Kristian Barnes
Feb 3, 2020

Don’t underestimate the power of the voice

A disagreement about dolphin dentition leads to a review of the stats around voice search and voice-activated content—and a wakeup call for brands who haven't heard the message yet.

(Shutterstock)
(Shutterstock)

Yesterday my 6- and 11-year-olds where having an argument about whether dolphins had teeth. I was about to intervene when my 11-year-old yelled out, “Alexa, do dolphins have teeth?” Alexa stopped playing music and responded, “They do.” My 6-year-old refused to accept this, so my 11-year-old yelled out again, “Alexa, where can I see dolphins near me?” Alexa began to speak about dolphins in the oceans and seas. This didn’t satisfy my son, so he grabbed his phone and asked Google the same question. Google responded by identifying a nearby dolphin park. He then requested we go there so he could prove to his sister that dolphins have teeth.

A number of things struck me. Firstly, how much voice search is now a part of daily life. Secondly, that my son didn’t question Google’s first recommendation. And lastly, the impact voice search will have on brands' marketing strategies.

Voice technology usage is accelerating rapidly. A 2019 Adobe study concluded 44% of consumers used voice technology daily;—85% on mobile devices and 39% on smart speakers. It further stated 48% are currently using voice for search. Gartner also predicted that by 2020, 30% of all searches will be done without a screen. All stats point to voice search becoming dominant in the near future.

This accelerating growth is due to a few factors. Firstly, speech-recognition technology has vastly improved thanks to AI and machine-learning advances. Google has a 95% accuracy rate for English, and Google Assistant an 85.5% success rate in answering natural language questions correctly. Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft are all working to improve the accuracy and understanding of their voice assistant’s responses to natural language questions across multiple languages. In China, iFlyteck claims an accuracy rate of 98% for Mandarin and English.

Secondly, voice-activated technology is becoming ubiquitous. Smartphone penetration stats are well known, but the smart speaker market grew 44.9% in 2019 (Nasdaq) and this growth is predicted to continue as Google, Apple and others are entering the market. Interestingly, 52% of smart speaker owners have two or more.

Finally, it is simply much more natural, convenient and speedy for us to speak rather than type, and technology now supports this more effectively.

The implications for brands and marketing are numerous. With smart speakers the biggest implication is that when you ask it a question it gives you one answer—the answer it determines to be most relevant to the question, not the top five selection. You also can’t scroll down a screen to see other answers. This means that unless a brand is that top answer, it is non-existent. This is a subtle difference to the current structure of search, but has significant consequences for brands' SEO strategies.

Also, helping consumers discover voice-activated brand content is not presently a priority for the tech companies, and many existing voice apps are still novelty-based. However, a number of brands are now genuinely trying to understand what works, and how, with voice-activated brand content. A good example of this is Purina’s “Ask Purina” Alexa skill. This is important considering Amazon Prime Members are 50% more likely to own a smart speaker, and that 44% of smart-speaker owners order products weekly through those devices (Quoracreative).

Mobile voice search still incorporates results on the screen so not being the single most relevant answer is less problematic for now. But every demographics’ use of daily voice search is growing, and some are already significant, such as 25- to 49-year-olds at 65% (PWC). Couple that with consumers’ potential acceptance of the first answer given (as in the case of my son), and answer relevance will become more important. Further, Google states there has been a 500% increase in the voice search phrase “near me” coupled with the word “buy”. And according to Brightlocal, 46% of consumers use voice search for local businesses on a daily basis.

This is all critically important when voice commerce is predicted to be worth $40 billion by 2022 (OC&C), up from $2.1 billion in 2018 (eMarketer). Voice search will be the prevalent way we glean information via our mobile and smart-home devices. Marketeers need to consider the implications to their SEO, ecommerce and brand strategies now and begin to understand what successful voice-activated search and content look like for them.


Kristian Barnes, formerly APAC chief client officer at Dentsu Aegis Network and APAC CEO of Vizeum, is co-founder of consulting firm Moriarty, Flynn & Barnes in Singapore.

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