Smart Speakers and The New Age of Audio
Audio advertising is poised to get a big push as voice-enabled devices are introduced to increasing numbers of households every year. Specifically, smart speaker usage is expected to keep booming, with the current number rising from 114 million units globally to over 207 million in 2019.
Web-connected speakers allow users to stream music, gain information to solve problems and issue various commands with the power of hands-free technology. Alexa, Amazon’s flagship virtual assistant, can answer questions, make to-do lists, set alarms, check on weather and traffic conditions, and provide information on a wide variety of topics. Together with its closest rival Google Home, it holds the top slot in consumer adoption of this technology. There are many brands for consumers to try, but from the marketing perspective, it’s the search engine capabilities that start to define the ways in which voice-enabled devices can serve business growth.
Alexa’s default search engine is Bing, while Home uses Google Search. Connected to voice-enabled smart speakers, users simply speak to search with no scrolling and no typing. Like speech-to-text and voice dialing, the convenience factor is compelling; especially to Millennials and Gen Z consumers who have grown up with smart assistants. Answers to audio-only search queries are delivered verbally, creating a uniquely easy, conversational experience for users. By January of last year, there was an average of 1 billion voice searches each month. There’s a new age of Audio on the horizon.
The Smart Audio Report conducted by NPR and Edison Research released findings that 70% of smart speaker buyers are consuming more audio since getting their speaker. As more users opt for audio, optimization priorities will need to adapt as they contemplate the effects of audio-only search results and subsequent rankings. The growth in smart speaker sales brings brand new channels for advertising to homes and offices. Entire households represent opportunities to reach the full family of decision makers through one platform. Sounds good, right? But which ones will give you ads?
Voice Ads Still in Development
As recently as last year, Amazon was still claiming that they had no plans for voice ads on Alexa. That changed when it was leaked that last year there was with an invitation-only beta test conducted with a select few top brands who were offered an opportunity to try “audio ads”. The results of this exercise are not public, but reports have not necessarily been positive. Anonymous sources reported that the analytics were hard to understand and there was no ability to target. Advertisers in the Amazon program were guaranteed a million impressions, but drilling down on the ways in which brands benefited is unclear. What is clear, however, is that these powerful search platforms have every intention of monetizing via ads.
Earlier this year, Google began testing ads in audio search results, but it was limited to Android phones. Then in April, they officially introduced opportunities for audio advertisers to be accessed in their users’ voice queries as “results” vs. “answers”. For now there are fewer ads in Google assistant than in general search on Google, but clearly Amazon, Google, and other search superstars are figuring out ways to monetize their traffic through their voice-enabled search technology.
It will represent yet another tech hoop to jump through for advertisers who want to answer user questions with solutions that translate to the purchase of their products. Unfortunately, many aspects of voice-search optimization (VSO) are different from traditional website optimization, so expertise in traditional SEO doesn’t transfer completely in this medium. VSO is new and still delivers unpredictable results, plus everything we know about radio doesn’t help because radio-style commercials don’t appear to work for most of the ways people use their smart devices.
Advertising as a result of voice-enabled searches has hurdles that advertisers need to consider. Alexa ad opportunities are currently limited to intent-based marketing, where people hear ads because they search for a solution to a problem. Google similarly shows signs of moving from keyword-based search to intent-based search. This means audio ads will need to provide higher quality skills with specific, unique intents in order to be recommended. Also, unlike traditional search results, those that occur as verbal interactions will need long-tail keywords mirroring a more natural, conversational exchange. By 2020, 30% of all website sessions will be conducted without a screen, so not being audio-savvy means forgoing participation in a fast-growing medium.
Smart Speaker Ads from Audio Streaming
The good news right now is that smart speakers do what all speakers do: play ad-sponsored music and content. Increased devices paired with streaming services like Spotify and Pandora mean more users and more reach. The learning curve for advertising on these platforms is comparatively easy because radio advertising has been around for a very long time and expert help in how to best use it is readily accessible.
This year, techcrunch.com reported that over a quarter of US adults own a smart speaker. However, it may take a while for consumers to feel comfortable buying by voice. Reportedly, only about 2% of Alexa owners made purchases via Alexa in 2018. Still, like any popular device, smart speakers will inevitably introduce yet another way to reach consumers – but only if you know how.