If a picture paints 1,000 words, how long will it take for Alexa to reel off my flight search results? Is that better than seeing them on my screen? To understand what a technology means for society, business and brands, it's vital that we understand its limitations as well as its profound new possibilities. Voice is a naturally fast and sometimes magical way to input information, but as it currently stands it's not always the best means to getting valuable outcomes.
Of course, that hasn't stopped us from embracing voice. While many now avoid talking on the phone like it's the plague in favor of exclusively texting, we are at the same time excitedly talking into smart machines at every chance we get. Regardless of the logic, voice now seems to be a natural and desirable way for consumers to navigate information, so we must ask: What does it mean for brands?
I think we need to take both a short- and long-term look at voice technologies. Amara's Law declares that the short-term effects of technology are often overstated, while its long-term impact is often underestimated. It is in this important long-term context that I believe the world of voice has a lot of promise.
The current obsession with voice changing everything is a little naive. It shows a degree of familiarity with technology, but only a passing understanding of humanity.
Quite honestly, I just don't buy the predictions. Gartner thinks that by 2020, 30% of searches will be done without a screen (Gartner, October 2016). Activate predicts that the connected speaker will be the fastest adopted product ever, reaching 50% of U.S. households in the next three years (Activate, October 2017). Well, I've used and loved multiple voice-activated devices for two years, and I still just don't buy it.
As Executive Vice President and Head of Innovation at Zenith USA innovation is literally in my job title, but watching me use voice is a bit like watching my parents use a mouse for the first time -- you can see a degree of wonder, but also that I'm using all sorts of brain muscles differently, and for the first time. The reality is that, for most people trained in the old way, voice is hard and the payoff not great.
Most articles about voice commerce seem to be written by those who have never used it. Buying things from a device is not easy. It's not a faster way to get a pizza or a better way to procure shampoo; it's a long and uncertain journey filled with concerns and friction. If all we ever knew was voice technology, the invention of the website would be our savior. There are great use cases -- the weather, alarm clocks, the news, music (if you are not picky or can actually remember songs names) and a few more, but most of the time, commerce simply isn't it.
In the next three years or so, I just don't see life changing much thanks to voice technologies, despite the fact that millions of households may have bought them. Some people will of course continue to shout out demands for Alexa to order laundry detergent off Amazon, and others will dabble with ordering an Uber while they get dressed -- just to see what it's like. Perhaps a tiny percentage of households, for a tiny percentage of their purchases, will order this way, but to say that it's the entire future of commerce or branding shows a lack of understanding.
If we take whole swathes of industries today, from hailing taxis to paying energy bills, ordering food to buying clothes, finding flights to booking hotels, the reality is that seeing is better than hearing. Voice is great for micro transactions and a magical way to check your credit card bill, find out the remaining data on your monthly phone plan, or pay off bills quickly, but in its current state, it simply isn't the future of retail.
Combined with other emerging technologies, however, I see where the long-term potential of voice will come into play. A bigger disrupter to the overall retail industry is subscription shopping, the ultimate frictionless experience: The idea that you won't ever need to engage anyone or anything because you merely have items arriving automatically each month or week. The magical piece to this -- awareness -- is where voice can truly come into play.
This is ultimately the same quandary faced by all brands: First, making sure the product is top of mind and that awareness is high; second, that the brand is liked and understood, and finally, that the products are good enough to be sure people want to use them time and time again.
As emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence begin to reach their true potential, it will power a whole new world of voice. In the long-term, these technologies will become a new operating system, a new gateway and glue to all of the devices that we own. We will see screens operate around us, with TV ads that ask us to speak to our Alexa, and then allow us to ask for maps to stores and locations to update magically in our cars.
In the future, the next generation will have grown ups using voice as the primary way to interact with devices, and therefore people will build business models and products based on this construct. General AI will make voice devices feel human and rich and, above all else, smart. We will trust our devices, and therefore automation will remove many of our brand choices. But even in this crazy new world, we still need to know that a W Hotel is trendy, that a Cadillac is a great car, that Domino's makes great pizza. The importance of branding won't change. The importance of advertising and marketing remain. Like with all new ad technologies, we will just need to find that added layer of humanity to reach through these new devices to the consumer.
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