Interactive Voice Marketing: What You Need to Know

28 Sep 2016

This marks the second in our new series, Early Expert, in which we predict the future of digital marketing. It also marks the first guest blogger for The Stylesheet: Matthew Buck, president and founder of Voxable. 


As a child, I knew one thing for certain: When I grew up, I was going to live on the USS Enterprise—Captain Picard's starship from Star Trek: The Next Generation

It wasn’t the chance to explore strange new worlds that drew me; I had little interest in seeking out new life or new civilizations.

No, my desires were much loftier: I wanted to boldly go into my living room and command the TV to turn on with my voice. On Star Trek, characters would stride confidently from room to room, commanding lights to turn on and ordering a nice cup of tea (Earl Grey, hot). 

It was this (once far-fetched) desire to have true space-captain control over my environment that led me to found my company, Voxable, last year. Our continuing mission? To help humans and machines better understand one another by building outstanding conversational interfaces.

Just as we saw the rise of hand-held communication devices, we are now witnessing the ascendance of the voice interface. Natural, spoken communication will soon become one of our primary means of interaction with technology. As voice-enabled technology begins to permeate our everyday lives, businesses must learn to harness this new medium.

But let's start at the beginning...

What is a voice interface?

At its simplest, a voice interface allows you to speak to a machine.

By converting your spoken words into text, running that text through complex algorithms designed to divine your intent, and then taking action on your behalf, a voice interface turns you into a wizard: Speak your will into the air and watch it become manifest before your eyes. “Computer! Send me a pizza.” And lo, it is done!

Voice interfaces are a revolutionary leap in the way we deal with technology. By allowing us to use speech, they tap into our brain’s most essentially human skill. They enable hands-free, ubiquitous computing that further erodes the barriers between you and the collective knowledge of humankind.

Why invest in interactive voice marketing?

In June of this year, Mary Meeker, partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, released the latest in her series of annual Internet Trends reports. In it, Meeker pointed to the emergence of voice interfaces as one of the most important trends of the year—noting that search giants Google and Baidu (i.e., the Google of China) are witnessing impressive growth in the use of voice search.

One study noted that 55% of teenagers use voice search every day. Advances in the accuracy of voice recognition are reaching the inflection point at which a majority of searches happen via voice.

As Meeker explains, reliable voice recognition leads to real benefits:

Speech is faster than typing

Most English speakers clock in at somewhere between 125-150 words per minute, but average typing speeds are in the 40 wpm range.

Voice search is easier

You can still ask for directions when your hands are otherwise occupied by your steering wheel.

Voice interaction is contextual

Combined with data learned from prior interactions—e.g., this user is vegan, this user loves Thai food, etc.—and from sensors on mobile devices—e.g., this user is in southern Milwaukee—voice interaction can provide a more personalized user experience.

Voice interfaces have made astounding advances in the previous few years. The opportunities for marketers are only beginning to emerge, though. Marketing teams can begin to make use of voice in the near-term while making preparations for the voice interfaces of tomorrow.

Marketing Opportunities for Voice Interactions

Voice Search

As voice begins to seize the mantle of "King of Search," it’s imperative that marketers prepare.

Voice searches are longer and more conversational in nature than the typical typed search. This means that voice searches make it easier to determine how close to buying a consumer might be. Marketers should begin to identify which types of consumer questions relate to specific stages in the buying process. If Johnny asks, “How many calories are in a Snickers bar?” he’s likely farther from making a purchasing decision than when he asks, “Where can I buy a Snickers?”

The transition to voice search also has implications for local search. Longer, more expressive queries make it much easier for consumers to tell the world what they need—and when they need it. Speaking aloud, “I need an AC repairman after 3 o'clock next Wednesday” conveys much more information in a shorter amount of time than any traditional, point-and-click-and-type-with-my-clumsy-fingers search mechanism.

Amazon Alexa "Skills"

The Meeker trends report also notes the rise of the mighty Amazon Echo brand—an entire line of always-on, Internet-connected Bluetooth speakers with a built-in intelligent voice assistant named Alexa. A majority of Amazon customers are aware of the Echo brand.

Coupled with evidence that iPhone sales may have peaked, this means that Amazon may change the nature of commerce in a fundamental way. Amazon continues to open new avenues for speech-to-purchase functionality, making everything from ordering more dish soap to buying a new TV as easy as having the thought and speaking it aloud.

(If you have an Amazon Echo, make sure Alexa’s not within mic-shot when you watch this...)

Amazon also stands to benefit from the open nature of the Alexa platform. While rivals like Apple’s Siri and Google are only gradually opening portions of their voice interfaces to outside developers, Amazon’s Alexa began life as an open platform. The democratized nature of Alexa results in a faster pace of innovation. Developers can form communities of engineers releasing Open Source software, lowering costs by sharing resources.

That open platform also means a staggering pace of development.

Alexa “skills” are the equivalent of third-party apps. Since third-party developers can continuously teach Alexa new skills, the Amazon Echo is a device that becomes more valuable the longer you own it. Other large tech firms have already taken notice: Google plans to release its “Google Home” wireless assistant device later this year.

Adoption of these ubiquitous voice interfaces is only just beginning to take off. In order to hit the crest of the coming voice wave, marketers should begin efforts to create engaging, useful voice experiences for their customers. Some of the early Alexa-based marketing efforts can teach us about what makes for an effective interactive voice marketing application.

3 Examples of Effective Voice Marketing

Like all new marketing channels, there will inevitably be some early voice efforts that fall flat. Rather than functioning as mere advertisement, successful interactive voice marketing must provide actual utility to consumers—while still incorporating a brand’s message.

To ensure the success of your interactive voice marketing application, follow one of three simple paths:

  1. Make your application entertaining
  2. Make your application valuable
  3. Make your application transactional.

These are the keys to ensuring your interactive voice marketing application weaves itself into the fabric of your customers’ lives.

Make it Entertaining: “The Wayne Investigation”

While marketing their latest collaboration, Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Warner Brothers and DC Comics became the first major entertainment brands to release a voice application tie-in.

Titled "The Wayne Investigation," this piece of interactive fiction enlists users to help track down the murderer of Bruce Wayne’s parents. Playing through "The Wayne Investigation" feels like being a cast member in a radio play. Featuring professional voice acting and sound effects, the storyline allows you to choose your own adventure as you stalk the streets of Gotham on the hunt for the killers.

Judging by the reviews, the application was far more satisfying an experience than the film itself.

After concluding the storyline, the "skill" allowed users to ask Alexa for Batman v. Superman showtimes nearby. DC and the WB were able to provide moviegoers with an entertaining, engaging experience that ultimately guided folks towards theaters. Considering the eventual haul of $873 million for the film worldwide, they did a bang-up job.

Make it Valuable: Campbell’s Kitchen

Having a hands-free voice interface in the kitchen is a significant life upgrade. Stop wiping down your greasy fingers before stabbing at your mobile device just to look up “How many ml in a tsp?” You can simply ask Alexa, and she’ll give you an impractically specific answer.

Campbell’s Soup no doubt had this advantage in mind when they released the Campbell’s Kitchen Alexa skill. By exploiting the context of the voice interaction—e.g., user preferences, season, weather—the Campbell’s Kitchen skill is able to guide consumers through the recipe selection process. In other words, Alexa can quickly answer the age-old question, "What should I make for dinner?"

Bringing this kind of value to the consumer motivates continued usage of the application. Taking advantage of the unique benefits of voice allows Campbell’s to bring its brand to mind when consumers are likeliest to be making a relevant purchasing decision.

Campbell’s had a breakthrough in the early 20th century with cookbook marketing, making recipes like green bean casserole famous for generations. With the release of a hands-free voice marketing application, Campbell’s has found another way into the world’s kitchens in the early 21st century.

Make it Transactional: 1-800-FLOWERS & Domino’s Pizza

1-800-FLOWERS released an Alexa skill just in time for Mother’s Day this year. By connecting to a user’s 1-800-FLOWERS account, customers can order a fresh bouquet for mom entirely by voice.

So far, the effort has attracted tens of thousands of new users.

bouquet of flowers and a pizza
Meanwhile, Domino’s Pizza has been another early adopter of the Alexa platform. Their skill allows pizza ordering by voice—a dream that has been within reach of anyone with a telephone for decades.

More than just obviating the pesky need for human interaction, applications like these capitalize on the novelty of the platform: users want to try these interactions entirely because they are new. Early mover advantage is key to standing out in what is sure to be a crowded space within a few years.

Even when the space becomes crowded, though, the new sales channel of voice transactions will still be immensely valuable. By acting now, wise marketers can make a splash by offering a new way to transact with their customers.

The Future of Voice Marketing

The Web

The benefits of voice interaction aren’t limited to hands-free or mobile devices. Traditional desktop websites also have the ability to leverage voice via the Web Speech API, an open standard for enabling websites to make use of voice interaction. While currently only supported for users of Google’s Chrome browser, it will likely find its way to the majority of web users within the next few years.

Bringing voice to a device with a screen enables a hybrid model of interaction that highlights the benefits of both modes. At one point in the purchasing process, a customer may wish to browse through a visual list of products. At another point, that customer may want to select a particular product, and then ask aloud some questions about it.

Mixed Reality

Voice is not only coming to the Web, but also to your everyday life—in the form of mixed reality. Like its cousin, augmented reality, mixed reality is the preferred term of art for the amazing things that can be accomplished with the forthcoming Magic Leap device.

Rather than attempt to describe this fascinating slice of the future, simply watch as this user shops a selection of lamps and tries out each one in succession, right there in the comfort of their home:

By projecting a digital reality on top of the boring old real reality around you, devices like Magic Leap and Microsoft’s HoloLens promise to dramatically reshape our society.

E-Commerce will level the playing field with brick-and-mortar retailers. The ability to see what a product looks like in your space, or on your feet, or hung from your wall is game-changing. Enabling consumers to browse physical products and preview them as if they were right in their hands, all using speech alone, will mean even fewer reasons to leave the house. (Another challenge to tackle in another article.) 

Develop a Game Plan for Interactive Voice Marketing

Since technologies like the Amazon Alexa and the Web Speech API are already available for use, there’s no reason not to begin experimenting with this new medium, and ample reasons why you should.

The novelty of speaking to computers will wear off eventually. For the moment, though, simply offering an Amazon Alexa skill is a buzzworthy act. Taking advantage of interactive voice early, before its adoption is widespread, gives intelligent marketing teams an opportunity to develop serious competitive advantage by mere virtue of experience.

We may be a few centuries away from becoming an interstellar-spacefaring civilization. Thankfully, the world of talking to our surroundings to shape our environment is already here. To take advantage, smart marketers should start providing valuable interactive voice experiences for their customers. Make it so.