Every year we see a hot, new technology emerge on the “scene”, one that industry experts claim will be “the next big thing”. In 2015, it was mobile. In 2016, video was the season’s “It girl”. This year, voice search is poised to be the technology advertisers and brands will be clamouring over as the must-have ticket for their marketing strategy.

Technically, voice search isn’t “new”, it’s been around for some time. Apple’s Siri was introduced on the iPhone five years ago. Initial response to voice search was lukewarm since the system was clunky and difficult to navigate without screaming into your phone like a lunatic, i.e., “Call Mark!”, then having it dial your mum. Fast forward five years, and voice search has vastly improved. It’s moved well beyond telling you it’s sunny outside, or finding you the nearest Starbucks. You no longer have to sound like a robot, or yell to get the latest voice recognition devices to understand you.

Language naturalization has become an integral component of voice search now, making everyday speech patterns easily understandable. It’s come such a long way from Siri’s heyday, that certain devices can even recognize half-baked song guesses and snippets of lyrics to find you the song you want to hear.  The latest voice search devices have moved well beyond being simply glorified alarm clocks, they are inserting themselves into daily activities in useful and meaningful ways. But will they ever move from ‘nice-to-haves’ to ‘must-have’ devices?
In a recent Marketing Land interview, Gerry Murray, Director of Research for marketing and sales technology at IDC offered te following insights: “AI is here, and over the next few years, it will rapidly become pervasive”. He vontinued saying, “The Critical piece of it is, number one, marketers have got to realize, that this is a tidal wave that has just begun to crash it’s going to, I think, see a very similar adoption curve as to mobile in general…Marketers are going to have to change their playbook a little bit when they are optimizing for interactions with bots, non-human agents.” 

By 2018, 30% of all interactions with devices will be voice based because people can speak four times faster than they can type. Given these remarkable technological advancements and the influx of stylish new devices on the market, it’s no surprise that voice search is set to take marketing circles by storm in 2017.

Who Are the Main Players?

Amazon Echo’s “Alexa”
“Alexa” a.k.a., Amazon Echo, was released first, hitting stores in November 2014. Google Home didn’t appear on the market until two years later, in October 2016. This has undoubtedly given the advantage to Amazon, which has been able to adapt and figure out from its user base what’s worked and was hasn’t to be able to come out with the best possible iteration.

So what can Alexa do? Alexa understands natural language, even if the user drops a word or slightly changes the wording of a request. Along with the basics of turning volume up or down, playing music, and controlling the heat inside your home, and booking appointments in your calendar, it also can create and check shopping lists, order products directly from Amazon via Prime (this should appeal to marketers looking at ways to monetize this newest branch of technology). Alexa can pull up items and tell you the price before ordering. Alexa functions on a vast array of “skills”, apps that allow the user to order cabs, order a pizza, or a blender. it can even tell jokes, affectionately termed “Easter Eggs”. Of all the voice search devices, Alexa is most geared to tying the user into purchasing as it is paired nicely with Amazon’s vast shopping network.

Google Home’s “OK Google”
The aesthetically pleasing Google Home is quite similar to Amazon’s Alexa,

Cortana is Microsoft’s entry into the digital assistant market, powered by Bing, it covers the same basic tasks as the home devices and other mobile assistants. Cortana works best when users personalize it. The more information you feed Cortana, the better your user experience. It gets down to the nitty gritty, even going as far as to determine how you want to be addressed, but like

Siri, has expanded onto Mac desktops as of the latest iOS update. Although Siri is the oldest of the voice search platforms, it also lags the furthest behind. Apple hasn’t opened up the platform to allow Siri to crawl through a user’s email to assist with reminders or important messages. In terms of purchasing, it doesn’t have the same power as a device such as Alexa. Siri can’t order you a pizza, but it can defintely show you 15 places near you that deliver.

Who is Using Voice Search?

Within the last six months, voice search use has increased by 41%.   Users tend to be older adopters, men between age 36-66 with a median household income of over $100,000. Another study, by Love My Echo corroborated these facts and found that users were indeed older (the average age was 55.8) , 63% were married, 61% were male, 69% were college graduates with no young children in the home and earned an average of $115,000 annually. The problem with this second batch of data is that the test demographic was extremely small, only 137 users of the Love My Echo community were polled. That isn’t a large enough pool to establish definitive results. Due to the fact that voice search devices are still relatively new to the market, long term studies of their user base haven’t been conducted.

Data sets are getting better but traditional digital advertising is still not getting the timing right. Murray indicated that bots allow users to go in and out of markets when they have intent to buy, meaning the user has control and isn’t incessantly sent advertising for objects like cars, perfume, or shoes after the user has made their purchase. It only interacts with the user when they are going to convert, helping, instead of alienating them. Bots have ‘right time right place’ down pat. However, this isn’t to say that bots will entirely replace other advertising formats, it is more likely that they are just another slice of the pie, an important piece.

Challenges in Voice Search 

Marketers have a challenge ahead of them to ensuring safety and privacy concerns are addressed with this latest technological advance. Marketers will want to be sure that bots are real shoppers, i.e., not ‘zombie bots’, so they know the user hasn’t been hacked and the bot ordering a product is authentically coming from that consumer. Conversely, there will have to be measures in place to ensure that brand bots are authentic and not corrupted or fakes that are trying to steal sensitive personal information. Security will have to come front and centre with voice search to prevent bot fraud. Murray briefly discussed the possibility of adapting some blockchain technology to resolve security and privacy concerns.