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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Hey Google, Alexa, and Siri: Publishers want a fair shot at voice-activated devices

January 25, 2018 | By Mark Glaser, Founder and Publisher – MediaShift @mediatwit

A December 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 46% of Americans use digital voice assistants, and the trend is going up. A recent study from Juniper Research forecasts that 55% of all households will have a smart speaker installed by 2022, and marketers’ spending on such assistants is expected to reach $19 billion by the same year.

It’s a huge opportunity for marketers and publishers looking to reach audiences on these devices. But buying an Amazon Echo, Google Home, or Apple HomePod isn’t just buying a product, but inviting an entire company into your home. So, publishers should tread with caution to make sure they have a fair shot in sharing upside, without upsetting people with invasive advertising and pitches. It’s a no-brainer that as Amazon, Google, and Apple rev up their products, they’re also going to look for ways to monetize their use and increase their company footprints. As the battle between platforms and publishers plays out, publishers must bear in mind that digital voice assistants are no exception.

The Voice Battle Rages

It’s become something of an iPhone or Android question: Google or Alexa? Both are great products and offer great services, and their comparison is the focus of many consumer-focused assessments of where people should invest their money — and eventual data. Indeed, knowing the aim behind these companies is a good indicator for what to expect down the line. Wired’s Scott Rosenberg put it this way: “Amazon is primarily a store, so its likely long-term plan is to use Alexa to sell you more stuff. Google is primarily an advertising company, so somewhere down the line you can bet it will find ways for its Assistant to present you with ‘sponsored’ suggestions.”

Not to be outdone but admittedly late to the game is Apples’s new HomePod device and Sonos’ new voice-activated speaker, Sonos One, which presents itself as a platform-agnostic device. But you’d have to do the legwork yourself to transfer your personal data, should you switch from one platform to another.

And that means that the platform buy-in is real. Amazon has a two-year leg up over Google and is obviously at the top of the hierarchy at the moment; it also has the potential to upend the entire advertising industry. What was once a company that tiptoed around marketing has now been toying more with placing sponsored products higher up in search results — which means advertisers are now buying in more. To date, Amazon says it won’t sell advertising on Echo, but advertisers and the public assume the company will change course when it figures out the best way to serve them.

Google Coming On

Google, meanwhile, is pushing its Assistant onto more products, and made a huge splash at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It recently came out with “Smart Displays” (akin to Amazon’s Echo Show), which, among other things, can visualize recipes, maps, and — to toot on its own horn — YouTube videos.

It’s no wonder that marketers are trying to benefit. The natural question for brands now is how to bring voice into their experiences, which is in sync with how companies are also trying to differentiate their products. You can see how that plays out with Apple’s “give me the news” feature on for Siri, or the number of brands building skills for Alexa, which Amazon also touts as device features.

The BBC has been relying on voice assistants installed on smart devices to feature BBC content, and will likely transition into creating content specifically for Echo and Home devices, and monitoring what and how people are listening to create better experiences for those voice-activated formats. The Washington Post and CNN, among others, are also experimenting with ways to leverage audio programming in a way that’s useful for their audiences.

Ensuring a Win-Win Situation

With more devices entering the market and voice positioned to be the next frontier in experience and marketing, the risk for publishers is that building for one company specifically — or even multiple companies — places their eggs in the basket of a third-party tech giant. That means that as bullish as publishers ought to be in featuring content where their audiences are, they also need to insist on sharing the wealth these tech companies are gathering — revenues, customer data, advertising insights and more — to beat any potential exploitation.

And that can also be an opportunity for publishers. The current trend is still on the we-must-get-on-the-voice-AI-bandwagon-before-it’s-too-late hurried strategy, without thinking about the data and revenue deals that need to happen in tandem. With all the opportunities publishers can leverage with voice — news flash briefings, news quizzes, podcast streaming, recipes and the like — they should also emphasize their own loyalty programs, subscriptions and original content back on their own sites.

Just as publishers have battled with social platforms over the power dynamic, data and promotion, they will have to make sure voice devices don’t end up using their content without giving them a good chunk of the spoils when they take off.

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