“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.