In a Pandemic, Voice Tech Takes Center Stage. NPR & Edison Research Report

By NPR InSites Archives
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As the COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of Americans to retreat to their homes this spring, media and technology habits have been reshaped, elevating voice-assisted technology to a starring role. Multi-tasking consumers juggling work, home and health concerns want – and need -- easy access news, information and entertainment and voice-activated devices deliver. Amid these challenging times, smart speakers and voice assistants have catapulted from being novelties to a vital household assistant. In early April, nearly half of Americans were working from home, and one-quarter of those said their routines had been impacted by the coronavirus crisis, according to The Spring 2020 Smart Audio Report by Edison Research and NPR which surveyed adults 18 years old and older on March 31 and April 1.

Many of those impacted have turned to smart speakers, namely Amazon Echo and Google Home devices, to help them navigate quarantined life. They have more time to experiment with the voice capabilities on their smartphones and speakers, and 43 percent of speaker owners said they're using their device more now than they did the first month they owned it. Smart speakers "are increasingly not a gadget that is interesting for gadgetry sake. They get used because people need a helping hand," said Tom Webster, Edison's senior vice president of research.

One in four Americans, or 60 million consumers, now own at least one smart speaker, up from 53 million a year ago, according to the Spring 2020 Smart Audio Report. For many families, one speaker isn't enough: 29 percent of smart speaker owners have three or more devices, up from 21 percent in the spring 2019 survey. As Americans get more comfortable with voice tech, they're also the voice assistants on their smartphones more frequently, with 41% of adults saying they are using their Siri or Google Assistant nearly every day or more.

Since mid-March, the morning commute has been reduced to moving from the bedroom to the kitchen table. Instead of hitting the gym or running errands, Americans working out in their basements or neighborhoods, and shopping online. As a result, how the audience accesses audio has shifted. In the Spring 2020 Report, 23 percent of audio users said they were listening via smart speakers, compared to 19 percent a year ago. Desktop and laptop listening ticked up slightly to 15 percent from 13 percent a year ago, while tuning in via smartphones dropped from 39 percent in spring 2019 to 31 percent.

"We're so used to the ants marching to get into our cars every morning, to get onto the transportation system of our choice and to start our day," said Joel Sucherman, NPR's Vice President for new platform partnerships. "Without that same routine…we see a lot of listening to public radio happening on smart speakers on our desks at home."

As the pandemic drags on, "There's a thirst for news as we've gotten deeper and deeper," Webster noted. Among smart speaker owners, 62 percent said they are listening to news on their devices, up from 55 percent last spring, while 43 percent of device owners report listening to one to three hours of news per day via speakers. Across its platforms, during the pandemic, NPR reports that listening is up 35 percent. In another significant bit of data, half of adults 18 to 34 report they're listening to more NPR. "They are home more and, in a place, where they are interested in the world around them," Sucherman noted.

In response to demand NPR recently launched two new COVID-19-related shows. The new podcast Coronavirus Daily provides the latest news on the virus and responses. The National Conversation with All Things Considered is a talk-show radio program airing weeknights at 9 p.m. and on-demand. Hosts answer listener questions sent via social media and call ins and experts weigh in. With schools shuttered, NPR's popular kids podcast "Wow in the World" is now publishing five episodes per week.

While more consumers embrace smart speakers, the devices themselves are evolving. The newest smart speakers, like the Echo Show and the Google Home Hub, are outfitted with screens, allowing for audio and video content. In spring 2020, 37 percent of smart speaker owners have a device with a screen and one-third said they plan to buy a screen-equipped device in the next six months. In response, publishers now need to consider video for their skills and content. NPR, for instance, is already doing that, including companion video features to accompany its smart speaker audio, including images for newscasts and bonus content for its "Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me" quiz show skill. "We're not just a radio company," Sucherman said. "This is a new normal and there is going to be more and more expectations that there are companion visuals or navigation to make better use of device."

Despite voice tech's impressive strides, some consumers are still holding out. They're concerned about their privacy and security, worried that the devices are always listening, or hackers could access personal information, the report noted. Some smart speaker owners share some of these concerns, but said they're willing to make trade-offs in exchange for the conveniences. That's in part because voice technology is expanding from smart phones and smart speakers and into cars, appliances and even remotes, solidifying its place in everyday life.

Devices have gotten smarter and more responsive, and consumers are discovering more content than ever. "It comes down to the fact that there are some things that it is simply faster or more efficient to use your voice for," Sucherman said.

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