Digital Publishers Prepare for the Voice Revolution

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Article ImageThere’s plenty of buzz about the growing prevalence of voice. As Alexa and her ilk become more ubiquitous—Amazon revealed there are more than 100 million Alexa-enabled devices in the wild, and the latest figures for devices sporting Google Assistant come in at more than 400 million—it seems that analysts’ predictions about the shift toward a voice-first landscape are becoming a reality. But it’s not just about smart speakers. Content is everywhere, and that includes voice content. Although the implications for digital publishers are still coming into focus, those looking to get ahead of the pack may not have much time left to claim their spot on the frontier. According to comScore, 50% of all searches will be voice searches by 2020.

The transition to voice is still in the early stages, and with little structure around market demand and the technology’s capabilities, many digital publishers are struggling to figure out what do to with (and about) all of this. Some companies are still working to achieve a healthy monetization of digital publishing as they add the challenge of bringing voice first into the mix. “Now there’s this new channel, which isn’t easily trackable because the technology is relatively nascent, but they also don’t know how to create ROI,” says Jason Fields, chief strategy officer at Voicify, a voice CMS provider. Fields surmises that with the massive shift from traditional to digital publishing still fresh in their minds, some publishers may be thinking, “Here we go again.” If publishers feel a bit overwhelmed by the prospect of tackling yet another platform, it’s for a good reason.

Some publishers are eagerly looking ahead, analyzing where it makes sense to fold voice into their portfolio and positioning themselves to make the most of it. Many are already on the bandwagon. The Washington Post, owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, is an obvious fit for an Alexa skill. Users, according to The Post’s skill description, “Get breaking news and the latest headlines, listen to national political correspondent James Hohmann analyze the biggest political stories of the day, or play the weekly Know Your News Quiz.” But everyone from ESPN to NPR to Consumer Reports is embracing the voice content trend. In fact, there are more than 5,000 news skills for Alexa.

Amy Stapleton, founder and CEO of the voice app publisher Tellables, believes forays designed to test the consumer waters—while also learning where existing content can be leveraged—are a smart strategy. “It’s a good time to experiment because people are more forgiving right now,” she says. The newness of the platforms and consumers’ evolving expectations give those publishers making early inroads into voice an opportunity to shape the market. They might also get a leg up on discovering what catches the public’s interest and focusing their efforts on those particular areas. “It’s still early and the audience is small,” Stapleton says. “This is a good time to put some stuff out there and see what works.”


The Voice Revolution

Understanding the genesis of voice—and how it’s grown—is important. Consumer demand is behind some market shifts, but right now much of the evolution around voice content is being driven by technology. The launch and rapid adoption of Alexa and similar devices got the technology into consumers’ hands and provided a ready platform for digital publishers. Because the built-in natural language processing enables two-way conversations, Stapleton says, “The consumer wasn’t asking for the technology, but now that it’s available, publishers are thinking about ways they can take advantage of that.”

And while there’s a growing universe of people with virtual assistants, consumers are primarily doing mundane things with those smart devices. “They’re using them for a few types of use cases, like asking about the time, the weather, or setting timers or listening to music,” Stapleton says. “Not that many consumers are asking for content.” Mobile voice searches, however, show a different trend. According to CTA, 25% of shoppers used voice assistants in their holiday shopping in 2017. And Search Engine Watch says mobile voice-related searches are more likely to be local-based than text searches.

Peggy Anne Salz, chief analyst and founder of MobileGroove, is bullish on the future of voice content—especially in the mobile context. “Consumers want to access a broad range of content—but they want to take the heavy lifting out of the discovery and decision process that goes with it. While consumers will demand the bite-size bits, such as weather, that get them through the day, there is also a place for the content we contemplate during the micro-leisure moments throughout the day,” she says. “The ease of voice search means you can plan your day and routine differently. Want to know what’s worth binge watching when you get home? Ask. Want to investigate your options for a trip, class, or another way to enhance your life on weekends? Ask. Want to tune into content on the commute? Ask.”

Speech technology’s influence on the marketplace is largely a result of several factors coming together. “When you look at virtual assistants, artificial intelligence, open APIs, and voice recognition, those things combined are what really power a voice-first experience,” Fields says. “The fact that all those things happen to be hitting at the same time, and the technology is advancing so drastically, is forcing the issue.” Devices are often available for very little cost, bundled with other products or as an enticement to join a provider’s ecosystem. Not only is this bringing in the early adopters, it’s also putting voice-first technology in the hands of those who aren’t normally on the front lines of innovation. “They see there’s this promise of an experience,” Fields says. As consumers push ahead, many brands are already playing catch-up rather than leading the way.


The Challenges of Voice Content

“Voice search is about solving a problem, finding an answer, and preparing to enjoy a moment of downtime—and more,” says Salz. “I need an app to lose weight; I need the latest traffic news, give me ideas about how to spend Labor Day weekend. It’s conversational and open ended—and this adds a lot of new terms and variables to keyword search and the ways publishers can get their content in front of their audiences.” But that all comes with challenges.

Adoption of voice-first on the publisher side may be hindered by previous platform evolutions, some of which caused major disruption in the industry. Joe Wikert, publishing president at Our Sunday Visitor (OSV), a Catholic publisher in Huntington, Ind., points to the ebook movement and its impact—financial as well as market share—on publishers. “Amazon really helped put it on the map, but by the same token, dominated it and dictated the terms,” he says. Concerns about the spread of voice could make publishers pause, particularly with Amazon’s platform being one of the two most popular for the voice channel. But sometimes, it takes a shakeup for consumers and providers to see where value exists. “I liken it to the original iPhone,” Wikert says, explaining how a marketplace that had previously been perfectly happy with flip phones suddenly recognized massive untapped potential. “It wasn’t until we saw what this could do and the power the app store platform had to offer that it really made a difference.” He anticipates that similar possibilities lurk in voice-first content.

There might also be challenges in devising a strategy that takes advantage of a voice-first landscape while still driving sustainable revenue. Fields says that publishers will likely be asking themselves some direct questions. “Where are the points in a customer’s experience with our products where a voice interface can deliver value?” he asks. Identifying the opportunities will take some research, and the low-hanging fruit might not pay good dividends. “There may be a risk of digital publishers trying to whittle down the content experience into super small snippets that people can bite off and process,” Fields says. With much of the existing content being long-form, finding a balance could be challenging.

Like all things content related, it comes down to quality. “Rather than marvel at the advance of audio content, publishers need to unlock a more immersive audio element to their other content. One of my favorite examples is The City, content from USA TODAY that combines the power of investigative reporting with the appeal of an immersive podcast,” says Salz. “They succeed because they use multiple formats and channels to multiply impact and audiences. A focus on linking, deep linking, and cross-promotion has allowed publishers to boost discovery and engagement. Another plus would be to explore the opportunities to piggyback on programmatic audio to get content promos and ads in front of audiences already spending significant time in podcasts and streaming media—exactly the context where voice search has the edge, offering suggestions without interrupting the flow.”

Another issue publishers will need to unravel is the physical characteristics of many voice-first devices. Smart speakers, for example, are typically in the home and may be statically located. “When people engage, they don’t want to be standing in one place,” Stapleton says. “Podcasts aren’t that popular on smart speakers because people are moving from room to room.” Instead, devices such as the iPod fit the podcast format and enable people to remain mobile. Stapleton says that cars, where consumers are a captive audience, have caught the interest of some publishers. “They may want to listen to an audiobook or an interactive story on an Alexa-enabled device in the car,” she says. The in-vehicle environment could present a good use case in voice-first’s early days.



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