The imperative of a voice-first strategy for brands is clear. The decision about whether or not to include a voice assistant in cars, hotel rooms, homes, offices, on personal devices, or even in toys is no longer a question of if, but rather how and when. Although the process of adding a voice interface is more complicated than simply deciding to move in that direction, embracing a voice-first philosophy is the first step.
A 2019 Adobe survey says a whopping 91% of business decision makers are significantly investing in voice technologies, and 94% of business leaders plan to increase their investment in voice in the coming year. The potential is limitless. Voice is now considered a key factor in driving conversions, increasing revenue, and improving user experiences. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Now that the majority of brands have decided that a voice interface is imperative, finding a unique and compelling brand voice is the first obstacle in making this a reality. According to Brandon Kaplan, founder and CEO of Skilled Creative, “We’ve reached a point where enough pilot tests and learns have occured, features have advanced enough, and distribution has reached maturity enough that brands should be developing a full, omni-channel voice program versus a quick project.”
Not only are these key design questions, they are key business questions. Moving forward without an understanding of all the ways a voice user interface (VUI) can impact your brand image will lead to more problems and lower probability that company leaders will feel comfortable enough to justify the investment.
Before you embark on your proof-of-concept, consider all the ways a VUI will communicate your brand’s values and attributes, improve user experiences, inform your product roadmap, and drive revenue opportunities.
As you begin to build your business case, consider and document all the elements that will come together to determine your brand’s voice, including:
The first stage of your voice-first strategy will be to plan and develop a complete voice profile. Think of your voice interface as the most important employee in your company and a brand ambassador. How this person interacts with your customers, the tone of their voice, and their ability to answer questions accurately and in a timely manner will all contribute to your brand experience—and ultimately your brand image in the market.
The movie “Her” depicted a young, lonely man falling in love with his voice assistant, Samantha. While that’s not necessarily the goal, you definitely want your customers to relate to and connect with your brand via a voice-enabled experience.
While we don’t expect our users to develop bonds as deep as in the movie, "Her", research by Google revealed that people are attributing human characteristics to voice assistants and establishing human-like relationships with them. The research uncovered that people are saying “please” and “thank you” and even “I’m sorry” when addressing their voice-activated devices.
“A brand’s voice cannot be chosen in isolation,” according to Carl Robinson, host of the Voice Tech Podcast, “The entire audio branding of the company must be designed to accurately reflect the values and image of the organization. This includes the voice, any music or jingles used, and even the sound within any physical products produced.”
Much in the same way as you would write a detailed description of the skills and experiences required for a new position within the company, prepare a comprehensive characterization of your voice interface to present to company stakeholders.
The evolving human-to-machine relationship is both an opportunity and a challenge for brands hoping to make voice the primary interface with their products. If the assistant becomes a persona that represents the company, every interaction becomes a reflection on the responsiveness and personality of the company.
According to James Poulter, CEO of Vixen Labs, “A good voice experience should be like the best dinner party guest you’ve ever had. It should show up on time, with a gift in hand and a polite compliment. It should know how to stay engaged, have an interesting story to tell, and know when it’s time to leave before you have to ask.”
Some elements of the voice profile to consider include:
According to Eric Turkington, VP of strategic partnerships at RAIN, “The notion of ‘brand voice’ takes on new meaning in the era of conversational computing. It’s no longer simply about personality, style, and tone, but the literal voice—human or synthesized—through which brands speak to their customers.”
As you go through this process, involve key stakeholders in the conversation to create a persona that accurately and effectively represents your brand. Including other members of your organization at this point in the process will give you the added benefit of establishing future ambassadors within the organization.
Embarking on a voice-first journey requires entering unexplored territories and adjusting the way business leaders think about how customers experience their brand. The old conventions of communicating the brand value through visuals and physical interactions are making way for new ways of brand identification and differentiation. In a voice-first world, consumers are receiving your brand message through sounds—the types of voices used and even the structure of the responses.
Depending on your audience, you may have to consider a number of variables, including communicating a consistent brand message across multiple languages—requiring much more than simple translation. For products with international audiences, voice assistants must be able to not only communicate in the native tongue of the user, but responses must also appropriately reflect the cultural norms, word usage, and terminology.
Planning for and meeting the needs of a geographically diverse audience requires testing for translation errors, reducing the incidence of awkward or stilted dialogue and grammatical errors, and adjusting for context. When designing for global audiences, there is no substitute for eliciting the services of native speakers who can help voice teams examine every aspect of the voice interface from the lens of the user’s culture and the language’s nuances.
For instance, some wake words may be offensive in another language, or the gender of the voice assistant in certain products may be a barrier to adoption in some cultures. In addition, cultural norms must be considered when deciding the tone your voice assistant will use. Will your voice interface express helpfulness, trustworthiness, or authoritativeness? Today’s global economy requires companies to plan for truly international use cases, even if immediate goals are set to deliver an English-only solution.
The case for a custom, branded wake word
Creating a unique, branded wake word and a customized voice interface will give you the freedom to create the user experience most relevant and helpful to your consumers. A custom wake word has the added benefit of allowing you to own your data—giving you the opportunity for a deeper understanding of your customer’s interactions and areas where you can improve that experience over time. Your branded wake word will also create instant brand recognition and begin to build your voice footprint.
According to Kane Simms, co-founder & CEO of VUX World, “The best way to figure out how people will start a conversation with your brand is to find some people and simulate that conversation.”
Knowing the cultural expectations and norms during the discovery phase will save a lot of time and effort in later iterations. Speech teams should plan to constantly work on their voice interfaces—improving them and making interactions more natural and consistent over time.
According to Heidi Culbertson, CEO of Marvee, “Voice is the right technology, at the right time, to meet the upcoming massive demographic shift as we live longer, healthier, and more active lives. With voice, brands have the opportunity to bring access and value for things people may be unable to do in other ways.”
As with most things, creating a voice interface for your products is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Your first challenge will be to have a deep understanding of your users, their preferences, and the types of queries they’ll be using with your product. Through research and focus groups, you can better understand the expectations your unique audience has for their interactions with your product or device.
Creating a branded wake word or wake phrase for your voice interface is one way to ensure that consumers recognize your brand. Whether or not to choose a custom wake word is a major consideration for companies hoping to extend the brand value through voice.
Some early adopters are opting for voice user interfaces that have a familiar voice and established communication protocols. While that may be a solution in the short term, eventually those brands may find themselves lost in the noise of so many other products with the same voice and name in the long term.
In other cases, companies are combining their own, customized VUI with a Google or Alexa voice assistant. When you are looking for both a customized user interface and the ability to offer your customers the option to interact with a known voice assistant for other types of queries, it’s important to have the functionality of a flexible phrase spotter.
Using this technology, developers can offer multiple wake phrases in one model—importantly, with minimal CPU impact. Users can then switch between various wake word options, allowing the access to third-party assistants alongside your own—eliminating the need to choose between a branded wake word and the convenience of a known, third-party voice assistant like Alexa.
The temptation to provide everything to every user, every time, will lead to confusion and frustration rather than a robust experience. When designing a voice interface that delivers delightful user experiences, keep the limitations of human memory in mind.
Help your users to adopt your voice interface over time. There are many ways to walk new users through features and keep them engaged through a series of educational and useful suggestions. For many voice interfaces, access to visual cues may be limited or unavailable (for instance voice interfaces in cars). In those cases, in particular, it’s important to provide no more than four verbal options at a time.
Educating users to get the full benefit from your voice interface should be planned as a long-term strategy of emails, voice, text prompts, or other vehicles for introducing additional features and uses. The data you collect through your custom VUI will be a critical factor in gathering information on usage and areas of confusion or non-use.
Building a business case for adding voice to your products includes outlining all the ways voice can make consumers feel like the brand really knows them and understands what they need. Designing logical user flows and systems that remember user preferences demonstrate to the user that the product will continue to enhance their experiences—eliminating the need to introduce themselves to the product time and time again.
According to Dave Kemp, creator and publisher of FuturEar, “Brands should think of voice as a new opportunity to extend everything that defines the brand and convert it to something that conveys the same defining qualities of the brand in a medium that is audio-oriented and conversational. In a way, brands can think of voice as the manifestation of the brand coming to life.”
Demonstrating to key stakeholders the importance of being among the first in your industry to deliver a high level of personalization is key. To get the buy-in you need to explore and build a voice experience for your product or device, you’ll need to communicate all the ways a voice-first strategy will position your brand as a market leader.
Although voice AI has been a hot topic for business leaders for a few years already, the incidence of products with a fully-customized voice interface is still low. But that won’t last long. While your competitors are thinking about adding voice to their products, you have the opportunity to be the first in your industry to land in this uncharted territory. Even if you aren’t the first, you’ll want to embark on the journey before the space becomes so crowded that you run the risk of being an also-ran.
Personalized experiences, convenience, and the ability to access information and control the environment are already expectations of your customers. Deliver on the promise of exceeding their needs through a voice interface. The experience will demonstrate your brand’s recognition of their wishes while differentiating your products from the competition.
The one thing we are all trying to avoid is irrelevancy. The minute we are not keeping up with the requirements or desires of our audiences, we risk being relegated to the rolls of the irrelevant. When planning for the inclusion of a voice interface, design an experience that will help users find features relevant to their lives. The key to creating brand evangelists and establishing customer loyalty is your ability to lead users seamlessly through navigation prompts and accurately and quickly deliver delightful responses to their queries.
According to Kane Simms, co-founder & CEO of VUX World, “Sound design is the most underrated, yet one of the most important elements of your voice strategy.”
Keri Roberts, creative brand strategist, and co-host of the Inside VOICE podcast for the Voice Summit asks, “Who are you trying to reach with your voice experience? Get really specific about the age, career, income, location, etc. You want to envision a real person and what they look, feel, and sound like. It can’t just be women or men, because that’s too broad. Who are they? What do they value? What matters to them?”
From mobile-first to voice-first, market leaders are those that embrace the future of user interfaces to create increased value for their consumers. Those who are slower to adopt technologies designed to increase convenience and connectivity are doomed to fail. And even worse, those that adopt the latest technologies, but don’t get the word out to users and potential customers are likely to remain in the background. Beyond being your partner for branding decisions, your marketing department will be the emissaries who introduce your voice assistant to your audience and ensure it is well received.
Research from Salesforce suggests that a third of marketing organizations are already using voice-activated personal assistants to support customer experiences in some form. This is an increase of 126% in a single year. Furthermore, high-performing companies are three times more likely to be using voice technology than underperformers.
The same study showed that top marketing teams are leading the customer experience mandate across their organizations. Half of high-performing marketers lead the customer experience. Less than 31% of underperformers say the same.
If your voice-based customer experience initiatives are siloed in your IT department, it’s time to get the marketing folks involved. Beyond the technical aspects of a voice interface, product marketing and brand marketing are integral players.
If they aren’t already, you need to make sure your marketing leaders are upholding the standard for a voice interface within your products. They will be the ones to help you plant the brand flag that marks your arrival as the market leader with a fully-integrated voice interface for your product.
As your organization’s investment in speech increases and voice-first becomes the rallying call for all departments of the company, you may see entire teams emerging as voice leaders. Until that time, your marketing leaders can be some of your greatest internal allies. Involving these folks in the conversation will help you to shape the persona that will represent your brand image to the outside world.
Designing a good user interface is one of the greatest technical challenges of a voice-first strategy, and it begins with fully understanding the individuals who will be interacting with your voice assistant. The marketing team can be an invaluable source of information about your current customers and target prospects.
Market research can help you understand the demographics of your audience, measure their propensity to adopt new technologies, and anticipate their tolerance for things like proactive interactions. Understanding your audience is the essential element that will lead to the success of your voice strategy. In fact, if you don’t design a voice interface based on the unique qualities that make up your user base, you could end up creating a negative user experience.
In the world of voice user interfaces, either you do it well or you risk missing your target completely—losing users and market share.