“Alexa, what do brands and marketers need to know about Smart Speakers?”

One in ten UK and US consumers now use smart speakers to help them make their buying decisions. There’s rapid growth, a new algorithm is king, and partnerships will be crucial. Brands have a new opportunity to connect with consumers on a more personal level.  So, the question for brands is – what’s your voice-search strategy?

I’m on holiday in the sleepy French hamlet of La Pinelle. I’m listening to a group of retired British expats (my parents and their friends) compare their latest silver-surfing tech. In this tiny community of fifteen homes there are at least three households that have smart speakers. More specifically they all have an Amazon Echo – still the market leader.

Alexa is definitely part of the furniture here. And one could even say part of the family. Often treated as an individual with a personality, “she” plays the radio or a playlist of favourite tunes.  “She” provides the weather forecast or sets a timer for when to take the croissants out of the oven. Alexa remembers their shopping lists, places their orders with Amazon, and entertains them with an interesting fact or the odd joke. I also learned that if we want to talk about Alexa without activating her, we call her “Beryl” …

Smart speaker technology on the rise

It’s a scene that’s becoming more and more widespread. Our recent research has been tracking the use and awareness of this technology in the UK since January. It also included as some initial research on the US market. We’ve been exploring how the sector is developing and what brands and marketers need to be aware of. Be ready for change.

Almost one in five (19%) UK homes now owns or has access to a smart speaker. That’s over 4.7 million homes (over 9 million people). In the US, this rises to one in four homes (24%). That’s 29.7 million homes (or 59.6 million people) with access to one of these devices in the US. While interest in smart tech is up across the board generally, it’s only smart speakers that are seeing an increase in sales (January to June 2018).

Smart speaker users have definitely moved beyond the simple gimmicks of “play music” and “what’s the weather like.” Users have started to perform more serious tasks via these devices. They will use the speaker to help them learn something new, check facts or find out about brands and products. Of course, traditional search remains the main way of looking for this information (alongside other paid, earned and owned sources). But around one in ten of all consumers (in both the UK and the US) are using a smart speaker to make brand buying decisions.

The way consumers are using voice- search is changing

One of the biggest surprises from the research is how many people are already using their smart speaker to shop. Over half of device owners are shopping with their smart speaker. Around a fifth of UK/US users are buying their groceries this way (43% UK, 38% US). A quarter doing so regularly (24% UK, 26% US). But it’s not limited to groceries. A fifth (39% UK, 42% US) are buying household products or toiletries, and over a fifth (44% UK, 43% US) are buying other types of goods via their device.

So, with these changes in consumer behaviour and adoption of new tech, what does this all mean for brands and marketers?

What’s your voice-search strategy?

Smart speaker technology is opening up a new commercial channel, alongside computer and bricks-and-mortar shopping. Brands need to understand how consumers are making their choices when interacting with their device. With healthy interest in acquiring smart speakers on both sides of the Atlantic, brands can no longer afford to ignore them or disregard them as a bit of a tech fad.

As we see it there are three major implications:

  1. Evolving your existing search strategy is critical
    Current search strategies are built around what people type into their computer. But how does this work with voice-search, where consumers are having a ‘real’ conversation with a machine? How is what people say to the machine different from what they might have typed? Another key difference for search marketers is that voice assistants will likely return just one or two results, rather than the pages of results we are used to. These differences are likely to have major ramifications for how businesses bid for and own keywords. A change in strategy is crucial.
  2. Brands will need to be relevant to a new algorithm
    For organic search, brands, more than ever, will need to become synonymous with the category and relevant moments with consumers. After all, most people talk about Lego, not multi-coloured plastic toy building blocks. Successful brands will win by being part of the everyday conversation with voice assistants and being the default brand name of choice. Time to become a “Hoover”, “Jacuzzi” and “Tupperware”.
  3. Develop new partnerships with the tech giants
    For paid search, brands will need to adopt new partnerships with the tech giants. This will enable them to adapt to this new type of search and prioritise the results or ‘basket adds’.

What’s the opportunity?

As with any disruptive technology, there are ample opportunities for those brands willing to embrace change. With people talking to their machines, their natural, ‘in-the-moment’ speech will provide a rich source of ‘intent data’. Insights from this data will ultimately be a source of creativity, helping brands to create interesting and engaging ways to connect with consumers. It’s an opportunity to build real brand affinity into life’s moments – whether those moments are in a busy UK/US home or indeed amongst a group of retired expats in a sleepy village in the southwest of France.