Why voice assistants have got to be like the ‘best dinner party guest ever’

An Amazon Echo device at the Ford booth at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, January 2017
David Becker | Getty Images

If you don't have a strategy for how your brand works on Google's Assistant or Amazon's Alexa, you'll likely need one by 2020.

According to Accenture's digital consumer survey 2018, a third of people online in China, India, the U.S., Brazil and Mexico plan to buy a standalone voice assistant by the end of the year.

And for Lego's Head of Emerging Platforms and Partnerships James Poulter, this means marketers need to be ready — and that may include long-form audio, such as a podcast.

"I'm a pretty big believer that by 2020, most major consumer and probably most business-to-business brands will need some kind of audio strategy or voice strategy in place. Mainly because it's becoming the primary access point for people in the home around content," Poulter said, speaking on a panel at the Advertising Week Europe conference in London this week.

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But this doesn't mean making adverts, said Patrick Givens, head of VaynerSmart at agency VaynerMedia. "It's not advertising. What we're doing here is not broadcasting a message to a target audience. What we're doing here is designing experiences that are well enough designed and well-crafted that merit 'lean-in interaction' and can be worth engaging with."

VaynerSmart has worked with companies such as Diageo on voice technology. It created an Alexa Skill that allowed people to learn about Johnnie Walker whisky, including via questions about which flavors they prefer.

Poulter said businesses that want to use voice technology should consider "interaction design," or how someone speaks to their voice assistant. "The minute you have a conversation with something that's a frustrating or friction-filled experience, you begin to want to leave the room. So it's got to be like the best dinner party guest that you've ever invited."

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The personalized nature of voice technology presents a challenge for businesses, according to Jenna Pelkey, director of digital innovation at Baker Hughes, part of General Electric. "Brands, myself included, are looking for scale: get me in front of the most points of impact (consumers). (Voice) is going to challenge us massively to be intimate… because you have to understand one-to-one (communication) and what you need to do to effect change," she said on the panel.

Companies may be familiar with producing guidelines for how their brand should look on paper, but thinking about what it should sound like is new, Givens said.

"For many of our brand clients, if you were to say, what does your brand identity consist of, they might send you a PDF and that doesn't sound like much of anything. At best you might have some tonal guidelines, but it's still just a series of adjectives on a page."