Alexa, What Did You Do To My Marketing?

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, July 25, 2017

My company recently took a deep dive into digital home assistants Amazon Echo and Google Home (sometimes called “smart speakers”). This initial wave of owners can provide some guidance as to the receptivity of marketing efforts fielded through devices like the Echo or the Home.

A key finding is that, among any device, voice commands are becoming a mainstream activity. Three-quarters of Americans age 13-64 have used voice command with some type of media device and a third do so regularly — and they’re not just young consumers. Marketers have yet another path to communicate with the consumer and, potentially, in a more naturalistic, conversational way. 

But consumers are concerned about privacy. Indeed, almost half of people who don’t intend to buy an Echo or a Home cite privacy concerns, so marketers need to step gingerly in using these devices for advertising or marketing purposes.

Perhaps the most egregious exercise to date was Burger King’s commercial that was designed to get Google Home (or OK Google-enabled devices) to “hear” the commercial and then cite the ingredients of a Whopper. While this gathered lots of press attention, how incredibly intrusive was that? Consumers already consider regular television ads an intrusion, so how much worse is literally taking control of their device? Bad behavior such as this could help to kill this potential golden goose in the nest.



Transparency is also something to consider. When a Google search is performed, it’s clear what is a paid result. Will Alexa’s or OK Google’s voice responses to these searches be as transparent? There is a big user experience difference between quickly scanning past paid, text-based search results and having to spend time to listen to three paid, verbal search results before getting to unsponsored results.

People who ask Alexa to buy something are presented with two choices unless they ask for more options. This is a far cry from the innumerable options we receive when doing a conventional search, so it appears that all the SEO work in the world won’t help brands when it comes to Alexa. Perhaps this will change over time. Additionally, after purchasing a few hundred products via Alexa, the research firm L2 found that Amazon Choice products were heavily favored. So much for niche or emerging brands.

These concerns can be summed up as a matter of trust. It’s similar to when online shopping first started in the early 2000s. People were leery of trusting their information to websites, and there was great concern just in getting the order right. We see indications of this with digital home assistants now. Despite Amazon’s leading position with the Echo, the use of Echo or Home for shopping is quite rare. While people are far more comfortable now with websites, given the propensity of these new devices to misinterpret questions or commands, consumers probably fear that ordering a box of tissues may mean a case of tissue boxes will show up instead.

However, there is great potential here, especially with new devices with a screen. Here, we will likely see the power of combining a verbal conversation with visual cues. For example, Scripps Networks just announced that its interface with Echo will allow people to ask for a recipe and have it show on the Echo Show screen—along with opportunities to promote Food Network and its sponsors.

With specific regard to media, there will be boons to marketing, but there also may be a negative. If, as I personally believe, voice command becomes the future standard for media control, then the ability to influence media decisions by images may decline as the use of interactive program guides or similar interfaces falls off. Sound-only may also contribute to the ongoing decline in serendipity, as people continue a trend towards purposeful viewing.

As consumers introduce into their homes these devices with which they speak, we may see there is a human-device personal connection that isn’t seen with keyboard- or button-based devices, and marketers will need to treat that relationship with respect. 

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