Amazon has claimed that more than 100m Alexa-operated devices have been sold. The company points to a successful Christmas period, with the Echo Dot sold out and not expected to be back in stock until late January. The smart speaker seems to be tipping over into the mainstream.

So, what is a smart speaker and how does it work? Ofcom’s Communications Market Report 2018 defines it as a device that “connects to the internet and is controlled by the user’s voice. An integrated Artificial Intelligence (AI) voice assistant replies to commands and questions from the user through the smart speaker.”

They come with the ability to interact with a range of apps (or skills, if sticking with Alexa), that can help you with a range of tasks including making voice calls, setting reminders and playing music.

Alexa is just one of the voice assistants available to consumers. For example, Android devices have Google Assistant and Siri has been a part of Apple devices since 2011. However, these are pre-installed tools. The purchase of an Alexa-based device implies a conscious decision to try out a voice-enabled product.

Ignoring smartphones, it looks positive for Amazon in terms of market share (see graph, below left). However, there is a long way to go in terms of market penetration, with Ofcom’s research placing smart speaker ownership at 13%. The graph below on the right shows how this is split between age groups. 

Smart speakers by brand, UK market share; Take-up of smart speakers by age
(Left) Smart speakers by brand, UK market share; (Right) Take-up of smart speakers by age

What should companies do about voice?

Reports show that only 2% of Alexa-device owners have made a purchase using voice. The process of getting people acclimatised to voice is still in its early days. More growth is required before it is considered part of everyday life.

However, that’s not to say it should be ignored. For example, companies can put the foundations in place to ensure that they perform well from a voice-search perspective. Like text-based web search, it is essential to consider the questions audiences will ask and optimise websites with that in mind. What phrase will they be searching for to find a product or service? How broad or specific will their query be? Answering this is core to good Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) practice. Note, that spoken questions differ from typed queries, so consider conversational language.

It is also important that key data is up to date. For example, phone numbers and business addresses are common search requests, so listings content must be accurate. 

Podcasts to play a part?

Part of the growth of smart speakers is because people are using them for audio entertainment, such as podcasts. The aforementioned Ofcom research revealed that 11% of adults listen to podcasts (up from 7% in 2013). This is across all age groups (see graph below).

Weekly podcast listeners, by age: 2013-2018
Weekly podcast listeners, by age: 2013-2018

One in five adults surveyed said they had listened to their first podcast in the last six months. It will be interesting to see if this signals a shift, with more people listening to podcasts over the next year. Initiatives like the recently launched BBC Sounds app and the Acast subscription service will help take podcasts up another level.  

With many podcasts produced independently there can be a reliance on advertising for support. It means that companies also need to start considering the audio part of their brand. What is their tone of voice? Are there particular sounds and editing styles that should be associated with the brand?

My experience with a smart speaker

This blog was inspired because I got an Echo for Christmas. So far, I’ve used it to check the news headlines, see if my trains are running on time, and play music.

It has not (yet) become my default action to “Ask Alexa.” I have some skills enabled, but I know there is more that I can use it for. An early frustration (especially for my toddler!) is that requests have to be precise. Alexa tries to answer your exact question and doesn’t seem to pick up on semantics or ask for clarification. Over time, I suspect this will change, as the AI behind Alexa is developed.

I can see a time when it becomes second nature to use it. At that “comfort point”, I think I will start relying on it for more and more tasks. If others follow a similar path, then it’s easy to see how we might become used to using our voice to interact with technology. At that point, our expectations around businesses and how they communicate with us will change.


Image by Kevin Bhagat on Unsplash

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