Alexa, what’s the future of voice search?

Alexa, what’s the future of voice search?

With voice search becoming more and more commonplace, how can marketers make the most of this fast-evolving technology?

How important is voice-activated search going to be for your organisation? While strange laughter from Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home hijackings may be creating social media buzz and mass-media headlines, the increasing adoption of voice assistants and fast-growing use of voice-activated search is a serious matter for marketers.

Digital voice assistant technology such as Amazon Echo and Google Home has moved rapidly into the mainstream – complementing the penetration of existing mobile-based voice gadgetry. Apple has recently weighed in, too, with its HomePod – replete with a swish Spike Jonze directed ad featuring FKA Twigs. This is big business – it has been estimated by US analytics firm ComScore that, by 2020, 50% of searches worldwide will be carried out via voice.

As consumers become more familiar with using voice search, how must marketers adapt to ensure that they make the most of this technology? To start with, having a basic understanding of how voice search is different from traditional text-based search is crucial if you want your brand to top the search engine results pages (SERPS).

Voice queries are usually more natural and conversational in structure, while typing generally produces more simplistic, quicker to type keywords. Voice phrasing is more likely to be in a question format, demanding specific information rather than just a string of keywords, and this therefore can more strongly indicate intent. 

Building this more conversational phrasing into content is changing the way marketers need to think carefully about terms used in content, rather than just keywords and the structure of content to enhance relevance.

Keywords and phrases

Simon Baptist is head of operations at mobile analytics and performance marketing firm TUNE. “Traditional search engines have marketers using long-tail keywords [a keyword phrase that contains at least three words] to understand what customers actually want,” he says. “But voice gives an entirely new picture of the questions customers are asking, and at which stage in the customer journey they’re being asked. Marketers can use it discover content gaps or engagement opportunities, which can then be proactively addressed with sales material or content.”

This can also enhance the ability to influence purchases before they even happen, by following up a search with a highly contextualised response that anticipates further queries, Baptist says. 

Voice search also has a higher rate of users who select the first search result than they do with text. This means that it’s crucial to be as relevant as possible.

“Brands and marketers need to respond to the rise of voice commerce and bots by making sure their data, SKUs and tagging are high-quality,” says Rurik Bradbury, global head of conversational strategy at AI messaging solutions company LivePerson. “This is foundational for adding new commerce channels ­– and very frustrating for customers when retailers get it wrong.”

Customer journey

Organisations and marketers should also be thinking beyond this. Bradbury believes voice search could bring a more interactive dimension between marketing and retail. 

“As messaging apps and voice assistants such as Alexa and Siri move to dominate how consumers communicate with businesses, companies need to start thinking seriously about how they will connect to consumers on these conversational interfaces,” he says.

“Plus, to make the most of voice-activated search, brands need to stand firmly in the shoes of the customer and ensure they create experiences powered by software that are not only genuinely useful, but easy to adopt and integrate into the customer journey.”

Value-based experiences

Rob Bennett is CEO of Rehab, a digital agency specialising in voice that works with clients such as Nike and Estée Lauder, and recently won an Emmy for its work with HBO’s Westworld on an interactive voice ‘concierge bot’ service to complement the TV series.

“A voice service or utility should give a benefit to the user and be generous,” he says. “It shouldn’t push products directly, but instead help people with a problem, achieve an aim or offer quality interactive, personalised advice – it can become a go-to for customers. Then when they need something, and are ready to purchase, the brand is already in that headspace.”

Bennett sees these kinds of voice experiences as a big opportunity for brands to get information from users, especially if the service can be continually refined to become increasingly relevant for users.

“In retail, there will of course be e-commerce activity, but a voice experience that provides utility and a service earns the right to talk about a product – and by delivering this, you earn the right to a sale.

“And provided that you’re clear and honest with your users, and you give them a value exchange, the amount of information and data you get out of them is far richer.”

The stronger intent and behaviours that voice search helps reveal can be used by brands to develop products and services, and to respond faster to any evolving trends.

Campaign integration

Bennett warns, however, that marketers should not see voice as an add-on to a campaign.

“It’s growing much quicker than people realise,” he says. “It’s driven by convenience, so it has to be easier and simpler than anything else – and if it isn’t, you shouldn’t be doing it. Marketers should be wary of just fitting it into a campaign – this is a long-term opportunity to build a relationship with customers.”

Voice, he says, must also be part of an integrated multi-modal approach, in which the customer can switch back and forth seamlessly between voice and visual to create a relevant, consistent experience that heightens personalisation and customer utility.

“This is an entrepreneurial and agile space,” Bennett adds. “Yes, you can put something out into the market. But you will also need to analyse it in a live setting and iterate constantly. It needs to be something you keep developing and improving.”

Voice search certainly offers opportunities for marketers, particularly in terms of what the technology could reveal about customer wants and needs. However, the challenge brands will face will be in maintaining the human connection with customers, who often prefer to speak with a real individual. In essence, brands that manage to integrate most effectively with this exciting new interface, and deliver relevant results, are likely to unlock significant business advantage.

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Phil Lattimore
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