iHeartRadio's "Santa Skill" Brings Fresh Business Opportunities

By iHeartMedia InSites Archives
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This holiday season, iHeartRadio is decking the halls in a fresh way with a seasonal skill for any Alexa-enabled device.  By saying, "Alexa, talk to Santa Claus," users can sample holiday music from country tunes to Christmas classics and even hear reindeer jokes from the voice assistant.  The skill is the latest way that iHeartMedia is adapting its vast audio content for voice-assisted technology, in particular such popular smart speakers as Amazon's Echo and Google's Google Home. 

"We've seen increased iHeartRadio user adoption of voice-enabled smart speakers and are always on the lookout for new and innovative ways for consumers to interact with us," said iHeartRadio's Chief Product Officer, Chris Williams (pictured below), in a recent conversation with MediaVillage. "Custom skills such as iHeartRadio's Santa skill for Amazon's Alexa are a great example."

Since Amazon introduced its first Echo device in 2014, demand for voice-assisted technology and smart speakers has exploded.  Currently, industry estimates project that between 7% and 11% of Americans own a smart speaker, and the devices are expected to be one of this season's hottest holiday gifts.  By 2020, Gartner research estimates that 75% of U.S. homes will have a smart speaker standing on the kitchen counter or bedroom nightstand.  Also, with voice-technology, including Alexa, increasingly integrated into car entertainment systems, users will have even more opportunities to use voice commands to sample audio content.

With its voice integrations, iHeartMedia is already a step ahead of many of its competitors.  For instance, voice skills for its 850 local radio stations come pre-loaded in many devices, including Amazon products.  All these users have to do is request their device play a favorite station or iHeartRadio.  iHeart says its radio station skills, as well as creative efforts like the new "Ask Santa" skill, are helping to drive awareness for its brands and increase audio consumption on new platforms.

"As an early adopter of smart speaker technology, we've seen incredible growth in the number of iHeartRadio listeners who use Alexa-enabled devices," Williams said.  "Ease of use is a major factor in user adoption, and the main reason that voice assistants will be ubiquitous in the next decade."

As content publishers -- including radio broadcasters, digital audio services and TV networks -- have launched custom skills to deliver their content to smart speakers, brands and marketers have also been eying ways to take advantage of voice technology.  Some brands have created their own custom voice skills to promote their products, while others are looking to integrate with publishers' skills to promote their products and services and gain access to an established audience.

While iHeart is not attaching sponsors to its skills just yet, Williams says he can envision opportunities to marry clients with voice-assisted content.  "With the increase in smart speaker use, there will be more and more opportunities to tie in our brand partners in a way that also benefits our listeners at home," he said.

For now, iHeart is focusing on growing its smart speaker user base, and the company is leaning on its radio stations to help educate users, promote discovery and convert many of its 250 million monthly radio listeners into smart speaker users, further expanding its reach.  "We have a huge opportunity to use our massive scale to help educate consumers on how to easily use voice-enabled devices to listen to their favorite broadcast radio stations, on-demand music, news/talk content and podcasts," Williams explained.

To promote its new "Santa" skill, iHeart is marshaling those on-air and online assets.  "Throughout December we're running on-air, digital and social promotions to drive awareness and engagement with iHeartRadio's Santa Skill," Williams noted.  "We'll also tap into our on-air personality influencer network to spread the word by talking about the skill as a fun, new way to interact with Santa Claus and hear great Christmas music."

As it promotes "Ask Santa" as well as future niche skills, iHeart can build off some of its early experiences in the space.  The company uses its 850 terrestrial radio outlets to promote its individual station skills, such as reminding listeners they can command Alexa to stream their favorite station or turn on a station stream at a particular time, creating an alarm clock or listening appointment.  The strategy is similar to how the company built up the user base for its iHeartRadio streaming app.  "Broadcast radio is how we've grown iHeartRadio to more than 100 million registered users with over 90% brand awareness, and it's a natural extension to help educate listeners on using our voice skills," Williams said.

Of course, an old-fashioned prize giveaway is always a way to entice the audience to try something new.  Taking a page from its radio promotions playbook, this month iHeart stations are giving away Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Cortana enabled devices.  In a more contemporary styled promotion, iHeart and Google partnered to direct listeners to command their Google Assistant devices to vote for their favorite artist in the "Most Powerful Female Voice" category for the 2017 iHeartRadio Music Awards.  "It's an example of how voice-enabled technology can elevate both publishers and brands," Williams noted.

While iHeart isn't involving its advertising clients in its smart speaker efforts just yet, they are already working to tie advertisers into original skills or, as Williams further explained, "to develop custom skills and actions that are beneficial to our listeners ... then we'll promote the skills and actions on-air, digitally and through social media to drive awareness and engagement."

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