News & Views

Voice: the long and short of it

by James Swift

The tech sector may be woefully under-regulated, but it has amassed a hefty constitution of observations so astute that people refer to them as laws or rules.

There is Moore’s law (computer power doubles every two years), Godwin’s law (as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1) and rule 34 (if it exists, there’s a porn version of it).

Then there is Amara’s law: 'We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run’.

Of all technology’s pseudo-laws, Amara’s is probably the most relevant for brands and agencies, and it’s worth looking at marketing’s latest obsession, voice technology, through its prism.

Servile takeover

Smart speakers, such as Amazon’s Echo and Google Home, are destined for ubiquity. Already, 13% of US homes and 10% of UK homes have a smart speaker, according to OC&C, and the consultancy firm predicts that these figures will rise to 55% and 48% by 2022.

Gartner predicts that by 2020, 30% of web browsing will be done by voice and OC&C predicts that voice commerce will be a $40bn market in the US alone by 2022.

‘What’s really happening is that we’re building a new front door to the internet,’ says Will Wiseman, the president of planning and strategy at PHD in the US.

Audio landscape

After Amazon’s Echo device arrived in 2015, experts and analysts didn’t take long to twig that there was a dearth of commercial real estate within voice interfaces.

Interruptive ads are a non-starter and the competition for space on the voice shelf is likely to be fierce: when people ask their voice assistants about a product category, they are unlikely to have the patience to hear more than three options.

Scott Galloway, marketing professor at NYU Stern, argues that ordering goods from Alexa poses a threat to brands as we know them by eliminating ‘the need for packaging, design and end caps, all the things that brands have poured billions and decades into perfecting’.

Already, companies are rushing to create helpful voice apps, to tempt people to spend a little time with their brand in this new channel. But most of these end in failure, or at least obscurity. Even those that do get discovered face poor odds. Voice-shopping service provider Alpine.AI states that there is a just a 6% chance that a person will continue to use a voice app after two weeks.

As smart-speaker technology improves, brands will likely have to think about developing a voice of their own, too.  But will the voice be of the brand itself, or a representative of the brand? What kind of phrases will it use?

Sophie Kleber, executive director of product and innovation at Huge told Contagious that there’s around 40 different markers in voice. Things like frequency (how fast or slow something speaks), pitch (in terms of high, low and range between the two) and energy (how much breath there is in a voice).

But there’s an issue with brands and voice than goes deeper that pitch, tone, or phrasing.

Oren Jacob, co-founder and CEO of PullString, was quoted as saying that, because of the way language works, it is impossible to separate having a conversation from whom you are having it with.

When brands begin to speak, they will need fully realised personalities because ambiguity or passiveness will be interpreted as a positive stance.

Amazon, for example, was forced to create a 'disengage mode' after people complained about Alexa’s flippant responses to abusive commands, saying it was tantamount to condoning violence against women.

‘Good brands are like good people,’ says Kleber. ‘They stand for something and they don’t budge. We’ve got to bring that into voice personalities, with all the consequences that come with it. So, the consequence of standing up to insults and not playing in certain spaces, and really crafting strong personalities versus universally liked personalities.’

When all's said and done

In the next few years, more people will bring voice assistants into their homes, more people will shop without screens, and more devices and spaces will incorporate voice technology. But voice will not replace screen interfaces entirely and brands as we know them will not likely cease to exist because logos and packaging lose their currency.

The creeping long-term change, the one we underestimate, could be the way voice interfaces force brands to set out their stall by defining their personalities.

Chris Ferrel, digital strategy director at The Richards Group, summed it up succinctly at a SXSW talk earlier this year:

‘The visual web is all about how your brand looks, but the audio web is all about how your brand looks at the world.’

There's another one for tech's pseudo statute books.