What Do Brands Need To Know About How ‘The Rise Of Voice’ Will Impact Advertising?

"The goal for marketers is to recognize that storytelling in voice will be held to a higher standard," says Publicis Media SVP Vanessa Evans, who authored a report on "The Rise of Voice."

The mainstream use of voice activated assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple’s Siri have presented advertisers with a clearer, more personalized channel to connect with consumers.

That’s both the challenge and the opportunity, as noted in a Publicis Media report titled The Rise of Voice.

Despite the groundbreaking nature of voice activated assistants and devices, the nature of “storytelling” that informs all aspects of advertising and marketing is not likely going to change drastically. The essence of storytelling principles will remain fundamentally similar, regardless of platform.

Nevertheless, understanding the challenges of how those principles fit neatly into formats associated with voice activation will have to be worked out by brands and agencies.

For one thing, understanding what “cross-channel” means as the Connected Car becomes a significant point of contact between consumers and their media and commerce. The Connected Car will serve as a bridge for consumers’ Connected Homes and workplaces.

In terms of outlining the opportunities, the report highlights brands’ ability to “capitalize on curiosities” expressed by consumers’ use of voice activation to find places to go, advice on products, or making an immediate purchase.

“Voice assistants are enabling people to capitalize on their curiosities like never before by providing frictionless answers to any in-the- moment question that pops into a person’s head,” writes Vanessa Evans, SVP/Director of Data Sciences, at Publicis Media, author of the report. “However, particularly with Alexa, simple questions can often go unanswered or misunderstood creating user frustration. Additionally, the rise of curiosity and unlimited Q&A is increasing the conversational expectations of content delivered on this platform. In fact, a major criticism of many brand skills and services is their inability to go beyond the basic information most users already know. When you invite someone to have a conversation it is very clear in a voice-led world where your content strategy left off.”

To best meet consumers’ curiosities, Evans advises advertisers to be prepared for spontaneous consideration and research to grow by understanding what factors drive intent for your brand.

“Voice-proof your Brand Q&A content by increasing frictionless and conversational qualities. Considering partnering if resources and ROI limits investment,” Evans writes.

In terms of the scope of Public Media’s Rise of Voice study, the agency:

  • Spent four months with 70 highly engaged voice assistant users in US and UK for a deeper understanding of their experience in the home and the car.
  • Conducted biometrics on 152 US participants to quantify the brand impact and body response of voice vs. visual experiences. For more detail, see the end of this document.
  • Analyzed over 20,000 reviews of smart speakers online using QUID’s NLP algorithm to identify usage and attitudinal themes.

GeoMarketing: The report discusses “storytelling experiences” and how voice activated assistants aren’t good at storytelling (yet). Can you define storytelling experiences by way of comparison with other advertising channels?

Vanessa Evans: The key storytelling experiences we investigated were interactive ones a.k.a. “choose your own adventure.” This was just a small slice of what storytelling in voice could be, but it was one that was highly anticipated by users and seemed to create genuine excitement. So we decided to dip our toe in there. I don’t think voice assistants are sufficiently mature enough yet to compare how storytelling in this nascent medium compares to others at this point.

What we can say though is that any experience that seeks to ‘tell a story’ is held to a higher engagement standard as the bar for producing and sustaining excitement and intrigue in voice is harder to achieve. In part that is because users come to the table expecting a high degree of authentic human interaction when it comes to storytelling and any absence of those human narrative cues becomes a distraction and impediment to immersion.

The growth across listening platforms like podcasts and audiobooks has gone some way to elevate these expectations for how entertainment should unfold in audio. Therefore, interactive storytelling experiences that used Alexa’s robotic voice for example created a disconnect. Despite being really excited about the concept of interactive storytelling (particularly kids/parents), users’ attention and interest quickly waned as they got caught up in the mechanics like tone of voice, lack of emotion, lack of authentic engagement. Hence the idea that robotic doesn’t equal entertaining.

I should point out that those experiences that use pre-recorded audio (like bedtime stories etc.) do not suffer from this issue. But once you try to take this to the next level with interactivity, and you couple that with the current robotic voices of the assistants, that’s when the immersion breaks down.

Of course, it is very early days and the technology will get better and better which users acknowledge. It should also be noted that something like the Wayne Investigation did a great job of interactive storytelling not using the standard assistant voice.

The goal for marketers is to recognize that storytelling in voice will be held to a higher standard. They need to also decide what voice assets need to be interactive vs. pre-recorded. And where budget permits over-investing in tone of voice and emotional range will likely lead to increased engagement.

As smart speakers become more adept at storytelling, how will/should advertisers approach that medium versus other channels such as online video or traditional forms like radio? Or should advertisers avoid looking to other channels for influence and try to approach voice activated devices in more experimental ways that have no reference to existing forms of advertising?

I think the answer is a bit of both. What has been done in the past shouldn’t be the model for moving forward in voice. We already know that users are bracing for a brand invasion when it comes to smart speakers.

Without any roadmap for how brands might insert themselves users are filling in the blanks with negative associations from traditional and social advertising where intrusiveness dominates.

They are looking for a totally different way to interact with a brand, something that is opt-in, highly customized and provides maximum utility. They see this as “their” device as it is very intimate and personal to them.

So I don’t think it is possible for it to be “business as usual.” In fact, we have already seen the backlash when Burger King and others tried to co-opt smart speakers and use an interruption model for communicating with users. On the flip side, when it comes to storytelling there is a lot to learn from more established channels because on some level the basics of storytelling will never really change.

People want well-written storylines that give them the opportunity to lose themselves in a story or an experience. The narrative cues and principles that drive that kind of immersion seem to hold true regardless of the medium. I think once you get more into the interactive nature of storytelling that is where everything is still up for grabs.

We know from previous research into Virtual Reality that interactivity that enhances not detracts from the flow of the story is an essential, albeit tricky balance to achieve. Being able opt-into a desired level of interactivity is also key, as content and mood are so inextricable linked.

“Capitalizing on curiosities” is another intriguing idea from the report. Are you saying that the way consumers use smart speakers is much like search in that they want a single, immediate, direct answer (as opposed to search pages, which provide infinite possible answers according to popularity). Does this mean that the primary way advertisers should use smart speakers is by providing direct answers through something like an Alexa Skill and similar integrations with Google, Siri, Cortana, Bixby, etc.?

Yes and no.

Users want a direct and correct answer to simple questions. And yes, a simple “one line” answer is sometimes all that is needed. Although, it should be noted that frustration quickly arises when basic questions are met with a “I don’t know the answer to that one.”

What is clear, however, is that follow up questions quickly expose the lack of conversation depth that the current voice assistants have.

Voice assistants have done an amazing job of removing any remaining barriers to asking in-the-moment questions; hence an increase in spontaneous Q&A.

But as voice is essentially a conversational platform, users want to be able to converse back and forth – like an actual human conversation. This is when the wheels come off a bit.

In fact, a major criticism of the brand skills we tested was their inability to go beyond basic information that most users already know. When you invite someone to have a conversation it is very clear in a voice-led world where your content strategy left off.

While the “rise of voice” is still emerging, should advertisers primarily view smart speakers as a distinct channel separate from other advertising/marketing vehicles, or merely as one extension a consumer’s media as they start and end their day, with the Connected Car, smartphone, desktop, and the range of traditional media channels all in between?

Voice assistants by their very nature are becoming and will be so seamlessly integrated into people lives that the concept of treating it as a solo medium will be difficult. Of course, practically speaking you will need to evaluate whether voice capabilities deliver on your business objectives and content production will require expertise that is specific to that platform.

So in that practical sense it will be a distinct channel. But from a human POV, as more and more things become ‘smart’ and connected in our daily life it seems the only approach is a blended one where it just becomes an extension of a consumer’s media diet.

In addition, for smart speakers we found that new skill discovery and adoption is quite low. While there are thousands and thousands of skills to choose from, users are adopting a ‘happy with the basics’ mindset and sticking to tried and tested functionality that they know works. This mindset is stunting exploration for new skills, so in that respect, voice experiences need to be integrated and cross-promoted in other channels in order to have a chance to be discovered and used regularly.

What does the Rise of Voice say about the importance of where a brand’s information can be found? Does the use of voice activation suggest that not all brands need a dedicated website (a point considered by Birchbox CEO Katia Beauchamp)?

I don’t think voice assistants are a replacement for other mediums. It is a complement.

There are some tasks that a voice assistant will do more efficiently and effectively than other mediums. That’s why we see families, for example, gravitate to smart speakers in their morning routine (over TV’s and smart phones) as it is a more efficient way to get their traffic, weather and calendar updates during the busy AM timeslot.

But there are other instances when voice assistants right now are just not as efficient or useful as other mediums that have a screen. Like shopping for example. Voice shopping on a smart speaker is currently great for reordering low-risk items you already know and love.

But it isn’t currently a better or easier way to shop compared to a computer or mobile phone. People want to be able to understand the detail, have access to more information, price comparison, availability etc. when purchasing new or higher priced items and that isn’t really possible with voice assistants right now.

Even the Echo Show, which brings the best of both worlds together (voice enabled ability to multitask combined with a screen), we find most users are still purchasing those low-risk household items.

Based on where we are today with voice activated assistants I don’t think we know enough to start definitively prioritizing or rationalizing brand content investment. I think a lot more experimentation is needed.

That said, from a pure discovery stand point voice assistant experiences (at the current stage of adoption) need cross promotion on other advertising and marketing channels in order to even be found and used. The relationship is still very interconnected.

About The Author
David Kaplan David Kaplan @davidakaplan

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