16 April 2019

The State of Voice Commerce Right Now

OPINION

I’ve just tried to book a meeting room through my Echo Dot 3. Precisely nothing happened, of course, but all that’s set to change if you believe Amazon’s latest announcement.

Not content with being the go-to helping hand at home, Amazon’s Alexa team have just announced initiatives for the office and healthcare spaces. On 10 April, Google announced its Assistant is coming to work calendars too.

Voice isn’t just a novel way for people to talk with the few brands that decided to create conversational experiences any more; it’s becoming an ever-easier way to navigate life and it will only get more normal the more environments we use it in.

There’re going to be more and more things that users can do with voice tech other than interact with brands. That’s great news, because it means more people will have smart speakers and think nothing of using them to go about their daily lives.

It does, however, mean the era of voice novelty is over (Hunter’s estate agent, anyone?). It’s not enough to have a “skill” (what Amazon calls voice apps) or “action” (Google’s name for them) – we have entered phase two of voice tech.

And the key question when designing for voice is simple but not an easy one to answer: how is this adding value to people’s lives and to our brand? Start4Life from the NHS is a great example of a skill doing exactly that.

The single most significant evolution in voice tech for brands in the next year is going to be commerce functionality.

Just as ecommerce changed the way we find and buy products, m-commerce brought that functionality to shoppers on the move and s-commerce brought goods even closer by putting them right inside our social feeds, v-commerce will allow the everywoman to buy the stuff she needs using voice in a new set of contexts.

Of course, on its own that’s nothing more than a headline. But as part of a wider brand experience, it could be magic. Diageo is nailing it with its voice app “The bar” that teaches you fancy cocktail-making and lets you order ingredients via Amazon Prime.

Great! Let’s start selling dog food via voice! Tampons! Apples! You name it! Not so fast, I’m afraid. Although v-commerce is set to revolutionise the digital purchase journey, the tools we need to build amazing experiences aren’t quite there yet.

A few housekeeping notes before we get stuck into the nitty-gritty: I’m only considering the Google and Amazon platforms because they are market leaders; and the UK and US are inextricably linked because beta features are often tested Stateside before being rolled out on our fair isles. Thirdly, there’s a big difference between first- and third-party environments – the former is the voice assistant’s world and the latter is the brand’s world facilitated by the voice assistant. The equivalent of native (eg iOS camera) versus brand (eg Asos, which leverages the iOS camera) mobile apps, if you will.

So what exactly do we have to work with here?

If your brand already has an ecommerce set-up, you have multiple options for selling both digital and physical goods inside your voice app. For digital products (in-app purchases such as game levels or pro plans), you can leverage Amazon’s so-called “in-skill purchase” feature or Google’s equivalent. For physical products, you’ll either implement Amazon or Google Pay to handle payment while you deal with delivery or link a user’s account from another of your services to access their card details (provided you have them, naturally). Bear in mind your voice developers will need access to your ecommerce tech and this may require connecting dots if you don’t look after your brand’s digital destinations yourself.

If you don’t currently have ecommerce functionality, things are cloudier.

On Google

In the US, you may be able to use this thing called Google Express. It’s essentially a Google service that acts as a layer between voice applications (your brand’s bit) and online retailers that already sell your brand’s products (eg Target or Costco). Obviously, this is contingent on retailers doing just that. Crucially, though, this isn’t a voice-only pathway. Once the user has added a product to their shopping basket using the magic of Google Express, they still have to confirm the purchase from Target via their Target shopper account. Clunky, and not currently available in the UK, although it’s on its way (no timeframes have yet been announced).

On Alexa

The Amazon voice platform has something rather neat on account of Amazon being a retailer itself: the Alexa Shopping List. Without your own ecommerce function, you can tell your customers to ask Alexa to add teabags to their Alexa shopping list at the end of your conversation with them. You’ll never know if they did it, though, since that teabag request happens in the first-party environment, once your customer is done talking with you attribution is impossible. Google doesn’t currently have an equivalent. And, of course, there’s that little detail of whether your products are even available on Amazon and whether we should be funnelling customers into its ecosystem without so much as a second thought. But that discussion requires wine.

As you can see, it’s not perfect, but there are workarounds available and the tech giants are naturally working hard to make v-commerce a frictionless shopping experience by the year’s end. Nimesh Patel, programme manager at voice app development agency Voxly Digital, says: “With skyrocketing numbers of devices on which these voice assistants are available, both Amazon and Google are working frantically on creating seamless user journeys for voice-only commerce.”

Not a month will go by without voice evolution, but it’s crucial to remember that voice isn’t another channel to force marketing messaging through. It requires an altogether different approach to brand/consumer interaction and should form part of a wider connected brand experience.

Booking my next meeting room would be convenient, but buying all the ingredients I need for a complete pre-London marathon meal plan using nothing but my voice? That would be priceless. I would love that brand forever. Design accordingly.

This article first appeared in Campaign.

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