Roz Thomas: “Alexa, buy me some haemorrhoid cream….” and other problems in a world of voice assistants

We now know that the number of Amazon Alexa Skills in the UK rose by 233 per cent from 2017 to 2018 – on average, an addition of 57 new Skills every day for the past year. In other words, as we start 2019, we have almost 30,000 Skills available for UK Alexa owners to play with.

The seemingly unstoppable rise of voice is enough to leave anyone, er, speechless.

Towards the end of last year, Asos became the latest big name to take a punt on voice shopping. It followed the footsteps of Johnnie Walker, Carrefour, Lego and more, all seeking to strengthen their relationships with their customers through this new channel.

With voice set to comprise 50 per cent of all searches by 2020, voice-controlled platforms are seemingly becoming invaluable to consumers. It’s easy to see why brands are getting caught up in the hype But it’s worth pausing to consider whether this emerging platform is right for all brands.

It’s only going to be successful when it genuinely meets users’ needs and makes their lives easier. Everyone gets a laugh from insulting Siri, sure. But that’s still reliant on the gimmick factor – can the platform prove versatile and useful enough for consumers to come back to time and time again, day after day? You won’t keep your brand top of mind with a flash-in-the-pan gimmick.

There are also some practical issues, naturally, which might prohibit voice taking off in the way some are predicting. For instance, consider the physical location of the voice shopping devices – if you’re shopping in a shared space, there might be purchases you wouldn’t want to articulate. (Though if you’re brave enough to request breath freshener or haemorrhoid cream in the middle of your coworking space, then more power to you.)

There’s also the issue of familiarity.

One of voice’s main selling points is that a brand can have a more direct relationship with its customer. Through voice assistants, a brand can have a conversation with its target audience. This provides exciting opportunities to market new products and build brand loyalty, but it also throws up a host of thorny issues.

For the first time, brands will have to consider what they sound like. Will big brands be voiced by celebrities or muggles? Will the voice differ based on which regions the brand is targeting? And will brand interactions with consumers be more reserved at first, becoming friendlier as they pass through the consumer journey?

There’s also the issue of security. Horror stories like Amazon’s Christmas mishap, when the company sent a customer 1,700 audio files from a stranger’s Alexa, might make you think twice before singing along to Ben Folds in the shower.

It’s a very real security risk for brands looking to get into voice – exactly what information are you storing on there, and how comfortable will people be letting you keep it?

Voice is certainly attention-grabbing, but that’s all it is at the moment. We understand its potential and we know it works well for certain tasks, but it’s still lacking the raison d’etre it needs to become ubiquitous with consumer. Until its issues are ironed out – and while that will come with time, how quickly remains a moot point – voice is far from being right for all brands. Regardless of how many new Skills appear on Alexa.

Roz Thomas is director of experience at experience, design and engineering company Dare

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.

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