Voice Assistants Are the New Marketing Battleground

** Excerpt from the WallStreet Journal – Ms. Bruell is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal in New York.

Focusing on sound


Diageo is among the many advertisers experimenting with apps for voice assistants, which are being rapidly adopted by consumers and are expected to grow more intelligent as technology advances. The goal is to connect with people—many of whom have a growing aversion to traditional ads—where they are spending time and in a way that enhances rather than interrupts what they are doing.

Diageo, for one, sees the potential for a big payoff: When people use online search to find drink recipes, more than 80% go out to buy the liquor brand mentioned in the suggested recipe, according to Mr. Thompson. That’s a good indicator of the potential for voice, he says, describing it as the “search of the future.”

Marriott International Inc. also is starting to think about the ways it can take advantage of voice assistants as a marketing platform, says Andy Kauffman, senior vice president of global marketing optimization at Marriott International.

“All the numbers point to this as a growing area,” Mr. Kauffman says. “Exactly where it’s going to grow and how and for what uses” is still to be determined, but we can’t ignore it. We have to experiment with it. We have to understand the role it can play in marketing.”

For Marriott, which has relied heavily on visual scenes of its hotels and beautiful locations in its marketing, audio-only mediums like voice assistants introduce a new creative challenge.

“How do we evoke a feeling for a brand, as well as for a beautiful resort or any other hotel in the portfolio, through voice, where we can’t rely on striking visuals?” asks Mr. Kauffman.

He envisions a multichannel experience in the future in which a user asks for information on Marriott resorts in Cancún, and the voice assistant offers to describe the resorts or push links, visuals and written text to a phone or smart TV.

“We’re asking ourselves often what our brand sounds like, not just what it looks like and how it acts,” he says.

Problem solving

The skills with the highest customer engagement tend to solve a consumer’s problem, an Amazon spokeswoman says, pointing to a skill from Hellmann’s mayonnaise that helps people decide what to make for lunch or dinner by recommending a recipe based on ingredients they have in their refrigerators.

Other popular skills “surprise and delight,” she says, like Warner Bros.’ Scooby-Doo interactive storytelling skill that lets users work alongside Scooby-Doo characters to unravel a mystery. Brand skills that “encourage repeatable use” such as a Zyrtec daily AllergyCast, which offers users new information about weather and pollen levels that could affect them daily, also have been very successful, she says.

Of course, Alexa isn’t the only voice assistant that marketers need to consider when it comes to developing apps. While Amazon had a head start and remains the market leader in the category, Google is starting to close the gap, according to research firm Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. Google Home accounted for about 40% of the voice-activated devices sold in the U.S. during the holiday quarter, its largest share of quarterly sales since it was introduced in late 2016, according to the research.

Amazon says it now has more than 40,000 skills, from both brands and developers, up from 25,000 just last September. Google, which calls the apps that work with its voice assistant “actions,” says it doesn’t break down the total number.

Digital ad agency VaynerMedia is among the agencies looking to capitalize on brands’ growing interest in this area. A few years ago, the agency started a practice group to help advertisers build applications for voice assistants.

“We value things that speed up our lives,” says Gary Vaynerchuk, VaynerMedia’s founder and CEO. “As we get busier and have more technology, passive tools become very powerful. Audio is faster than video. We’re going to see an unbelievable creative burst in this space.”

Mr. Vaynerchuk says he already has expanded his voice group to about 15 people and plans to nearly double that by the end of the year. He says the practice expects to generate revenue this year in the low seven figures from voice-assistant app projects that cost brands between $75,000 and $150,000, as well as seven-figure retainer deals with clients who want continuing support in the voice category.

Skill projects tend to take between four and 10 weeks to complete, he says, but that doesn’t mean they’re simple. Creative strategists and developers who are comfortable creating banner ads, videos and TV commercials need to think about advertising differently on voice platforms, where spoken words rather than visuals take center stage.

Copywriters typically overshadowed by visual creatives will likely find their day in the sun, he says. There are a lot of writers now who don’t realize their lives “are going to be very different in seven years,” he says.

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