Speaking Out

Voice is taking the world by storm.  Once the preserve of science fiction fantasy, millions of people are now using mobile phones and digital assistants to express themselves online.  According to Google and Bing, for example, one in four searches is now conducted by talking, not typing, a figure that is predicted to reach 50 per cent by 2020.  This huge growth in the use of voice is creating an expectation that the future ways in which change consumers engage with brands will look very different to our text-based world.

Changing the way consumers relate to brands

All media have different strengths – and shape the nature of the discourse. So, for example, we would never have used smoke signals as a means of communicating abstract, complex ideas!  When we use text, we will typically communicate in a linear, structured way to express ideas, make requests and so on.  There is always a slight delay between the thought and the action, a chance to review and revise.  Our written words may not necessarily express the underlying emotional content whether that be sarcasm, humour, anxiety and so on.

With voice, on the other hand, it is often less linear – our intention is often voiced before further refinements are subsequently added so motivations may be more transparent.  And it is a more immediate reflection of our desires, as we are not able to edit what we have said in the way we may do with text.  In addition, our voice will often express a range of emotions even if we do not intend that to be the case.  If we are feeling anxious then that can often be easily recognized by the recipient as it can be less about what we say but more about how we say it.

The implications for brands are quite complex.  First, we need to consider what we are losing in the transition from text to voice.  The nature of the interaction may be more complex for brands to understand, as needs, preferences and so on are perhaps stated in a less coherent way.  On the other hand, perhaps it is easier to understand the intention of the user more easily – not only through the changed structure of the ‘input’ but also through interpreting the signals given by examining how things have been said.

Voice also creates a set of expectations of the relationship from the digital assistant (DA) user.  We are used to the recipient understanding the nuance of what we say based on our tone of voice.  And what we say is different – we are more likely to be sarcastic for example.  If DAs cannot pick these up then there is potential for frustration or indeed for a misreading.  Just think of the potential harm of a sarcastic comment when driving.  On the other hand, our propensity to make our intentions clear is perhaps an opportunity for brands – so less inference needs to be done to work out what the user really wants.

The dangers for brands

Shoppers that use voice commands to do their shopping tend to operate differently to shoppers in-store or even online as they tend to build baskets over days, rather than in one short burst of activity.  It seems that voice commands are also particularly popular for adding routine essentials like milk to shopping baskets.  The danger for brands is that when consumers use voice commands, they are more likely to add the product to the shopping list but less likely to specify the brand.  That decision may well be left to the DA, which in turn will seek out the best available offer according to your requirements.  And may even calculate which supermarket to place your order with.

The hidden psychology of voice

Speech carries a lot of information above and beyond the content – we intuitively understand this and in our daily interactions, we use these cues to gain information about the speaker.  The discipline of sociolinguistics has long been used to derive information from ‘speech markers’ covering personal attributes such as age, sex, social class and so on.  More recently there have been studies that indicate it is possible to derive personality attributes from speech as well as emotion.  Call centres have long employed these sorts of techniques and we expect to see these methods transition to DAs.

This ‘metadata’ of speech has the potential for brands to derive huge amounts of information about the individual, meaning that the interaction could be personalised to their personality, social demographics or emotional state.  Indeed, there may well be far-reaching ways in which brands could customise the way in which they engage with consumers based on information derived from speech markers.  Of course, there are significant privacy issues to consider – and there will need to be dialogue with consumers on this issue.

On this basis, we may see ever more ‘human-like’ dialogue between DAs and their users – with a growing expectation that all interactions should be natural.  We will likely see platforms emerging that facilitate this, reducing the potential for frustration or misreading but also creating a chasm for those voice-based services that do not use these ‘human-style’ techniques.

In summary

Voice has the potential to fundamentally reshape the consumer brand landscape, with voice platforms essentially controlling the customer relationship.  Brands should have cause to be worried and therefore need to move fast to ensure they manage to crowbar a place for themselves in the eco-system. In the near-term, brands need to understand the new dynamics of voice and work out how to leverage value.  There are clearly new opportunities for customer engagement that smart brands are already exploring.

But we should also be a little cautious, it is not so long ago that we were talking about the way in which the visual web was changing everything.  It is in the interests of technology players to emphasise the disruptive nature of their tools, not least because it infers that adoption is inevitable – which encourages consumer take-up and investment by brands.  And let’s not forget the privacy angle.  The personal data environment is changing, driven in Europe at least by the advent of GDPR.  Consumers may simply not be willing to play ball with their privacy.

Nevertheless, the potential for significant change feels entirely possible.  The technology is facilitating an ease of interaction that seems to chime with many consumers.  Hedging bets looks wise.


By Colin Strong