 14 years now — we’ve been connecting people with great local businesses.

But over the last few years, we have been really focused on getting transactional with it. And what’s cool about voice and Yelp’s role in this trend is the evolution from helping you find great restaurants and places to get a haircut, to actually being able to book a table or order pickup or delivery at that restaurant. Or go ahead and schedule that appointment at the hair salon. Yelp not only powers the discovery process, but it can power the purchase actions that follow.

From a marketing perspective, is the use of voice as opposed to text that different?

It’s not just about discovery with voice. Whereas text is offering a series of options for clicking, voice is about driving transactions. The consumer has this very clear intent that we can actually activate.

We’re seeing two types of voice platforms. You have voice platforms like Siri and Bixby, where you use voice to do the query, but then you get a visual response. And then you can “tap, tap, tap: book” or “tap, tap: buy.” That’s cool, but it’s also great in those moments when tapping isn’t an option – when you’re driving your car or using an Echo. You’re able to simply find — and get — that specific thing you want. And because it’s not a “tap-centric” environment, being able to conduct that transaction via voice is powerful.

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Over 60 Million People In The U.S. Will Use Voice-Enabled Assistants On A Monthly Basis This Year

Approximately 60.5 million of U.S. consumers will use voice-enabled assistants monthly or more often this year, according to an eMarketer forecast — and the heaviest usage occurs on voice-enabled speakers powered by these intelligent assistants, such as Amazon Echo and Google Home.

The fact that 65 percent of smart speaker owners use their smart speaker’s assistant daily or multiple times weekly isn’t surprising — and marketers are beginning to understand the importance of ensuring that their brand is represented when users ask their assistants to carry out tasks from “order dish soap on Amazon” to “call me a car.”

But more “novel” uses for the technology has yet to catch up to adoption as a whole, according to eMarketer’s research: Most of the skills and apps for smart speakers downloaded by consumers are not used again after two weeks.

Do Skills Work At All?

This isn’t to say that brands should explore the idea of creating skills for these devices: For example, to promote its year-old Patrón Cocktail Lab, Patron enabled its “Patrón skill” in the Alexa app on Amazon Alexa voice-enabled devices, allowing users can ask for cocktail recommendations, recipes and tips — everything from the perfect brunch recipe to the proper way to shake and strain a cocktail.

The liquor marketer launched the effort concurrently with turning to Foursquare for targeted ads — and while execs wouldn’t reveal sales figures, VP of marketing Adrian Parker said that Patrón’s business saw “double-digit growth.”

Additionally, even if such a skill isn’t widely used after two weeks, it can still generates value for the brand loyalists who stick with it — as well as showing that the brand has a presence on a platform that consumers are relying on to power more and more aspects of their daily lives.

That said, given current usage trends, marketers may do well to first focus their energy instead on improving their listings and data such that they show up in the knowledge graph. As consumers make more searches by voice expecting these kind of structured answers, the importance is only growing — and brands who prepare now will be ready for the next phase of connected intelligence.

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40 Percent Of Millennials Use Voice-Activated Assistants For Purchase Research

Approximately 40 percent of Millennials turn to voice-activated intelligent assistants like Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri and Google Assistant before making a purchase, according to Salesforce‘s 2017 Connected Shopper report — and a similar percentage say they turn to messaging apps and video chat for their customer service needs.

These findings reinforce what marketers should largely already know: There is no longer a linear consumer path to purchase — and in 2017, more devices are involved in the ultimate decision to buy something online (or in stores) than ever before.

And the research stage of buyer journeys isn’t the only one undergoing a digital revolution: “When buying products online, the No. 2 channel shoppers turn to, second only to traditional websites, is now a retailer’s mobile app. Social
media has also entered the top five channels for online purchasing,” the report states. What’s more, “millennials are more than three times as likely than their baby boomer elders to leverage video chat when making online purchases, and at least twice as likely to use social media, messaging apps, and SMS/text, among other emerging channels [like voice.]”

Marketers Prepare For Messenger, Voice

So, what does this mean for marketers? First, that prioritizing one-to-one communication via the interfaces customers are shifting to — here, namely messenger and voice-based means — is of critical importance.

As we’ve written before, this means that businesses should look to begin readying their underlying data layer for consumption by voice-activated assistants — making sure that they’re up to date on all SEO best practices, ensuring correct and current listings, and utilizing effective visuals — so that they’re discoverable whether searches are made by text, voice, or image.

“Bots, voice assistants, smart homes and other AI-informed communications are top of mind for nearly every retailer today,” said Amit Sharma, CEO of Narvar. “The technology innovation complicates what we already know — that customer communications are never one-size-fit-all.”

Secondly, there is a lot of potential for marketers to build relationships via text-based communication in messaging apps, particularly by using chatbots to answer the most popular consumer queries quickly and seamlessly — so long as they remain transparent about what the bot can do (and not do) as well as making the conversation as straightforward and relevant as possible.

In fact, “85 percent of consumer mobile time is spent in the top five apps,” said Stefanos Loukakos, Head of Messenger at Facebook, during an Advertising Week panel. “That’s why using Facebook messenger [or] Whatsapp can be a great way to [interact] and build business. But every experience has to be valuable — not only for the business, but for the user.”

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