Blah, blah, blah… That’s generally all I hear when people start talking about voice assistants. Alexa—what a smart ass. Don’t get me started on Siri and her shenanigans. Google has one too, but I’m not exactly sure what you’re supposed to call him. Regardless of my personal views on the matter, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, one quarter of American households own a smart speaker, with 207.9 million devices expected to be installed globally by year end.
But the growing smart speaker market is really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to voice technology. Automobiles, security systems, smart watches, mirrors, toilets, even your favorite meditation apps are all starting to integrate conversational AI (artificial intelligence). And the high rates of adoption are easy to comprehend once you realize that speaking is actually three times faster than typing or texting.
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Who wants to open the Starbucks app, tap a bunch of buttons and eventually place an order, when you could just shout, “Hey Alexa, order me a Starbucks,” instead? What worker wants to comb through hundreds of files, when he or she could just ask an enterprise-developed voice assistant to find the exact piece of data needed?
The possibilities seem endless, but is it too good to be true? Actually, no. Both of those scenarios, and so many more, can be found in action, thanks to RAIN, an agency that’s not only innovating at the intersection of marketing and technology but also a pioneer in voice and conversational AI. Boasting 23 Fortune 100 companies as clients, including Nike, Tide and Campbell’s, RAIN is the go-to firm for brands looking to define voice strategies and create premium conversational experiences.
Begrudgingly accepting the fact that voice really may be the future of tech (sorry for the unkind words, Alexa), Observer recently sat down with the one person brilliant and dazzling enough to change my own preconceived notions about speaking to technology, RAIN’s CEO Nithya Thadani.
I’ll be a 100% upfront with you. I have an Alexa smart speaker, but I keep it under my sink with my garbage bags, because I am scared it’s going to record me. So, I don’t use it.
I understand the concern, for sure, because it’s a new space, and there’s so much happening, even outside of voice—data and privacy and protection. It’s important to think about voice, not as a device, but as an interface and an infrastructure that’s going to touch all the rest of the points of the digital ecosystem.
Obviously, the adoption rate of voice is skyrocketing right now, and brands seem to be embracing it. Are you finding that brands actively want to be in this space, or is it kind of being forced on the brands?
I often tell our employees that our biggest competitor in the space is not another voice company, it used to be brands. Brands were understanding that it was an emerging technology but were not quite clear on how it applied to their specific brand and how they would apply it within their organization—particularly, if it wasn’t a brand that maybe sold on Amazon. That skepticism has really turned around, and I think it’s because brands have really started to understand that voice is not about those speakers; I think that is the most fundamental thing about this.
So, now that brands are seeing that voice is more present than in just those speakers in their homes, I think that is starting to build some traction around voice, and in that regard, brands know they have to participating in some way. The other thing to note is that when voice does its job really well, it tends to replace other modalities. And what I mean by that is voice speaking is three times faster than typing or texting, period. So, consumers are adopting this technology in spades, when they find the right use case, and that’s why it’s really important that it’s built really well.
What does that look like? Can you give us a well-built use case?
I’ll give an example: with Starbucks, we built the Starbucks voice application, the first iteration of it, and it was essentially a way to say “Hey Alexa, order me a Starbucks.” You could say that at your office, you could say it in your home, and when you went to the local Starbucks, you could pick it up. Once consumers started ordering with voice, they just kept doing it. That’s what the data showed, because we call that first order retrievability, and what that means is you’re just collapsing the number of steps. Even though it’s pretty easy to order a Starbucks on your mobile app—it’s still four steps: open the screen, go to the thing, tap on this, figure out what your order is and get there. The ability to just say it and get it, with the right utility cases over time, is going to allow voice to really take over other modalities.
Keeping in mind that “voice” encompasses a lot more than just creating Alexa skills, can you give us a bit of an explainer on what RAIN does exactly? How does your firm work with brands across this voice-enabled digital ecosystem?
Some of the common use cases—one would be building brand affinity and engagement. So that would be an example of a skill, essentially building apps on these platforms that create an experience for consumers. As a voice of authority, it’s a way to build brand affinity and category authority with consumers without trying to sell anything. So, we build a lot of experiences, which are simply about engagement with consumers and brand in the same way that you would with any other type of marketing.
Transactions and commerce is another big one for us, and we’ve seen that voice works really well for bottom of funnel conversion. What I mean by that is, a user might discover a product or a service through another channel. They might see it in a store, they might see it on their mobile app, but when they’re ready to purchase something, it’s so easy and frictionless to do it through voice—whether it’s a $300 pair of sneakers or a $5 coffee, we’re seeing that users are absolutely willing to purchase and convert using their voice. I think that’s been a real moment for brands because, at the end of the day, it’s always about conversion. And so, as we’ve seen more of that happening; that’s been a real inflection point for brands to get on to these platforms.
What about operational efficiency? Are brands and companies harnessing conversational AI in the workplace or is it more about the customer experience?
In terms of operational efficiency, there are two sides to this. There’s the consumer side of it, and there’s actually the B2B enterprise piece. So, on the consumer side, an example would be a brand like Marriott. We built a pilot, in which we put Alexa devices into Marriott’s Aloft Hotels to see how we could improve the guest experience. We did a lot of research as to what users were asking for, what do guests need in those moments, and we basically were able to divert some very important requests to Alexa. Towels, Wi-Fi passwords, those type of things.
But an unintended result, which was positive, is that those requests normally go to the front desk. Usually, someone calls the front desk and says, “I’m sorry, what’s the Wi-Fi password? I’m sorry to bother you, but can I have more towels?” By diverting those requests, you’re actually creating more efficiency in the overall system, so it’s not just improving the guest experience, you’re actually freeing up those resources to be able to focus on customer experience. Now, that seems very small, at the scale of one hotel, but when you think of Marriott’s brand across the world, and if you can continue to do that over time daily, that’s a meaningful impact. Right? We’re seeing a lot of brands also coming to us thinking about voice more internally, so not just as a customer solution, but how can we actually create internal tools so that our employees are able to access data, you know access information about the company, access HR resources, trains more simply through voice, because it’s just an easier mechanism to do that.
I understand that RAIN also works with brands on “voice SEO.” Can you tell me a bit more about what that means?
Voice search, the final bucket that we work in, is a little bit nuanced. Search is interesting because it’s not an exact science, we’re very honest with our clients about that, but there are things that you can do to help to optimize your chances of being the answer when a consumer asks a voice assistant a question that’s related to a brand or a product. And I think what’s been interesting in the search space is that rather than brands being proactive, it’s been more of a reactive urgency to respond to negative answers that have been coming up. For example, in the luxury space, a consumer would ask, “Hey, are so-and-so’s designer handbags, are those sustainably sourced?” You’re getting a response back from Alexa or Google that’s not pulling from that brand’s website, it’s actually pulling from a third-party website and simply reading the web content from those answers and saying, “no, in fact, they’re not sustainably sourced” or “yes, in fact, they are cruel to animals in the way that they make their bags.” Which is not true. And so, we’ve seen a lot of brands coming to us and saying, “How can I fix this?”
I would assume a lot of this involves teaching people how to write for voice?
So much, so much of our early work, and still today, is education and hand-holding through this process. I think RAIN has really differentiated itself from the pack in the fact because, rather than just a brand coming to us and saying, “Hey, we want to build a skill, an action or an experience.” We’re always like, let’s take a step back, do you understand this world? Here are all the things you can do, and here’s what we think you should be doing and where you should start. And it’s probably something that wasn’t necessarily what they came to us for. And honestly, at times, I’ll be very honest, we’ve told brands, “You’re not ready for it.”
You can’t just build a voice experience if you don’t have all of your other digital content optimized, right? I mean, voice, in many ways, is calling up the information and content within your digital ecosystem. So when a brand comes to us and says “we want to build a voice experience,” we audit their content to understand what we can actually leverage, and sometimes they don’t have it yet. So, we’ll say before you can do that, we need to get the house in order, so let’s talk about the foundational layer, how you can get that content in order, and then we can start to build those experiences. I mean we could just do it, but it’s not going to get any type of returns and it’s not going to do anything for them.
Do you have any predictions for 2020 in terms of voice? What are we going to see in the coming year?
We’re going to see more about the war outside of the home, right. And we’re already seeing hints of that, particularly the war for the body, between headphones and wearables. Samsung, Apple, Google and Amazon are all trying to figure out their strategies for how to own the body and the data that’s collected on the body, and how that can then move to a more personal relationship. I do think we’re going to see more hints of this proactive assistance, so more hints of agency, assistants taking agency on decisions when they’re not necessarily triggered. And I do think we’re going to see more brands and more announcements in 2020 for first party or owned experiences, whereas before you were only hearing Google assistant and Alexa, I think you’re going to hear a lot more names of assistants and ones particularly owned by brands, as they start to take more ownership of that data.