How smart speakers are changing the way we search and shop

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Its Black Friday at the end of this week and bargain hunters across the US and Europe are readying themselves and their wallets to snap up bargains both online and in store. One thing that we can comfortably predict is that many will have their eye on a new smart speaker. The rise of the smart speaker over the last few years has been remarkable: in the US, an estimated 43.9m Americans used a smart speaker at least once a month in 2017, rising to 61.1m in 2018 and expected to increase to 76.5m by 2020 (source: eMarketer, 2018). This proliferation of smart speakers has inevitably fuelled a spike in voice search and voice commerce – and those, of course, have implications for marketers.

Who’s using them?

In May this year, eMarketer released its report,‘Hey Alexa, who’s using smart speakers?’. In it, the research firm points out that ‘not since the smartphone has any tech device been adopted as quickly as the smart speaker’. In fact, growth has been so strong that they predicted that the number of smart speaker users would surpass that of wearable users this year. The typical user is still the classic early tech-adopter – affluent, older millennial male – but the device is gaining traction in other demographics, particularly younger generation X women with children. What’s driving this surge? As eMarketer’s co-founder and Chief Content Officer Geoff Ramsey pointed out in his ‘Emerging Trends’ session at the ANA Masters of Marketing last month, it’s easier to talk to a device than to type into one and – crucially – smart speakers adapt to our voices and behaviour, not the other way around.

The new battleground for the tech giants

As is to be expected with any major technological development, the smart speaker has become the latest battleground for the tech giants, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft. Facebook and Microsoft are still to make waves in the field: the former delayed the release of its smart speaker due to user privacy concerns (understandable, given the year it has had), while Microsoft has partnered with another hardware maker instead of creating an own-brand speaker. Apple released its HomePod speaker, but the high price point and less-than-glowing reviews means it is yet to be a major player, in this space at least. That leaves Google and Amazon as the undisputed kings of the smart speaker arena. Google’s Google Home has a 29.5% share of the market, but eMarketer projected that Amazon Echo – of Alexa fame – would claim 66.6% of the smart speaker market in 2018.

Transforming how we shop…

As we discussed in an earlier post, Amazon is well on its way to adding a third leg to the Facebook-Google digital duopoly by increasing its advertising revenue – and its Echo smart speaker is a key way in which it will achieve this. eMarketer points out that voice is the next frontier for online commerce, and while the number of people who shop using their purchases is small (28.2% of US smart speaker owners), they predict that the number of US smart speaker buyers will double to 17.2 million between 2017 and 2018. And it is of course Amazon that benefits from this, thanks to their success in the smart speaker space and their dominance of the general ecommerce space. Echo owners can and do shop using Amazon Prime: indeed, they spend an average of $1700 a year, according to a CIRP report. That’s $400 higher than what ‘regular’ Prime customers spend annually on Amazon and 66% higher than non-Prime Amazon shoppers. CIRP’s co-founder Josh Lowitz said “We’ve long thought that Amazon is keenly focused on building increasingly loyal and frequent shopping customers, and Echo seems to promote that goal.” Brands can also create third-party apps; however, many are choosing to do this with Google Home rather than Alexa so they don’t have to compete with Amazon’s inventory.

…and how we search

That’s not the only way that Google may have an edge over the thus-far dominant Echo. The second most popular way that consumers use their smart speakers, after music, is search. Ramsey noted that 72% of US smart speaker users who have a smart device use them to search – it’s the second most popular activity after listening to music, and that doesn’t even include the news, weather or traffic. One third of users use them every day to search for something that they would previously have typed into a device. The implications of this for brands are particularly important. Why’s that? Because voice search usually only yields one result: consumers don’t want to listen to reams of results, and that actually could be a reason that they are choosing to use their smart speaker rather than traditional methods, so that they don’t have to sift through results. Furthermore, they don’t have to stop what they are doing.

A voice search optimisation strategy

The fact that there is only one search result on smart speakers means that brands either get first position or no position: it’s critically important that they start developing a solid voice search optimisation strategy to take them to the top of the search results. Econsultancy suggests that an effective way to do this is to help people when they need support with a specific task, such as cooking or trying to remove a stain – what Google has termed a ‘micro-moment’. That fits in with Ramsey’s view that voice is not just another ad vehicle – it’s a utility, and advertisers need to see it as a personalised experience that will bring consumers closer to their brand. Voice can be used to literally start a conversation with a consumer and ultimately set them along the path to purchase. As far as paid search is concerned, sponsored ad words aren’t yet available but that can surely only be a matter of time.

Will mobile ads be impacted?

Something else that brands need to bear in mind is that, as consumers are increasingly drawn consumers away from their mobile devices by smart speakers, they will be exposed to fewer mobile ads. We believe that it is unlikely that Amazon and Google will allow brands to ‘broadcast’ ads via their smart speakers; could this mean that digital advertising will start to see a decline?

Agility and readiness are critical

As the tech giants look to implement their voice assistants into other gadgets, household appliances, furniture and even cars, the opportunities for brands to become intrinsically valuable and useful to the consumer grows. With that opportunity comes complexity that will need to be navigated. As Ramsey pointed out, even the pneumonics of brand and product names will need to be considered! There is much to be gained by those who are most agile and can stay ahead.

Thumbnail image: Shutterstock

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