Voice technology and smart assistants, whether on our smartphones or in our smart home speakers, are on the verge of becoming fully embedded into our lives.

But improvement in existing voice recognition technology is key for enabling growth in voice-based shopping, as well as mass adoption from brands.

The volume of voice-based spending will most definitely grow over the next few years, fueled by rapid consumer adoption of smart speakers, the expansion of smart home appliances, and the growing integration of voice assistants in cars

However, predictions about voice vary wildly, with some seeming overly optimistic given the issues surrounding consumer acceptance and the overall usability of voice technology.

Uncertainty around the future of voice shouldn’t dissuade brands from thinking about why the technology might help them better interact with and engage their consumers, however. 

Instead, audience analytics can be instrumental in finding particular use cases and contexts surrounding how voice technology might benefit consumers. 

With that in mind, here are the most important things to know about the current voice landscape, and how brands can capitalize on a potential tsunami-sized wave of growth. 

Smart assistants are getting smarter.

Voice assistants continue to gain momentum as they grow their skill-set and improve user-experience – both Google and Amazon recently announced that both assistants will no longer require the use of repeated “wake” words, for example.

They’ll be able to offer more individualized experiences as unique voice-detection technology improves, and voice assistants begin to dictate commute times, weather and news information for individual users according to their routines and preferences. 

But there’s still little clarity around how this interface affects the brand-consumer relationship, and how brands should reposition themselves in light of this.

Amazon, in particular, has a vested interest in making sure smart speaker owners use the speakers themselves to to buy products on the ecommerce giant’s website.

This move is possible thanks to Amazon’s long-running investments in different industries, which are now being connected through its foray into voice technology.

Amazon’s decision to open up the “skill” and “command” building to third-party developers has also helped enhance smart speakers’ usefulness in many aspects of users’ day-to-day lives. 

Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa currently features 80,000 voice skills, and the ability to make in-skill purchases is the latest avenue the brand is going down in order to maximize profits across its different streams.

With in-skill purchasing, developers are able to generate revenue from voice apps in a number of ways: through the sale of digital goods as a one-time purchase, subscriptions or consumables.

Currently, 7.2% of global internet users aged 16-64 own a smart speaker, but this rises to 55% among those who say they own a smart home device. 

Among those who own a smart home product, there’s great regional variation in those owning a smart speaker. Almost three-quarters of smart home product owners in North America currently own one, compared to only a third in Latin America and 20% in the Middle East and Africa

Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that older consumers are more likely to own a smart speaker than their younger counterparts, with two-thirds of 55-64-year-old smart home product owners having one. 

And while many would think that’s down to them being more affluent, this trend remains – even when we look at high-income earners. 

There are parallels between owners of smart home devices and tablets, as their ability to improve household living holds greater appeal among older consumers who are married with children. 

Voice assistants are also a useful tool for even older consumers, because they help those with limited mobility to complete daily tasks, facilitate quick emergency calls, and can easily set-up of reminders. 

Older people have even become Amazon Echo’s target demographic in commercials, which often feature grandparents being introduced to the technology by their grandchildren. 

Voice technology is getting more popular.

The value of voice search

Today, 43% of the global online population say they have conducted a voice search within the past month on any device, which represents a 34% increase since the first half of 2017. 

Consumers first experience with voice command tools has been via their mobile, but computers and tablets have also seen an uptake of consumers using voice search in the past two years. 

Unsurprisingly, our data shows that the younger the internet user, the more likely they are to engage with voice search, especially on a smartphone

But across each age group, there’s been an increase in the number of people searching for things via voice commands. Almost all mid-to-premium end mobiles now have integrated voice assistants, and their capabilities continue to become more sophisticated with each new generation handset.

We see large regional disparities in the adoption of voice technology. Use of search ranges from 28% in Europe to 50% in APAC. With its higher mobile penetration and population of young and affluent internet users, there’s a wider openness to new tech in the APAC region generally. 

6 in 10 here say having the latest technology is very important to them, versus just a third in Europe and North America.

But for voice technology to achieve mainstream adoption, it needs to find better ways of monetization beyond paid features. 

In that respect, voice assistants are well poised to incorporate advertising or product recommendations in the near future. 

But with a significant number of consumers already disillusioned with the state of advertising online, will they be any more receptive to commercial messaging delivered via voice assistants? 

This is a challenge that needs to be tackled, perhaps through contextual targeting, if the mistakes that originally led to adblocking are to be avoided. 

On top of this, brands must also consider how the delivery of these experiences differs between voice-enabled devices.

Among mobile voice assistant users, our research revealed that functional activities are the leading use case for this tech, like asking for directions or checking the weather.

Home assistants, on the other hand, provide a more relaxing and interactive experience. We also found home assistant users perform a greater variety of behaviors on average, with an emphasis on content and entertainment, and that includes streaming music.

But for brands, this highlights the need to align their approaches on each device to the kind of environment the device sits in.

For mobile voice assistants, this means helping users make quick decisions on the go, and for home assistants this means delivering a fun, interactive or more casual experience.

But assistants like Alexa or Google Assistant don’t currently differentiate their personalities between devices or contextual environments, and this will be a key issue to tackle as more brands join the fray and consumers demand more natural voice-enabled experiences.

Consumers want personality.

In the future smart home, what sort of features do consumers want to see (or hear)?

As it happens, working with other smart home devices isn’t at the top of everyone’s list, and it probably goes to show how far off mass adoption of the smart home is at this point in time.

What comes out on top is actually personalization. As time goes on, delivering content that’s relevant is becoming increasingly important.

The amount of material there is to wade through online means consumers crave a guiding hand that will help them navigate huge amounts of content. 

And providing personally relevant recommendations is one way to do that. In a voice interaction, this means learning from previous requests to provide intelligent, targeted recommendations for more content. 

While the more flashy features have their place, consumers are most appreciative of timely and appropriate recommendations, and trust in these suggestions will continue to develop. 

This sense of ‘trust’ is fostered a lot more quickly because of the nature of how smart assistants operate. Their ‘voice’ means users are much more likely to establish some sort of connection of even emotion compared to other devices. 

This is an opportunity that savvy brands won’t want to ignore, but it’s also a challenge. 

Building a voice-friendly brand identity is a natural next step for companies to embark on, as a brand’s ‘voice’ could serve as its new logo or identity in future.

It’s therefore crucial for marketers to understand what personality traits consumers are looking for in their voice companion.

Smart Assistant personality

In a special survey in the UK and U.S., we found that smart home purchase intenders in the UK and the U.S. want devices with personalities that are informative (cited by 62%) and organized (cited by 50%). 

What’s more, improving knowledge and skills (28%) and help with organizing their daily lives (35%) stands out as the two most value-driven requests this group has for brands in the UK and the U.S.. 

The penetration of voice assistants in the brand-consumer relationship is an exciting opportunity for companies to rethink their purpose and design their voice according to a particular target demographic.

We see interesting demographic variations when it comes to personality traits of voice assistants. For example, our youngest respondents – Gen Z (aged 16-22) – are much more likely to want to be able to speak to a celebrity or a youthful voice. 

This is clearly translated into the way they discover brands as well. Gen Z are 82% more likely than the average online consumer in the UK and the U.S. to find out about new brands via celebrity endorsements. 

Brands have a huge space here to engage Gen Z in a unique way via a celebrity voice. On the other hand, older consumers are more insistent on a wise and thoughtful voice. 

Voice interaction opens up new unexplored avenues for brands to enter, but challenges around how receptive consumers will be to brands infiltrating their personal space as well as privacy concerns still remain. 

In fact, almost a quarter of smart home purchase intenders don’t trust voice assistants with handling their personal data

This largely falls down to unfamiliarity among consumers with how their data is stored and how they can gain access to it. For that reason, brands need to be extremely transparent with consumers over data collection in voice tech.

Conversational interfaces are the future.

CES 2019 continued to prove that voice and visual displays are merging into one seamless experience. Google showcased what is being called the E Ink screen which can display the weather, local traffic information and calendar events, for example. 

The push to bring visual and voice capabilities together will allow users to further interact with assistants and make the experience of search-based shopping using voice much smoother.

This will also have ramifications for conversational interfaces on apps and websites. Tech giants are already well on their way to developing smart websites that will handle customer queries using conversational interfaces. 

Voice technology is shaping up to become the hub of our connected homes and increasingly connected lives, and we will continue to see major advancements in the user interface for years to come. 

What’s important now is for brands to ask what value adding voice will bring, and how they can implement it thoughtfully to augment the user’s experience. 

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Written by

Duncan is a Senior Analyst and Writer at GlobalWebIndex. Duncan produces a wide range of assets including reports, infographics and dashboards, along with our Chart of the Week series. Moving to GlobalWebIndex after completing a degree in psychology, Duncan specializes in online consumer behavior and motivations.

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