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What Brands Need To Know About The Emerging Voice-First Era

“If you're not discoverable via Alexa or Google, then you're going to have big issues, because somebody is going to be discoverable – and it could be your rival,” says Modev’s Pete Erickson ahead of next week’s Voice Summit.

It seemed like the number of Amazon Echo and Google Home devices installed in the U.S. practically grew overnight last year, rising from 20 million in the third quarter of 2017 to more than 30 million in the fourth quarter, according to Mary Meeker’s 2018 Internet Trends report.

As these devices proliferate, Voice-activated searches and commands are becoming more mainstream. Certainly, with all the complaints about auto-correct, voice provides an easy alternative to texting when a user is walking or performing other tasks with their hands. In fact, an estimated 40 percent of searches by U.S. adults today are spoken.

For most brands, Voice activation represents something… new? Or is it old? Like radio?

The point is, everyone is still figuring it out – especially consumers. To help sort it out, the decade-old Modev, which represents a community of some 25,000 developers and brand leaders focused on educating companies on the latest tech, will be hosting its first Voice Summit. (Full disclosure: GeoMarketing is a media partner of the event.)

The three-day conference boasts a slate of more than 150 industry names, including “voice-first” experts such as Chief Evangelist Alexa and Echo at Amazon David Isbitski, Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories’ Chiori Hori, Mercedes-Benz Research and Development North America’s Robert Bruchhardt,, CapitalOne’s Lauren Lucchese, Lego’s James Poulter, Google’s Cathy Pearl, and Howard Lerman, Founder and CEO of Yext (Full disclosure: Yext owns GeoMarketing. More details on that relationship here), among others.

We checked in with Modev founder Pete Erickson and creator of the Voice Summit to get a sense of what the state of voice is right now and where it’s going.

GeoMarketing: What is the origin story behind the Modev’s Voice Summit?

Pete Erickson:  VOICE Summit was based on market knowledge gained after we conducted a 10-city Alexa Skills training tour last summer through Voicehacks, a new community we launched sponsored by Amazon Alexa.  After training almost 2,000 people how to build Alexa skills, we learned a ton about who was interested and why. In every city we visited we met developers, designers, content writers, UX engineers, brands, agencies and startups.  We knew this market needed a big tent event that brought everyone together, which marked the beginning of VOICE Summit.

As for Modev, we got our start back at the dawning of the mobile first era in 2008. After moving to the Washington, D.C. area from Seattle where there was an active tech scene, I was looking for the same kind of vibe and couldn’t find it, so I started a meetup community to get to meet people and bring folks together around mobile development as I was interested in developing mobile apps for iOS and Android phones. We got our start as a community building organization, and turned it into a full-fledged company in 2010 after putting on my first Modev conference. From there, I really haven’t looked back.

We operate on the belief that in the era of digital transformation, it’s absolutely vital that people get together. And we see our role in that. We bring people together to help, not just move technology forward, but to help move people forward. Individuals. Organizations. Companies. Product teams. Things actually work when people come together, and that’s really our whole mission.

How you choose the city of Newark as the place to host the Voice Summit?

We were sitting in a conference room at the Day One building in Seattle with the Amazon Alexa team. The first question after we all agreed on terms of the event was   where to have it? We decided at that point that we’d put together an RFP and let the right city come to us. It came down to four final cities. Newark, New York, Philadelphia, and L.A. All great places to have a conference.

But the Newark response for us was very unique, in that it was close to major metropolitan area, but it also had a lot of really attractive features throughout. They had a whole team that put together a host committee that included New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), the Mayor’s office, the Greater Newark Convention and Visitors Bureau, The Community Economic Development Council and local tech industry leaders.  One little known fact about Newark is it’s actually home to Audible.com, one of the very first companies that was bought by Amazon. There are a lot of other notable industries and companies there, including Panasonic America, Prudential, some big healthcare players, like Horizon, and RWJBarnabas. Newark’s is also in the midst of a major transformation and new companies are moving in as they realize the benefits of being so close to a major metro at a fraction of the cost and a wealth of local talent as there are five universities in and around Newark, and yeah NJIT is one of them. NJIT graduates more Engineers than MIT.

What is the state of voice activation from a brand marketing and consumer perspective?

There are actually multiple things happening. There are an estimated 50 million households that will use a voice-activated system before the end 2018. What’s interesting is the market itself is playing catch up with that.

It looks very similar to when the iPhone first emerged.

If you look at how many iPhones ended up in the hands of people in a very short period of time, and then the market started to mature into that platform. And so, we’re seeing a very similar thing happen in Voice. And if you take companies that made it early in the mobile app space, that can point the way for what’s emerging in Voice.

Instagram is a good example. Instagram got popular with 25 million users, and became worth a billion dollars. We’re going to see similar things happen in Voice. Right now, existing brands that have large footprints in mobile and the web are racing to move into this “Voice-First” era.

If they don’t create that point of interaction with Voice, then there will be pure play startups that move into that space, and take that virtual real estate. It’s shaping up to be just like when Instagram arrived, it basically unseated all of the online photo sharing sites that were already there that could have moved into mobile pretty easily, but didn’t.

Is Voice having an impact on search and marketing right now? And how do you expect that to evolve?

The forecast for right now is that 50 percent of all searches by 2020 will be via Voice. Right now I think we’re north of 30 percent in terms of Voice search. There will be a trillion searches this year, I believe, done via Voice. Certainly that changes the game a lot.

If you’re not discoverable via Alexa or Google, then you’re going to have big issues, because somebody is going to be discoverable – and it could be your rival. And that’s critical.

What industries do you think might be most impacted by Voice, especially in these early days.

I would say restaurants, entertainment, media, all those areas, it’s going to be critical to get the grasp of Voice search. For shopping and retail, Voice is absolutely critical. There will be $40 billion spent via Voice by 2022.

At the moment, most of the purposes of Voice involve users accessing news, weather, music playing. How will the behavior from content to commerce play out?

Again, go back to the very first iPhone. It only had a few apps on it, right. It had a phone, it had weather, and it had the iTunes. You’re going see a very kind of similar hat here happen pretty quickly. But it won’t take ten years for Voice to mature. It’s going to take five. And we’re probably actually a year-and-a-half into that. So, maybe there’s three and a half, or four more years for people to make sure they’re seeded well in this market.

Is there anyone seeded well right now? Is there anyone impressing you, in terms of pushing the boundaries, and doing exploration, again from a marketing perspective, aside from Amazon and Google?

It’s been interesting to see the number of the media companies really leaning forward, into this phase. We’ve had conversations with MTR (Movie and TV Review podcast), and A&E networks, as well as Netflix, among others that are working hard to maintain their brand in this new era.  I think there will be a lot of information about other companies to come out of Voice Summit. We’ve got so many people coming, from so many different backgrounds.

In terms of who else is doing well right now with Voice are the agencies like Pretzel Labs, which are coming to the event that started as a pure play voice agency that are getting a lot of recognition and growing quickly.

Companies like Witlingo, Earplay and Pullstring that are coming. They all have many interesting case studies under their belt already and Witlingo actually built the VOICE Summit Guide Skill. Those companies are well-positioned to take advantage of the Voice-First era as brands grab them as say “help us get there.” The platform players are making it easier to build conversational design interfaces, and multi model engagement, and monetization, and discoverability. I can’t point out any particular run away leader right now, but that’s because it’s early.

At the end of the day, the ecosystem’s being defined now. But 2018 is the defining year, while 2016 kicked things off. 2017 was things starting to settle in. That’s why Voice Summit’s a unique gathering that received responses of more than 200 speaker applications, speakers coming from eight countries, and attendees coming from 30 states. It’s just kind of indicative of where were at and the race is on.

As the race is starting, I was thinking of the early days of YouTube. Marketers’ first reaction was to repurpose and shorten 30-second commercials. Will marketing via Voice simply resemble another form of radio?

That’s a great question. The monetization strategies are starting to roll out now. Amazon has enabled monetization, and there’s experiments going on with different approaches. What’s going to happen is, you will see some repurposing, but you’re also going to see some completely innovative new ways that will incorporate advertising into Voice experiences. That’s an exciting area, and I think that’s an opportunity for creativity, for brands, and for agencies. At the end of the day, the consumers will decide gladly if they don’t like the way that monetizations are being completed then they’re going to let brands know quickly.

My GeoMarketing colleague, Lauryn Chamberlain, once asked Birchbox CEO  Katia Beauchamp if the rise of Voice activation will lead to the diminishing importance of websites as repositories of brands and publishers’ information and content. Certainly, social media has upended those relationships with consumers. What will Voice’s impact be on the ways consumers connect with companies?

We have an Echo Show in our kitchen. We’ll be sitting there looking at a nice, pretty high definition screen, and to me it’s like, I want to just say, “Alexa, play ESPN.” Or, “Alexa, show me the highlights from yesterday’s World Cup games.”

There’s so many things I want to be able to do that aren’t quite there yet. Now, Amazon is incorporating Alexa right into televisions. So the capabilities are on their way. We’re going to see a radical transformation, because the Echo Show tells me that brands now can really get in the big game. And Alexa can show me the latest sunscreen products from XYZ company.

Not only will there be products that come up, along with the opportunity to shop, but there are all kinds of opportunity for interactivity around those discovery and commerce touchpoints. I don’t think websites will go away, but Voice will radically change the way that we access information, and the way that we control our media. And that’s what makes this such an exciting time for Voice.

About The Author
David Kaplan David Kaplan @davidakaplan

A New York City-based journalist for over 20 years, David Kaplan is managing editor of GeoMarketing.com. A former editor and reporter at AdExchanger, paidContent, Adweek and MediaPost.