Amazon and Google are turning up the competition in the voice assistant and smart speaker race, with both tech giants launching new devices and accessories for their respective platforms this fall.
But while Google is hitting movie theaters to promote its home products and Apple is just getting started with the HomePod, Amazon controls the majority of the market share with its Echo devices—which range from the simple Echo Dot to the video-enabled Echo Show.
But like the early days of smartphones and the internet, there are some growing pains involved, specifically with skill (app) discovery and retention.
“The discovery around these voice skills is pretty depressing—people don’t know where to find them,” Mike Macadaan, CEO of Ground Control, a start-up focused on developing skills for the voice technology space, told AListDaily. “Once they do find them, the commitment level is really bad. Less than 3 percent of people come back into a skill or game once they’ve activated it on their Echo devices.”
Gartner predicts that 75 percent of all homes will have voice devices by 2020, and that estimate doesn’t account for how voice assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa may be integrated into third-party devices like smartphones, headphones and TVs.
It’s clear that voice platforms may become areas that marketers should consider for additional touchpoints. But despite having conglomerates behind them, voice platforms are still in their early stages, with Amazon still figuring out what users want from their Echo experiences.
Echo users are mainly sticking to passive experiences such as checking the news and weather in the morning and perhaps listening to music throughout the day—very few are enabling interactive skills.
As Amazon launches the new generation of Echo devices alongside accessories such as Echo Buttons to further interaction with games, Ground Control is developing content to take advantage of it all. To address the problem of discovery, Ground Control partnered with the Creative Arts Agency (CAA) to connect with celebrities and politicians who are interested in helping to pioneer experiences for voice platforms. The company is leveraging personalities including comedian Mike Epps, NBA star Karl-Anthony Towns and former US vice president Joe Biden to attract audiences and get them engaged with its skills.
Macadaan says that, not surprisingly, the most popular types of experiences for voice-activated systems are trivia games or choose-your-own-adventure-type stories. On the first day of the MLB postseason in October, the company launched Full Count Baseball Trivia featuring San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey as the color commentator. That was preceded the month before by Biden’s Briefing, an interactive podcast that collects news stories curated by Biden. Later, Ground Control intends to release Buzzer Beater Basketball Trivia with Towns and Sounds Fun with Epps.
“A lot of people assume that we’re partnering with celebrities so that we can get customer acquisition and big marketing,” said Macadaan. “All of that is totally true, but the really interesting thing is that Echoes have the Alexa voice, which can be cold and robotic. When you [replace it with] a celebrity to personify their voice into one of these devices, they evoke different types of reactions and emotions.”
Macadaan believes that these engaging voices may open a new field of experiences, where users may feel like they’re conversing directly with their favorite stars or have them host family game night. Ground Control’s trivia skills will also take advantage of Echo Buttons for multiplayer, which Macadaan believes will be a major disruption for traditional board games.
But there might be a long road ahead. Macadaan said that the discovery problem isn’t limited to users figuring out what skills they want—it’s that many don’t even know what a skill is or realize the full potential of their Echo devices.
“Google and Amazon are getting these devices into people’s homes, but that doesn’t mean they’re using them in ways that you might imagine,” said Macadaan. “The problem with discovery also brings the problem with retention.”
Platforms need to figure out the audio marketplace, which Macadaan says is a fragmented combination of website, app and voice experiences right now. Until then, developers need to get creative. For example, since Biden’s Briefing features content from numerous sources, Ground Control is working with these publishers to cross-promote how Biden selected their stories. More radical ideas include having Towns say, “Alexa, enable Buzzer Beater Trivia,” at an arena while viewers and attendees have the voice function active on the Amazon app.
But ultimately, the promotion may simply come back to mobile apps. Ground Control is considering the development of a smartphone app to accompany its skills, as Amazon currently does not allow developers to promote their other skills from within the experiences. Instead, the Echo platform automatically recommends similar games.
Although Macadaan admitted that the voice gaming space is still niche, he believes that the tech will eventually become ubiquitous, with Alexa integrated across devices like cars and mobile phones. And for better or worse, audiences are already learning the nuances of machine interaction through automated customer service lines.
In the meantime, Hollywood studios are already experimenting with the voice platform as an additional touchpoint for movies such as Dunkirk and Spider-Man: Homecoming, with experiences that provide more background on the movies and their stars.
It will take time before monetization of voice skills is figured out, Macadaan said, pointing out how most branded skills are being optimized for Amazon services such as music, TV shows, movies and purchasable goods.
Macadaan believes that brands should look to build narrative experiences for the platform that will grow or change throughout the year. It’s still too early for sophisticated experiences, so it’s also important for brands to keep things simple. For example, he’s working on a skill that recommends travel destinations, and what users need to pack for these adventures, to promote a luggage brand.