How to be heard in a voice-activated world

The next seismic shift in how we communicate is just around the corner, and every industry will have to evolve to survive it.

The arrival of voice technology is already changing how we communicate. Over the next decade the mass adoption of voice technology will mark a change to our everyday interactions that’s as substantial as the movement to digital of older forms of media and commerce. The research and advisory firm Gartner forecasts that by 2020 most of us will be having more conversations with bots like Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri than our spouse.

The technology available to consumers still has relatively low adoption levels – but those in the field say the potential for rapid acceleration to the point where it is an essential component of everyday life is vast. The statistics speak for themselves: more than a quarter of Google searches on Android handsets are input by voice, and Apple’s Siri now handles more than three billion commands a week.

With the imminent launch of Apple’s answer to the Amazon Echo, the HomePod, market growth is likely to accelerate. Given that 9% of Americans under the age of 8 already have a voice assistant in their home, there will be an entire generation which sees these devices as part of the furniture.

The winners of the last step change, such as Google, Apple and Facebook, are trying their best to ensure they shore up their positions. And, of course, we don’t know yet what the next wave of disruptors – the Alibabas or Apples of the coming decade – will bring to the table. What now looks futuristic may be the next MiniDisc player rather than the next iPod.

What is certain is there will be a fundamental behavioural shift in how people interact with brands, and communicators will have to act quickly to ensure they are addressing this at both the product and broader communications levels.

To start, content has to become conversational in tone. Companies will have to adapt to communicating in a screenless environment and managing the “micromoments” of interaction with consumers. They will have to develop personae for their brands, and be thoughtful about which kind of bots will work for different consumers; Amazon’s development of a Hinglish-speaking Alexa for the Indian market is a case in point.

Brand loyalty will become even more fragile. Consumers are more likely to ask their voice assistant for “bread” rather than a specific brand. However, this is a technology that is going to become more useful for consumers the more it is used – so voice assistants should be able to quickly learn which loaf of bread the consumer wants.

There is now a unique opportunity to start building apps that work across platforms and become a voice in an as-yet uncrowded marketplace. Companies should be ensuring they have voice coverage on Google AdWords, optimising content for voice, joining “Actions on Google” and starting to build apps and personae on the existing platforms.

With this transition will come challenges. The ethical and practical implications of inviting a virtual assistant into homes are inextricably linked with the wider debate about the development of AI and robotics.

The risk of a backlash grows as technology intrudes on more areas of our lives. Recent experiments showing how existing voice assistants can be hacked by inaudible (to humans) commands, through what researchers call a “DolphinAttack,” and continuing revelations about the extent to which companies already have access our data, exacerbate those concerns. On a practical level, consumers may start worrying about how much control over their homes they are surrendering to their voice-activated assistants.

For companies incorporating more voice control, communications should focus on how this new technology increases convenience and augments, rather than replaces, human intelligence.

It’s also essential that, even in the middle of a great change like this, communicators remember the principles of good communications. We’ll have to continue to work on the tone and content of our interactions with stakeholders, and influence the conversation, within the voice format. We’ll still be developing ideas and building content that aims to capture attention – that increasingly scarce resource – but we will have to adapt them to an evolving framework in order to cut through an increasingly noisy space.