The digital advertising landscape is constantly—and rapidly—evolving. Both publishers and advertisers will continue to see shifts in their businesses in 2020 as new technologies gather increased market share. Those who can harness these innovations to forge stronger connections with customers will have an opportunity to stand out from the crowd and drive revenue.
Staying on top of industry trends is crucial for brands vying for consumers’ attention. However, it can be equally challenging and time-consuming. The team at Lineup Systems compiled a list of predictions for publishers to kick off the conversation. Here are a few of the key takeaways:
Publishers will optimize for voice search
As we gain clarity on which technologies and business models signal trends rather than fads, voice technology is first in line. Voice began generating buzz in the marketplace in 2019, and its growing popularity is undeniable.
“There’s a lot of potential surrounding voice technology, and how to monetize it is the next challenge,” says Sarah Hartland, marketing manager and editor of Lineup Systems’ industry blog, the Newsroom.
It’s clear that the next generation of consumers will search for and buy products primarily through voice technology. By 2022, 55% of households are expected to own smart speakers. And voice searches are estimated to make up half of all online searches. Voice is on track to become a $40-billion channel. This means publishers need to optimize their digital content for voice search to get ahead.
“It’s very positive that publishers are having discussions around voice even if they haven’t quite nailed down how it’s going to generate revenue,” Hartland says.
Publishers will get increasingly creative with subscription models
Subscription models will continue to be relevant in 2020 and present exciting opportunities to reach audiences. Publishers need only look at the profound impact the direct-to-consumer model has had on the retail industry for inspiration and motivation.
The impressive success of subscription models can be largely attributed to personalization. The curated nature of subscriptions helps alleviate the overwhelm that consumers often experience when faced with too many choices. As a result, people are willing to pay for personalized experiences that one-off purchases simply can’t deliver.
Publishers who make the effort in 2020 to understand how their audience wants to consume their content will reap the benefits of the subscription model trend.
Data privacy regulations will benefit brands
Data privacy regulation is top of mind for advertisers and publishers alike due to the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), effective on January 1, 2020. Compounded with Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and ePrivacy Regulation, this new law signals that data privacy is an issue the digital advertising industry must continue to grapple with. Therefore, it’s time for publishers and advertisers to get creative.
“Because publishers can no longer rely on third-party data, they have to find or build new consent management platforms with first-party data in mind,” says Tiffany Kelly, digital product manager at Lineup Systems.
It’s crucial that publishers diversify their revenue streams and clearly articulate their value to consumers in exchange for opt-in consent. This will help mitigate the impact of consumer privacy laws on their businesses in 2020 and beyond.
Contextual targeting is part of the solution, because unlike audience-based targeting, it reduces the need to use personal data to reach people and has resulted in purchase intent increases of up to 63%.
“We have to recognize this shift as a positive thing,” says Hartland. “Nuances like double opt-ins and cookies can be a pain to figure out. But it will ultimately lead to some exciting long-term benefits around industry leadership, audience loyalty, and data quality.”
Getting in the game is the only way to win
It’s true that as new technology enters the marketplace, it brings challenges with it. However, brands that can adapt can make this work to their advantage in 2020. Publishers and advertisers who can find creative ways to harness the capabilities of new tech will have an opportunity to strengthen their relationships with consumers and drive revenue.
For seven more trends that will dominate 2020, plus a list of ways you can keep up throughout the year, check out Lineup Systems’ free white paper on digital advertising trends.
A year in the life of a digital publisher contains multitudes. Ups to some felt like downs to others. But there were challenges and news that publishers of any size and any vertical faced universally—news and events that defined the entire year.
At Marfeel, we work with 850 global publishing partners, reaching almost one billion sessions every month. That means that we deal with the issues and trends that impact publishers every day. With the knowledge we have in-house, we surveyed our team to collect a list of what we consider to be the biggest publisher trends of 2019 and what they mean for 2020.
Red tape and regulation
Ok, GDPR wasn’t strictly 2019… but it’s effects are still being felt. Users continued to tick pop-ups without reading them. However, in the UK, fines in excess of $300 million were handed out to British Airways and Marriott for failing to ensure information security. A small price, perhaps, to companies of that size. However, they offer a much-needed reminder that nobody is above the law when it comes to GDPR.
Even if you argue that it’s not effective in protecting user data, it seems more regulation is coming in 2020. And with 50 different states in the US alone, publishers are going to have to find a way to cope with different levels of regulation for different users in 2020.
The great paywall question
To gate, or not to gate, that is the question publishers struggled with for 2019. We saw every variety of paywall tried and tested.
Premium publishers like The New Yorker and The Atlantic opted for soft paywalls, hoping to build consumer loyalty. Others decided to shut out all but paying customers, cleaving their audiences but guaranteeing a source of revenue. Major media groups like The Guardian and The New York Times made news with the success of their subscription models. However, the majority of publishers won’t convert significant audiences into paying customers.
The 2019 headline is that paywalls work, to an extent. Concerns grew about ‘subscription fatigue’ as many worried that audiences would grow tired of paying separately for a variety of different online services. It will be interesting to see whether 2020 crosses that tipping point and, of course, if paywalls work as a long-term proposition.
Given the booming market for premium content offerings, it seems inevitable that in 2020 a true Netflix for News will emerge. People want to browse around a series of headlines. They want to be able to read stories shared by others and pick based on the story, not the brand.
No one company has managed to crack it definitively yet. But In the United States, Apple News now reaches more iPhone users (27%) than the Washington Post (23%). This is a sign that aggregation is going to gain traction in 2020.
Trust and transparency
In 2019, we learned that people don’t trust the news as much as they used to. This is makes it harder for smaller publishers to break stories and build audiences. Consumers veer towards larger media brands, which are a known commodity. It can be difficult for less well-known entities to break through, or maintain their growth.
And trust runs both ways. Advertisers and publishers both still want more transparency from SSPs and ad networks. Google’s switch to first-price auctions earlier in the year reminded the industry of the long-held last-look advantage that walled-garden exchanges can provide.
The hunt for viewability
Viewability was the hottest term in the industry for advertisers in 2019. Some publishers reacted with surprise that advertisers wanted a guarantee that their ads were actually seen by someone (and not bots).
They started to set minimum standards and refuse to buy space that couldn’t demonstrate their viewability. These standards now exceed the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) definition of a viewable impression, which says that at least 50% of pixels must be in view for at least a second. In 2020, publishers will have to offer as close to 100% viewability and find a way to prove it to advertisers.
The creeping growth of voice tech
Alexa, how do I advertise on you?
The use of smart speakers grew from 7% to 14% in the UK last year. And usage was up +3% (from 9% to 12%) in the United States.
With voice-assistants sprouting into more homes, more content is starting to be delivered by voice. Quick answers to once-Googled questions will possibly draw traffic away from news sites in 2020. This and the growth of podcasts as a content format gave advertisers a new concern in 2020: how to bring their programmatic tech to an audio format.
The rise of Gen Z
Move over Millennials. There’s a new generation here to casually pull apart the framework of the industry.
In addition to formulating the right content to reach them, publishers have struggled to find a payment model that appeals to the younger generation. Digital natives get their news from too many different sources to be tied to a single publisher. As Adweek explains, “52 percent of Gen Z consumers will transfer loyalty from brand to brand if they find product quality to be subpar.”
2020 will see diversified revenue generation models, segregated by the audience and content types.
Saving the most worrisome for last, 2019 may be the last year of free and unfettered access to user cookies to inform advertising.
Google confirmed proposals to overhaul targeting in Chrome. And Apple went further with its online tracking restrictions. ITP 2.1 reduces the accessibility and longevity of first-party cookies, allowing them to be stored for only seven days.
Ratko Vidakovic, founder of AdProfs summarized what the move meant, “Given Apple’s aggressive attitude towards this issue, it seems like the idea of persistent cookies in Safari, for cross-site tracking purposes, will eventually be a thing of the past.”
The uncharted territories of 2020
To help paint the picture of 2020’s publishing industry to come, Marfeel is putting together the big publisher trends of 2020 report, with the help of their publisher network. By sharing concerns and challenges, the digital publishing industry can unite to create a more informed industry as a whole and overcome the challenges of 2020 and beyond.
Content providers have always known that word of mouth can work wonders. Now, they have to apply that principle by speaking up—literally—in order to reach more consumers via voice search.
Voice searches already account for about 20% of mobile queries. By next year half of all online searches will be performed via voice. Yet only 4% of businesses surveyed regard themselves as voice-search ready. Publishers who are behind this important tech curve risk being silenced by rivals intent on commanding the conversation.
The talk on the
“It’s no surprise that voice as an interface for technology and information is taking off so quickly,” says Rachel Reed, senior innovation manager for food, lifestyle and entertainment company Meredith Corporation. “As consumers, we are drawn to technology that understands us, empathizes with us, and can ultimately predict our needs and wants. As publishers, voice paves the way for us to create more personalized and meaningful connections with our audiences.”
Bryan Osima, software engineer and CEO of Uvietech Software Solutions, says people are relying more on voice search for three primary reasons: convenience, speed, and accuracy. “We are bombarded with tons of information every day and we have shorter attention spans. So, the speed of getting the information we need is paramount,” he says. “The primary devices for that today are smartphones, smart speakers, and wearables with built-in smart home assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant.”
Publishers who choose not to optimize for voice search are leaving a lot of traffic on the table, Greg Secrist, cofounder of BKA Content, believes. “This area is especially beneficial for news organizations and other content providers who want to increase their chances of their content being found and consumed by readers,” says Secrist.
Real world success
Reed can attest to how crucial voice
search is becoming for content companies. For years, Meredith has employed a
predictive framework that enables its brands to dynamically serve content to
targeted users. Now, they’re extending this personalization and predictive
framework to voice to make informed predictions about and deliver useful voice
content to individual users.
“We employ a two-pronged approach. First,
we’ve implemented voice search optimization to ensure our content surfaces in
response to general user queries. We are seeking to own the phrase, not just
the keyword, by providing shorter responses to longer queries and implementing
concise headlines and summaries,” notes Reed. “Second, we are building
data-informed voice-first experiences designed for different platforms. This
involves identifying the most meaningful use cases for voice and launching
interactive experiences to address what we see as unmet needs in each space.”
Currently, Meredith is focused on voice search categories related to health and wellness, entertainment, and food. It recently launched two skills: Balance by Health, which offers daily wellness inspiration and motivation tips; and Entertainment Weekly’s The Must List, which provides an exclusive look at the top movies, TV shows, and movies that its editors recommend.
Secrist, whose business writes and packages customized content for clients, has also been working hard to ensure his team’s compositions are properly optimized for voice. “We use conversational language and semantics to make sure our content is compatible with voice search. Thinking about the way a customer would use their voice to access certain information is important when creating voice search-friendly content,” says Secrist.
Best practices for
To improve voice search optimization (VSO)
results, Osima recommends the following best practices:
Analyze all content carefully and think about as many contexts and questions users could have about that piece of content.
Provide concise yet comprehensive answers to those contextualized questions that could be returned in a voice search result.
Structure the content as clearly as possible with logical headings and sections that explicitly detail what each section is focused on. Content found in a frequently asked questions page often get the best returns on voice search. While you can’t make every page on your site FAQ, you can provide a similar structure: Employ a heading that’s descriptive and which could be a contextualized question or query a user would have, and then provide the answer immediately after.
Use structured metadata, rich snippets, and other tags made primarily for search engines to ensure that they precisely understand what your content is about.
Make sure your site and pages load very quickly.
Increase backlinks to your site to improve your domain authority. Search engines want to be sure that, as much as possible, they are returning results from very credible sources. Your overall domain authority is the biggest indicator of that.
Pay attention to semantics by targeting long-tail keywords related to the subject matter. For example, a consumer may be searching for “pants,” while others might refer to them as “trousers”; be sure your content addresses both terms.
it simple for success
However, “skip buzzwords, as they don’t work in voice search. Drill down into the most generic keywords your business uses to attract an audience,” suggests Andrew Schrage, CEO of the popular personal finance blog Money Crashers. “Remember that voice search inherently involves brevity. So, you want to strip things down and find out what customers really want to know about your business in as few words as possible.”
simple answers to questions is important, as voice search is looking for the
simplest way to answer the users question. If your content has lengthy
paragraphs answering something, it is not voice search friendly,” says Secrist.
keep your eyes on the prize: Make a strong effort to identify the value and utility
your brand provides and choose a unique way to deliver that utility via voice.
users a reason to come back,” Reed advises. “Test, learn, listen to feedback,
and continue to optimize.”
Podcasts helped reinvented the audio audience, attracting
new listeners to a robust supply of binge-worthy news and entertainment content.
Now consumers can listen to what they want, when and where they want. While podcasts
had been around for over a decade, in 2014 they received an explosion of attention
in the marketplace (with the incredible success of Serial
and the debut of Apple’s podcast App).
Today more than 50% of people have listened to a podcast. In fact, according to the 2019 Infinite Dial Study by Edison Research and Triton Digital, at least one-third of the U.S. population reports listening to a podcast in the last month, up from 26% a year ago. That’s an estimate of 90 million people each month. Monthly podcast listening increased across all age groups year-over-year. Interestingly, adults 55+ report a significant increase in podcast listening from 33% in 2018 to 40% in 2019. Other demographics show smaller increases, persons, age 12-24 from 88% to 91%, and persons 25-54 from 73% to 74%.
Weekly podcast listening is up to 22% from a year ago (17%) among
persons 12+, or 62 million people each week. Podcast listeners listen to
approximately seven podcasts a week.
In addition, there are now 189 million listeners to online
audio which includes listening to AM/FM radio stations online and/or listening
to streamed audio content available only on the. In fact, online audio doubled
since 2012 increasing from one-third to two-thirds of the U.S. population. Weekly
listening to online audio is also growing, now at 60% from 57% last year. Weekly
time spent listening to online audio shows a strong increase from 13 minutes 40
seconds to 16 minutes until 43 seconds.
Podcasting is not the only audio opportunity content creators should be focused on these days. Smart speaker ownership has reached 23 million, up from only 7 million two years ago. Amazon Alexa dominates the market (16 million) followed by Google Home (7 million). Audiobook listening is also on the rise, with million people saying that they’ve listened to one, up from 44 million in 2018. And while AM/FM radio still dominates in-car audio, both Online audio and Podcasts rose slightly. Audio is an opportunity that smart publishers are listening to.
As Tom Standage, head of digital strategy and deputy editor at The Economist, put it: “The commercial model for podcasts is really good, much better than video pre-roll, which is a horrible business. Video is expensive to make, and the CPMs are low. Advertisers want to reach podcast listeners.”
“Alexa: What’s the news today?” That depends. If a consumer wants to get news from a voice assistant such as Amazon Echo or Google Home (or the hundreds of devices that support them), the process isn’t always easy and the results are inconsistent. People have complained that the news reports on voice assistants are too long, or don’t answer questions accurately, according to a recent Reuters Institute report.
But the devices aren’t going away. In fact, they are multiplying like rabbits, if last week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was any indication, with more voice assistants in U.S. households and more of them built into other “smart home” devices such as refrigerators, mirrors, home security and yes, “Intelligent Toilets” (“Alexa, flush!”). So: What should publishers do? Experiments so far have been mixed, but that doesn’t mean giving up is an option. Instead, publishers need to fight to get better deals for content. They also need consider new types of business models such as product placement, as Meredith is doing.
Amazon Alexa vs. Google Assistant, Part 2
If you want to understand how big the voice wars have become between Amazon and Google, you just need to go to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show. Last year, Google was the upstart taking on the incumbent at Amazon. This year’s battle was more evenly matched. Google plastered ads all over town and even had an “It’s a Small World” Disney-style ride as part of its booth. Amazon opted for a lower key approach with “Works with Alexa” tags on all the associated products.
Amazon touted selling more than 100 million Alexa devices. But Google shot back by saying it had 1 billion devices with Google Assistant – though that includes all Android phones sold with it built-in. While CNET had its writers decide who won the Amazon vs. Google voice war at CES (Google got the nod), the real question is how can publishers use this battle to their advantage? Will the tech companies ever give more credence to news and information on voice assistants, and what will that value be in the long run?
What People Want
Before we answer, we first need to understand how people are using voice assistants in their everyday life. People typically use these omnipresent devices in the morning and evening. And people mostly want them to play music, answer general questions and get weather updates. In an analysis of the Reuters Institute report, Nieman Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen noted that people love using smart speakers, but not really for news. Even though 42% said they used smart speakers for news, only 1% said news was the most important feature for them.
Users also have a lot of complaints about news on voice assistants: The updates were too long, they aren’t updated enough, many use synthesized voices to read the news, and there’s no way to skip or select stories. Even worse, when people asked specific questions related to news stories, the answers were inaccurate and inconsistent.
While people do use the devices to stream live radio (19% of all NPR online listening happens on smart speakers), they aren’t keen to listen to longer form audio or podcasts. Maybe that’s just a factor of podcasts being an on-the-go commuting format, while smart speakers are in the home.
What Publishers Can Do
In the wake of Reuters Institute study and many experiments by publishers, how can they better reach consumers via voice assistants? As with all new formats, publishers must understand how people use the devices and tailor their content appropriately. The New York Times announced a new briefing for Alexa-enabled devices based on “The Daily” podcast. It is in a much shorter format for smart speakers and they are promoting it through the print edition of the paper. The Times has developed a weekly News Quiz taking into account the popularity of trivia quizzes on the devices.
As The Verge’s James Vincent pointed out: “Audio content won’t necessarily drive subscriptions, but it could be a relatively easy way for the paper to reach millions of new listeners before — maybe — turning them into readers.”
Meanwhile, Meredith announced its new Innovation Group at CES. The new division includes a Voice Network that brings together all of the company’s audio, voice, and podcast products under one umbrella.
Meredith has experimented with “content-to-audio” where someone reads story content. However, what’s most interesting is their initiative to create skills or actions for smart speakers. One example would be using Alexa to open an AllRecipes skill with an option to order ingredients for a recipe. “The skills are actually the best place to do the product placement and direct links to commerce,” Meredith’s head of innovation Corbin de Rubertis told Folio.
Publishers are still feeling their way to what works best on voice assistants. (And the payoff is difficult to envision right now.) However, growing use of these proliferating devices means that publishers can’t dismiss them. Instead, they need to start with shorter briefings, try out some new interactive skills, and as the platforms become more mature. And perhaps they can even get compensation for offering the most up-to-date relevant answers for users.
Voice technologies are hot right now. Consumers are increasingly using voice-driven services on smartphones and smart speakers, which is changing the way content is sought out and consumed. This escalating trend has clear implications for marketers, content creators, and consumers.
Here’s how this market is evolving and what it means for media companies.
Mobile and the rise of voice-based tools
Nearly ubiquitous smartphone adoption has created opportunities for a plethora of new products and services, including those driven by voice. Perhaps the best known of these are personal digital assistants like Siri, which was introduced by Apple in 2011. It was followed by Alexa (Amazon) and Cortana (Microsoft) in 2014, and Google Assistant in 2017. Today, nearly half of US adults (46%) use these tools.
And as voice recognition programs become more accurate, they are impacting online search habits. In 2016, Google reported that 20% of searches on Android were already being made using voice. GlobalWebIndex also observed that, in the 34 markets it covered, 25% of those aged 16-24 had used voice search on their mobile in the past month. In fact, by 2020, comScore predicts that half of all searches will be conducted by voice.
Voice on Smart Speakers
Smart speakers are one of the top consumer tech trends right now. The 2018 Digital News Report, produced by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, found that in major markets such as the US, UK, and Germany, usage of these products had more than doubled over the past year.
A March 2018 study from Voicebot.ai and the voice app company, PullString, found that “19.7% of US adults [about 47.3 million] have access to smart speakers today. That is up from less than 1% of the population just two years ago.” By 2022, according to Forrester Research, 50% of US households will have a smart speaker.
The rapid adoption of voice technologies – from voice search to smart speakers – is noteworthy, especially when benchmarked against the take-up of many other more established technologies.
Why these technologies are growing
Typically housed in shared spaces like the living room and/or kitchen, smart speakers can be used by multiple people. Google has noted how “in a short period of time, voice-activated speakers have become part of people’s routines.”
Reasons for this include the ability to use the technology while doing something else (multi-tasking), the fact that people speak more quickly than they can type (speed), and increasingly “human” interfaces.
Indeed, “People perceive the devices as more than just an electronic toy.” Google found that “they’re more akin to another person or a friend.” In 2017 research with over 1,600 users of voice-activated speakers, 41% said that using the technology feels like they’re “talking to a friend of another person.” All of these traits are only going to grow as these technologies continue to evolve and improve.
What this means: Four key considerations
Given the rise of voice-enabled devices and tools, here are four strategic considerations and opportunities for brands and media companies:
1. Ensure your content is optimized for voice search
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) never stands still, but the voice revolution presents some new challenges. Recognizing this emerging trend, back in 2016, Campaign advised “savvy marketers” to “write content in a natural, conversational voice that answers the questions your consumers are asking.”
“Website content in the era of voice search isn’t about keywords,” they wrote, “it’s about semantic search and building the context related to answering a question.”
On smart speakers, as Trustpilot’s Jason Barnard and Chee Lo have explained, there’s a further consideration. Unlike traditional search engine results on desktop or mobile, where you get a range of options, voice searches tend to be highly specific and typically result in a single response.
As Rebecca Sentancereflected on Search Engine Watch, “the rise of voice search is transforming search engines into “answer engines,” which require a different strategy and set of ingredients for success. This strategy has come to be known as AEO, or “answer engine optimization”.”
There’s a raft of tip sheets and detailed articles on this topic for those new to this topic. In one of them, Bryson Meunier, SEO Director at Vivid Seats, recently outlined 12 recommendations in an article for Search Engine Land, advising: “Focus first on optimizing for conversational keywords and implement Actions for Google to get more traffic from voice search.”
2. Harness opportunities for content innovation and delivery
To date, most activity on smart speakers tends to be functional. Consumers typically ask for a weather updates, jokes, or travel directions. consumption of news content and podcast playback typically fall much lower on the list. But that doesn’t mean that publishers and media companies are not experimenting with content and new interactive formats for these platforms.
Publishers from NPR to Reuters, the New York Times and CNN, as well as local news providers such as the Tennessean, IndyStar, and Texas Tribune, are all creating short audio briefings designed to be heard on smart speakers. Apple’s new HomePod will feature content from the Washington Post by default.
Alongside more broadcast-like content delivery, 2018’s Digital News Report noted how “media companies like Quartz are also developing apps (or ‘skills’ as they are known) that allow conversational interaction with the devices.” One such experiment, produced by the BBC in late 2017, featured a 20-minute “interactive science fiction comedy story” for Amazon Alexa and Google Home – called The Inspection Chamber – which encouraged listened to “play your part through voice interactions.”
And in April 2018, Netflix launched an interactive audio drama to promote its Lost in Space reboot. According to Variety: “The audio adventure, which lasts between five and six minutes, features a branched narrative and multiple-choice questions and answers. It was recorded with participation of the show’s cast, and produced in collaboration between Netflix and Google.”
These examples show how international, national, and local players across the media spectrum are experimenting with content being heard through smart speakers.
3. Explore opportunities for consumers to make voice-activated purchases
Jeff Malmad, managing director, Head of Life+, for WPP Group’s Mindshare North America, argued at the Mobile Marketing Association’s Impact conference earlier this year that “depending on your marketing category… 30 percent of your sales will be from incidental loyalty, based on voice searches, and based on voice purchases.”
Although this functionality perhaps lends itself more naturally to other products (Malmad highlighted an advert featuring a couple placing their usual Starbucks order through the Alexa app in their Ford car), voice shopping is predictedto be a $40 billion market by 2022. That’s up from just $2 billion today.
It could be used by media companies for on-going, or one-off, subscriptions, memberships, micropayments, downloads, or access to exclusive content.
Either way, this is an emerging vertical which – like voice technology per se – that cannot be overlooked.
4. Determine if there are new revenue opportunities
Although the eCommerce functionality of this technology remains relatively nascent, companies like CNBC are exploring more traditional advertising packages, such as sponsorships, on these platforms.
John Trimble chief revenue officer of Pandora, has highlighted the advertising potential, given the ability of consumers to respond to audio messages in a manner not previously possible. As he wrote in Recode earlier this year:
“Radio ads have been around since the days of Marconi, but listeners to this day still can’t respond to an ad the way an Alexa user can interact directly with the device.”
That this happens in an increasingly screen-free environment will require creative solutions in order to unlock the commercial opportunities. Gartner has predicted that “by 2020, 30 percent of web browsing sessions will be done without a screen.”
Screen-less, voice-only platforms, will not only represent a very different way for consumers to find information online. They will also disrupt a number of traditional online advertising models too.
This technology is still relatively nascent, but it’s playing out against a wider background whereby voice technology is becoming increasingly integrated into our lives. And, in case you’re not yet convinced that the voice market merits your attention, keep in mind that this trend is global and impacting devices of all kinds.
Alibaba sold 1 million Tmall Genie X1 smart speakers in the last four months of 2017, a device they plan to install in 100,000 Marriott hotel rooms across China. And closer to home, Roku TV’s will soon feature built in voice assistants, while Dish already allows you to search and surf for content using voice functionality in their TV remote control. In the era of the Internet of Things, domestic appliances – such as those from Whirlpool – can already be managed by Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.
Undoubtedly, voice technology will become all-pervasive. In November, Amazon announced Alexa for Business, “a new service that enables businesses and organizations to bring Alexa into the workplace at scale.” This is just one way that voice-triggered activities – from search through to content discovery and shopping – will move out of the home and into the office and car.
Voice search and screen-less content consumption are areas that are already beginning to take off. And this trend will increasingly impact media and information habits in the future. As a result, understanding the potential – and pitfalls – of this technology is an area that brands and publishers need to be exploring, if they aren’t already.
The SXSW Interactive festival has expanded beyond its tech-centric past to include panels and discussions on politics, journalism, food, and other cultural conversations of the moment. But among these hot topics is, of course, technology and its influence on the future of these other sectors. From grasping the blockchain to pushing back against tech giants, the festival, in many ways, is media Twitter come to life. (Remember that SXSW brought Twitter to life after the show in 2007.)
But this year certain trends stood out more than others. The show was dominated by politics and ideas – which trumped gadgets and apps. Here are some key takeaways and themes from this year’s festival:
Pushback on Technology
It’s been over a year since the 2016 election, but technology’s role in its outcome, the resulting fallout, and the rise of misinformation and social media warfare has given tech a black eye. Top that off with the outsize influence platforms such as Facebook, Google and Amazon are having over our lives. Those topics and conversations dominated SXSW panels this year.
The back and forth between Facebook director of product Alex Hardiman and CNN media correspondent Brian Stelter during a panel on Facebook and publishers delved deeply into the tricky territory publishers find themselves in, especially with Facebook’s recent algorithmic changes that prioritize friends and family over news outlets. Hardiman, for one, admitted that Facebook has flattened news. However, he insisted that Facebook is not a publisher, much to the chagrin of tech and news experts like Kara Swisher and Christiane Amanpour, who cried foul to these claims during another panel.
SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk’s much talked-about appearance included a depressing take on artificial intelligence: “The danger of AI is much greater than the danger of nuclear warheads,” he said. “If humanity decides that digital super-intelligence is the right move, we should do so very carefully.”
One thing is certain: No longer are we simply enthralled at the latest gadget or the future of tech. Just as the media and tech beat has changed for the journalists who cover them, so too have festivals like SXSW that present the myriad of ways media and technology are intersecting and changing our world.
Hollywood Makes a Scene
When the most-talked about marketing ploy at SXSW is an HBO show come to life, that proves that the convergence of Hollywood and technology is complete. The real-life replica of HBO’s show “Westworld” makes the case for investment in experiential marketing to drive brand attention. Certainly, SXSW attendees will recall the show when it returns for a second season. And with the way the news cycle seems never-ending, brands and shows that draw attention to themselves outside the digital world and in the real world can elicit interest and help ensure audiences won’t scroll past them.
To further reinforce Hollywood’s SXSW impact, look no further than the premiere of Steven Spielberg’s new film, “Ready Player One.” Set in a dystopian future where the characters spend their lives inside a virtual reality system. SXSW is certainly a fitting festival to premiere a movie of this kind. But with the avalanche of shows like “Westworld” and “Black Mirror” that deal with these topics, the movie premiere is simply one of the ways we can see tech’s imprint on our culture.
The Voice Battle Continues
Google Home or Amazon Echo? It’s a huge question among those testing the digital voice assistants revolutionizing the future of search and the mainstreaming of a “smart home.” Amazon may have an initial leg up with Echo over Google and Apple’s HomePod — Alexa hit the market first — but Google is playing catch-up with massive marketing splashes at CES and now SXSW.
The tech giant turned a house in Austin into a huge advertisement for Google Home by connecting everything from blinds to appliances to Google Assistant, and showing people how such a Google home could function. A sign in front of the house, “Make Google Do It,” reinforced the concepts behind the gadgets, which included a sock-sorting robot.
But the battle for the voice is very much at the center of a smart home. With voice technology continuing to evolve (and the stiff competition against Amazon in this market), Google is also testing custom voice commands and working with third-party publishers to keep users engaged. Magazine publisher Hearst, for example, is partnering with Google to support subscriptions that can offer news alerts and daily “wisdom” in whatever areas a user prefers.
This sounds a lot nicer than Alexa laughing at you (a recent tech glitch). But it’s safe to say that Google and Amazon are in a tough battle in this department. And Apple is knocking at the door, which will push all the companies to do better.
SXSW Gets Political
From Russian trolls hacking Facebook to YouTube’s war with misinformation and Trump’s tweets, technology is now tightly intertwined with political life. And the presence of politicians at SXSW and conversations about news and politics were inescapable.
There was Mark Warner, U.S. Senator from Virginia, on “Hacking our Democracy and Discourse.” Discussions on policy and regulation with “Tech Under Trump.” Another panel on curtailing patent trolls, patent regulation, and U.S. Supreme Court cases that are bringing reform. And let’s not forget former presidential nominee and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders — endearing to many for his grouchy take on trends, but who has now made his first appearance at SXSW, in a conversation with CNN’s Jake Tapper. And Ta-Nehisi Coates remarked on the tendency among journalists to still not give Trump supporters credit for knowing what they were doing when voting the president in.
Then there’s the begrudging and critical look at the news cycle and national reckoning over #MeToo. Christiane Amanpour made it clear that the battles she thought she won in the ’90s are still taking place today — like continuing to be the only woman in the room. Amanpour boiled the situation down: “We are at peril and at risk if we don’t know the difference between truth and lies…Truth and lies are the only thing that separates us from democracy and dictatorship.”
It was the perfect underscore for the New York Times’ recent marketing campaign, also present at SXSW. Over social hour and drinks at the bar, attendees could leave with a Times button defining our era: “Truth. It’s more important now than ever.” And at SXSW, the importance of truth, politics and ideas seemed to drown out the newest apps and tech gadgets.
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.