Back in 2014 Andrew Ng, then chief scientist at Baidu, predicted that by 2020, 50% of all searches worldwide would be carried out via voice. “Here in APAC, I wouldn't be surprised if we surpassed 50% much earlier, if we haven't already in some mobile-first, high population markets,” says Nate Shurilla, APAC head of innovation and North Asia commerce, iProspect.
According to Shurilla, India, Indonesia and China are the three prime markets for voice search in APAC. “When looking specifically at those who reported using voice search, our recent studies found that Indian voice users clocked in at 65%, Indonesia at a whopping 75%, and China with a 46%. While we can't directly calculate the number, that's a lot of voice searching!”
Because speaking your query is so much faster and more frictionless than typing it, experts say it’s easy to see why we’re becoming more reliant on voice search. It also helps that speech recognition on many devices has hit 95% accuracy, now at parity with humans.
Given that voice search will generally be through complete sentences, it is important to focus on long tail keywords that are more conversational in nature
“If you look at the China market, voice interaction with digital devices is very natural. You'll typically see more people recording voice messages rather than typing via WeChat, as typing in Chinese is a slow process,” says Richard Brosgill, head of APAC, Forward3D. “Voice allows the user to send messages quickly, but also provides a richer experience as their messages carry emotion. With talking over texting becoming the norm, consumers will be very comfortable asking out-loud for information.”
As consumer uptake of voice tech surges, incorporating a voice search strategy into digital marketing plans is becoming crucial for brands to avoid being shut out by the new gatekeepers of the purchase decision: voice assistants. Among them, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa are leading the conversation. They are changing the way people search for and find brands to interact with.
Learning to capitalize on voice search
So how should brands be optimising or adapting their strategies for voice search? Since voice search currently responds to a query from the user with a single, definitive, result, brands are being encouraged to optimise for ‘rank zero’ – the sole answer delivered via a smart speaker when asked a question.
“SEO will become an even bigger priority for brands as they risk becoming invisible to the voice-led customer without the coveted top organic spot. As such, it is important they optimise for ‘rank zero’”, says Samrat Sengupta, regional eCommerce strategy head, Publicis Media APAC. “Also, given that voice search will generally be through complete sentences, it is important to focus on long tail keywords that are more conversational in nature. It is also important to localise online content to reflect a brand’s specific services and products in the region because obviously voice searches tend to be more localised in nature.”
Shurilla adds that “for product searches, like those via Amazon’s Alexa, it's all about getting into the highest ranking spots for critical keywords and optimising product bullet points to be more conversational and concise.”
There have been occasional trials for advertisements via voice, but these have usually been met with a swift backlash
In addition to ranking highly in search results, as more and more people start using voice search devices, brands will naturally want to connect to their target consumers through those devices, which calls for advertising. However, advertising on these platforms remains in its nascency. There have been occasional trials for advertisements via voice, but these have usually been met with a swift backlash, for example when Disney tried to plug the movie release of Beauty and the Beast last year via an audio ad on its Google Home smart speaker (see video below). Users complained, prompting Google to remove the ad within a few hours and issue an apology.
“For me, I see advertisements proliferating more on voice-enabled smart screens like Amazon's Echo Show and the Google Assistant-enabled Lenovo Smart Screen,” says Shurilla. “Non-intrusive, tappable ads that are related to the voice query can enhance the experience without taking it over.”
Shurilla says that subtlety will be the key when it comes to voice ads: “nothing too brazen”. And as more devices become voice screen enabled, he thinks ads will roll out soon after. “I wouldn't be surprised to see them within a few months to a year’s time.”
But as and when voice ads do come into play, the need for them to be non-intrusive and transparent will be paramount. “Personalisation will be key, but it is going to be a challenge to balance the same with privacy,” says Sengupta. “Voice tech users are generally acutely aware of their online footprint with around 70% of them concerned about the internet eroding their personal privacy.” Hence, he says, brands would need to explicitly ask for the shoppers’ consent and be transparent on how their data might be stored and used. “Voice search is also going to be combative to information fatigue, so ads will need to be direct and to the point with a clear focus on what the user wants and needs.”
'Audio logos' and other self-promotion tactics
As voice adoption surges, it’s already starting to get pretty noisy out there. So how might brands cut through the noise on the voice shelf?
“One way is through sonic branding,” says Shurilla. “Everyone knows the McDonald's ba-da-ba-ba-ba jingle. Also, every television ad where I live here in Japan has a similar jingle associated with the brand at the end. Even if you aren't watching TV, if you hear that jingle from another room that brand has gotten some real estate inside your brain. While it's harder to measure, it definitely has an impact.”
According to Guy Hearn, chief product office, Asia Pacific, Omnicom Media Group, audio logos are something that a range of design agencies are already working on. “It’s important that a brand’s voice becomes as recognisable and on brand as any other element of their design. Brands will need to stand out, not only by being distinctive but by creating the right tone that triggers the right emotional connections.”
Key to standing out on the voice shelf – and one of the biggest challenges facing brands in this area – will be building consumer awareness that they can engage with you via voice and that it's a beneficial experience, says Brosgill. “This very much ties into added value. Within those micro-moments, how can you truly help the consumer? With voice, simplicity and focus will be key from the start. Brands will need to identify which moments truly add value.”
In terms of adding value, some experts believe "brand voices" that interact with consumers on voice platforms will be the next step. “We're already seeing some branded voice personalities in the space. Dom from pizza delivery company Domino's is a great example of this,” says Brosgill.
“Brand voices that enable consumers to have a conversation with a voice assistant if the initial query is ambiguous is one of the more likely developments,” says Hearn. “Voice assistants will begin to understand intent for specific queries and return a personalised result based upon the consumer’s profile. Assistants will also make proactive recommendations based on previous searches, key calendar dates and shopping behaviour.”
And it’s these same “brand voices” that experts say could soon switch with Alexa or Siri to interact with consumers on voice platforms. “Before too long, brands will be able to build assistants with the voice of their choosing,” says Shurilla. “Google, Amazon, and other tech leaders have new solutions available and in development for replicating natural language in these voices.”
Meanwhile, the merging of voice assistants with celebrities or influencers is already occurring with the announcement at this year's Google I/O that singer John Legend has become one of the voices of the Google Assistant (see Google's video below). As digital assistants and the AI behind them continue to advance, this will open up the capability of integrating those influencers' special skills and knowledge. “Getting a recommendation for a sports drink in the voice of your favourite athlete is good, but having a two-way interaction and being able to ask questions and get additional information in their voice will be even more potent,” says Shurilla. “In a short time we could all be getting personally tailored singing lessons from John Legend, fashion advice from Marc Jacobs, and cooking lessons from Gordon Ramsay.”
Arpapat Boonrod, CEO, insights, at Kantar Thailand believes that, done right, voice has the potential to be a valuable asset for brands unlike any other because of its ability to create emotional connections. “Voice can help create meaningful relationships between brands and people. This is because voice is a technology that is human-like,” says Boonrod. “It reflects feelings, tones and personality. Thus, the communication is more intimate. Brands can portray themselves through voice and interject themselves into consumers’ lives in a much easier and more natural way.”
Data concurs that voice tech is set to be a valuable asset for the long term, too. According to this year's ‘The Future is Voice Activated’ study compiled by iProspect, 95% of the 1,800 smartphone owners surveyed in six APAC markets – Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan and Singapore – intend to continue using voice activated technology in the future. Meanwhile, 65% of people by 2025 will trust their digital assistants to make decisions on their behalf. In other words, it makes sense for brands to join the conversation. Voice tech is here to stay.