Feb 26, 2020

Succeeding as an Independent Voice Assistant

By: Mike Zagorsek

Every day more companies are realizing that succeeding as an independent voice assistant extends far beyond the voice AI platform itself. Product and brand sovereignty depend on the ability of content providers and IoT product manufacturers to remain autonomous when implementing a voice-first strategy for their products and services.

Brand independence requires self-governance over the domains specific to their users and that the brands are never wholly dependent on any one entity to exist. Truly independent brands are untethered to any single technology or business platform, allowing for better adaptation to changing circumstances and for more control over the customer relationship.

Conversely, organizations that are dependent on third party platforms are made vulnerable when a key environmental condition change causes investment in business and knowledge to become irrelevant.

Let’s take a look at what happens when a company becomes too reliant on a single technology platform.

A business case for platform independence

Netflix vs. Blockbuster Video

Blockbuster was delivering entertainment to an audience that wanted to sit at home and not go to the movies. The company saw a need and filled it by allowing people to watch movies at home and to view those no longer available in theaters. While the service was very popular for a time, the inconvenience of going to the Blockbuster location resulted in the company collecting enough late fees to make late fee collection its greatest source of revenue. Although profitable, what they didn’t consider was the customer experience. While late fees drive profitability, the customer is not delighted — to say the least.

It wasn’t long before Blockbuster had a business rival that understood the importance of knowing your customer and serving their unique needs. When they came on the scene, Netflix understood the market and the changing ways in which people were watching movies. They also understood the annoyance of driving to brick and mortar locations. Netflix filled the gap by providing a service where late fees were no longer an issue for the customer. Prepaid mail delivery and returns made receiving and sending movies, on time, a convenient and seamless experience.

In addition, Netflix offered their services as a subscription. One monthly fee, all the movies you could order, watch, and return.

When Netflix started cannibalizing Blockbuster’s market, Blockbuster responded by offering a subscription program, but they were too late. Netflix had already established dominance as the movie subscription provider, and the company was already moving to the next level. By staying abreast of industry trends, Netflix was able to start delivering their content through streaming services, eliminating the need to order and return physical discs.

Netflix was able to survive and dominate the market because its services were not dependent on physical media. Why? Because they knew that was not the business they were in. They were in the content delivery business — regardless of the platform. Today, Netflix is creating their own content and competing with the content providers they originally relied on for their revenue.

Platform independence = Content provider success

As a content provider, now is the time for you to consider a multi-platform approach. There are already several voice assistant providers developing voice AI platforms to get content providers (like you) on board, and it’s important at this stage of voice AI development to remember what business these platform providers are in. Sure, they can provide services to your users, but how long will it be before they want a piece of your market share? Once your users and valuable data are theirs, what’s to stop them from taking the next step?

The IoT: Cloud connectivity changes the game

In the past, products were strictly contextual in their utility. If you had a phone, you used it to make and receive audio calls; your thermostat controlled the temperature in your house; you used a TV to watch shows and movies, your computer was an information machine, that also did document production, and was a storage device, and your appliances — such as a washing machine — each had a function.

Now, many products have screens, microphones or speakers — and most importantly — cloud connectivity. The biggest differentiator between single function machines and connected products is that the connected products are software-driven and can receive over-the-air updates. This is a game changer for manufacturers who thought they knew their businesses. Those who are still creating one device to provide one function are looking more and more like Blockbuster.

What product manufacturers need to know is that an IoT product is not defined solely by its traditional use. It’s the combination of inputs and outputs that play an increasing role. Some — such as a smartphone — are portable and some — such as a TV — are fixed but both are IoT devices because both are software driven and can receive over-the-air updates.

The differentiator for products in the IoT space is that they are more than their original form. One of the greatest examples of this is Tesla.

Elon Musk is always making news because he does not define his company by one platform. Tesla is not just an electric car. There are other electric cars on the market, but Tesla has become the gold standard for other manufacturers to follow. Why?

Because it is more than a car, it is an IoT device with:

  • A touchscreen
  • A microphone
  • A speaker
  • It’s software-driven
  • It supports over-the-air updates

This storyline is still playing itself out. For many automakers survival is a question of evolution and that evolution must include a voice user interface.

IoT product success = user interface evolution with voice

The great equalizer: Voice interfaces

For content providers, platform independence is key to survival. Pandora is a content provider that is delivering music and podcasts on a variety of platforms, including: various mobile devices, TVs, and cars. The company has differentiated its content offering by delivering it on many platforms, ensuring that they will retain customers and gain market share as technology evolves.

Pandora knows, however, that differentiation across platforms is only part of the equation. An exceptional user experience is a key factor to future success and competitiveness. To provide the best, most convenient, hands-free and delightful experience, Pandora has created a voice-enabled experience.

In the IoT, leading manufacturers are also distinguishing themselves from the competition through voice interfaces. Mercedes-Benz took a big leap of faith to brand its MBUX infotainment system as a distinct product offering with the branded wake word, “Hey Mercedes.” Mercedes-Benz understands that they must transcend a single platform to provide their users experiences that will carry them into the next era of technology.

“We have to transition into becoming more of a software company while still building great cars,” Juergon Schmerder, Sr. Manager, Speech and Digital Assistants, Mercedes-Benz R&D NA

Not all companies will adapt and evolve, but a product-oriented voice experience is key to maintaining independence and creating brand affinity through better user interfaces. A voice interface equalizes products by transforming them from a single-use device to a multi-platform content provider.

Here are three key differentiators of voice-enabled products:

  1. Any device potentially provides answers to any question
  2. Voice transcends the original purpose of the product itself
  3. Voice allows for a product to evolve beyond its original use and form factor

Voice AI platforms of the future

Products are evolving and content is moving seamlessly from one platform to the next, providing users with convenience and access to information, entertainment, and control over a growing number of devices through voice interfaces. As the market grows and more devices and services become voice-enabled, what will those interactions sound like?

Will all voice assistants have the same name and the same voice? Will we be interacting with a generic voice interface across all domains? We don’t think so.

Prediction: We will all soon be living in a multi-assistant world.

In the future, a voice-enabled world will include:

  • Multiple assistants
  • Different names
  • Different expertise and personalities

User experiences and brand independence will demand that we live in a multi-assistant world. Each product interface will have a name and a personality that resonates with its users. They’ll each provide a certain level of expertise on a specific function or domain while relying on other voice assistants to chime in when their domain knowledge is no longer relevant to the conversation.

Getting started with voice AI

For companies entering the voice AI world, it’s important to think of a voice assistant in the context of your users. First, consider the core value of your product or services outside of voice. Then, understand how those products or content can be augmented by voice. Finally, build your voice user interface across multiple platforms — giving users a broader experience while retaining control over your brand, user loyalty and connections, and valuable data. Succeeding as an independent voice assistant means owning your strategy across platforms.

Future success = platform independence + voice interface + 3Ds

Platform independence and a voice interface are two critical parts of the equation, the other is adherence to the 3 “Ds”:

  1. Deliver: Deliver on core functionality (speed and accuracy)
  2. Differentiate: Differentiate with unique capabilities (understand follow-ups)
  3. Delight: Delight with above-and beyond experiences (handle complexity: exceptions and filtering)

The customer experience is at the heart of platform independence and the 3 “Ds” ensure that you are never just adding voice to check off the box for your product development roadmap. It ensures that you are extending your brand value directly through voice and enhancing the product and content experience directly — while staying competitive.

How does an independent platform compete with the big players in voice technology? By remembering that voice AI is more than a simple voice input to a search engine, it’s the interface between your users and your product — it’s your most valuable customer service employee. You, as the product owner, are in the best position to create the interface to your product. All you need are the right tools.

Join the multi-assistant world

Remember that success in independence is not just for the voice AI platform. Content providers and brands must consider the implications of relying on a single-platform for business success. When you truly understand the business you are in — separate from the product you make or the content you deliver — then you can begin to focus on your value and determine a future free from the devastating effects of a single technological change or player.

As we all move further into a voice-enabled world, focus on your unique business value, remain flexible across platforms and inputs, and be prepared to adapt and evolve your skills. When you’re ready, choose a platform that gives you all the right tools and stays out of your way when needed. Finally, extend your product with your own assistant, and be part of this multi-assistant world. Along the way, make sure you deliver on the 3 “Ds”:

  • Deliver
  • Differentiate
  • Delight

Building a voice AI strategy and implementing it is not without challenges. Get advice from more than a dozen experts and thought leaders in voice AI in our newest E-BookHow to Launch a Better Voice Assistant: A guide to overcoming the top challenges of voice AI adoption.

Michael Zagorsek is VP of Product Marketing at SoundHound Inc. who enjoys how technology and voice interaction can enhance everyday life for everyone.

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