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April 11, 2019 9 min read

Voice assistants: Beyond the hype

Voice assistants: Beyond the hype

Every emerging technology is bound to attract the attention of decision-makers and marketers sooner or later. Yet, they don’t always react fast enough to take full advantage of it.

In the past, some opportunities were overlooked by many - and those who acted fast eventually took over. For example, Facebook and Google didn’t ignore the potential of mobile solutions and quickly dominated the mobile advertising market, just because they decided to take a mobile-first approach at the right time.

On the other hand, sometimes it was the marketers who seized the opportunity - but the consumers were simply not ready for it. Take beacons and QR codes, as an example. There were multiple campaigns revolving around them, but they didn’t seem to resonate very well with the audience in the end.

At the moment, voice assistants are definitely one of the hottest technologies to make good use of. Are they being used to their full potential, though? And who’s actually going to take control of the voice assistant market (if they haven’t already)?

The use of voice assistants

Basically, voice assistants use voice recognition, speech synthesis, and natural language processing (NLP) to perform the desired action through a particular application. These actions can vary - from turning the lights on, answering questions or playing the music after hearing a wake word or command. Still, as voice assistants become more powerful, their use both at home and at work changes as well.

Right now, there are two types of devices that support voice assistants: smartphones and smart speakers. There is no doubt that smartphones are extremely popular - their number in the US has exceeded 250 million. When it comes to smart speakers, though, 20% of Americans use them. That’s probably the reason why there are twice as many monthly active voice assistant users on smartphones as smart speakers. However, as their usage is visibly increasing, these numbers are likely to change.

Especially given the fact that the owners of smart speakers would appreciate this technology also in other circumstances, rather than just playing music from the streaming services at home. Most smart speakers still seem to function as basic wireless speakers, though.

Can smart speakers serve as a direct sales channel, then?

Apart from streaming music, voice assistants are often asked to answer general questions (mostly about the weather), set alarms and reminders, or manage home automation. Only 11% of the owners use them to order products and even less (8%) to find a local business and, for example, order food or other services.

What does it mean for business owners and marketers? There’s still much work to be done, but the voice assistant market is booming - and the majority of businesses seem to have realised that, yet not many have actually done much about it. In fact, voice assistants can already be used to improve operational efficiency - from scheduling meetings to building more cooperative teams. Not to mention the ability to find new ways of engaging with your customers.

Voice assistants market share

Yet again, the tech giants have already dominated the market. It’s currently divided between Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook. All of them are likely to fight for the biggest share, but they all do it differently, with a different focus and motivation.

Apple and voice assistants

  • Apple initiated the era of voice-activated assistants when the company launched Siri back in 2011. Yet, its smart speaker HomePod has been struggling to compete with other, more established solutions from Google and Amazon - even though it’s said to excel in privacy and security. Apple knows how to sell its products like no other, yet, Siri is not perfect which also may be the reason why HomePod hasn’t been that widely purchased,

  • Still, Apple has been working hard to enable the use of Siri without an Internet connection (while we all are praying for more language versions),

  • At the same time, one to most significant aims of Apple is to convince its users to take advantage of the entire ecosystem. Actually, those who aren’t fully connected into the Apple universe might find it difficult to take full advantage of its offerings,

  • It’s worth to mention that Apple sealed a partnership with Salesforce which may bring interesting enterprise solutions in the near future. It basically means that Siri will enable handling Salesforce applications, as well as their integration with other systems.

Google and voice assistants

  • Its main advantage is Android - the most popular mobile operating system in the world,

  • Nonetheless, Google’s is now competing with its accuracy and AI-first approach (especially when it comes to search, language capabilities and conversational AI),

  • Speaking of conversational AI - in 2018, the company announced Google Duplex, a new technology for conducting natural conversations in order to carry out “mundane” tasks over the phone (such as making appointments or reservations),

  • Google also seems to be investing a lot in hardware (Google Pixel Buds, as an example) while changing its strategy when it comes to Android devices,

  • What’s more, the company launched a new venture fund for investments in voice and has been looking to build partnerships in healthcare and hospitality, above all.

Amazon and voice assistants

  • Amazon holds a significant market share thanks to its flag product, Alexa, and appears to be doing great when it comes to developing the product,

  • The development is mostly fueled by e-commerce and voice shopping since Alexa is directly connected to one of the world’s largest online stores,

  • When it comes to voice shopping, though, Amazon’s biggest challenge now may be to convince Alexa’s users to actually buy online with voice commands. For the time being, it works best with repetitive purchases. However, the company introduced Amazon Choice, which is a label given to various products across the site that supposedly marks “highly rated, well-priced products available to ship immediately.” Alexa will most likely recommend those products first, which happens to boost their sales,

  • At the same time, Amazon doesn't only plan to get more smart products that interface with Alexa into homes - the company wants to expand into new arenas as well. It is already partnering up with Microsoft to enter the workplace, and talking with major car manufacturers to integrate Alexa into their smart infotainment systems.

Microsoft and voice assistants

  • Microsoft entered the smart speaker market with Cortana relatively early but has been struggling to compete with other tech giants ever since. Instead, the company decided to go for integration partnerships - it has already integrated Amazon Alexa with Cortana, and has a similar plan for Google Assistant. Actually, the aim for Cortana is to become an essential skill, not only on Windows devices but also on smart speakers and mobile devices in general - both at home and at work,

  • Right now its market share might be small, but thanks to those partnerships, as well as the stable presence on the enterprise market, Cortana is able to increase the popularity of voice assistants in the corporate world.

Facebook and voice assistants

  • Its presence on the home smart speaker market started with Portal - a piece of hardware made for making AI-enhanced video calls with Facebook Messenger. It responds to basic voice commands when it comes to video calling and playing music. Plus, thanks to the partnership with Amazon, it comes with Alexa,

  • Facebook definitely has voice-related ambitions, but with a very late entry to the market and the limited functionalities of Portal, it's actually difficult to say how voice assistants are going to be used by it in the future,

  • Still, the asset here is the attention of its billions of users and the time they spend on Facebook, which holds great potential - not to mention that it also owns the most popular apps in the world.

Voice assistants & AI

The development of voice assistants is inseparably linked to AI. In order to work efficiently, voice assistants have to be smart - understand what people say and interpret it the right way.

The only issue here is that voice recognition has been mastered by machines quite well (as it can be seen on the graph below), yet, there’s still room for improvement when it comes to the use of AI for its interpretation.

At the same time, searching with one’s voice is easier than typing, not to mention that voice results are given much faster than by an average website. It’s also more convenient and natural. After all, users seem to be striving for actual interaction and “getting things done”, rather than simply asking questions and waiting for generic answers.

Let’s assume that artificial intelligence catches up and proper voice analysis becomes reality. Most likely, it’s only a matter of time before that happens, and we see more and more devices ready to enter our lives and enable us to use voice assistants. It might be high time to take advantage of them - both at home and at work.

Who should get interested in voice assistants in the first place?

  • Home appliances manufacturers - smart, voice-controlled home automation devices are here to stay, simply because they prove to be easier and more comfortable to use,

  • Healthcare industry - since patients can use voice to request assistance and access information including office wait times, appointment schedules or directions, with answers and information sent to their phone,

  • E-services providers - because ordering a taxi, booking a table or a hotel, as well as buying cinema tickets, can easily be done through a voice command,

  • Hotel owners - as AI-powered chatbots can welcome hotel guests and answer their questions (also in a different language, which minimises language barriers),

  • Car manufacturers - given the fact that many consumers would appreciate the use of voice-powered solutions in their cars, mainly due to increased comfort and safety,

  • Banking industry - not only because it’s the industry that seems to be adopting new technologies the fastest, but voice assistants can actually make it easier to check a current account balance or transfer money.

Use the potential of voice assistants

How can you make good use of voice assistants right now? Start with making it easy to find your business through voice commands. Just like being visible on Google Maps, this will quickly become necessary, if it hasn’t already.

Don’t forget to try out different voice assistants once you’re at it. Above all, take a closer look at the use cases and their popularity in a given country. Basically, if you think that your clients would rather use voice assistants at home, via smart speakers - choose Alexa or Google Assistant. If they are more likely to use a smartphone, consider Siri (iOS) and Google Assistant (Android). Plus, when focusing on the US, you can go ahead and test all voice assistants. If you want to expand internationally, though, Google Assistant might be the best choice since it supports more languages.

Nonetheless, it’s worth keeping an eye on the improvements the tech giants make when it comes to their voice assistants. They can easily influence your choice and inspire you to take advantage of voice-powered solutions to grow your business.

Speaking of - at Future Mind, we are already working on such solutions for our clients. If you want to discuss your options, get in touch.

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