Part friend, part virtual butler – we just can’t do without our voice-technology assistants.
They’re in our smartphones, in our homes, in our cars.
They’re activated by simply hearing our voices, and – over time – they get to know us. They become familiarised with our vocal timbre, learn to understand our tastes and grow alongside us with every passing day.
They guide us, assist us and liberate us. Because voice-control technology is no longer about staring at a screen or using your hands to search something on a device – all we need is a few words to ask a quick, simple question and good enough hearing to listen to the spoken response from the brand in question.
Welcome to the era of voice technology.

Voice technology: the numbers behind an irresistible phenomenon

Voice technology is a global trend experiencing exponential, irrepressible growth.

– According to data from eMarketer, it is estimated that between 2016 and 2020 the number of users that choose to communicate with a smart speaker in the USA alone will grow by an annual rate of around 50%, jumping up from 16 million users to nearly 80 million voice control technology converts.

– It’s also thought that half of all online searches will be done vocally by 2020, something set to have a huge impact on corporate SEO strategies.

– In 2022, just four years away, over 5 billion voice assistants will be installed in smartphones all over the world, with plenty of scope for diversity. It will be possible to have multiple voice-technology services on the same friend – one for each brand or application that has chosen to speak directly to its users.

– Currently, North America and Asia-Pacific are the two largest markets for voice control use.

– In Asia-Pacific, China and South Korea are hotbeds of voice control technology development, and a study by J. Walter Thompson (JWT) Innovation Group and Mindshare Futures found that adoption was particularly high in Thailand and Japan. One reason is that the technology simplifies the use of character-based languages: 51% of regular voice control users in China and 57% in Japan said they used voice to save them from typing. In January, Accenture found that internet users in India and China showed relatively high interest in owning voice-enabled technology.

– Usage is also strong in Europe. A multicountry survey by Capgemini, conducted in October and November 2017, found that 51% of consumers in the US, the UK, Germany and France already used voice control, with 81% doing so on their smartphones.

Sound futuristic?

Well, it’s not. Even today, nearly one in two Americans use a smart speaker at least once a month, mainly via mobile devices. And it’s not surprising, then, that nearly 60% of voice-control technology users have spoken directly to their mobile phones.

What do we want our smart speakers to do? Understand and listen to us

What do we want our smart speakers to do? Understand and listen to us

The data speaks for itself. Almost all of us has a smart speaker installed on one of our devices.

So the question is: what do we use them for?

To find out the quickest way to get to work? To check the weather in the holiday spot we’re travelling to? To read us an email or compose a message, without us needing to use our hands?

Not exactly.

According to the latest research, we’re using smart speakers for functional purposes less and less – instead using them to satisfy an emotional need.

In this era of hyper-connectivity, the truth is that we often end up feeling enormously alone and need to seek comfort in a figure who is close by, loyal and non-judgemental.
Who better than the voice inside our smartphone to become our faithful friend?

According to an AI study completed in 2014 by the Institute for Creative Technologies, people are more open and sincere when interacting with technological devices.

This is confirmed by Amazon, who claim that around half of interactions with the Alexa smart device are carried out purely for the purposes of conversation: chatting, telling jokes… and sharing secrets.

Like modern secret diaries, people tell Siri and Google Assistant about their day, their worries and their feelings, reassured that they are being listened to but not judged.

So how do smart speakers respond to our questions?

Anyone who believes that a device that uses artificial intelligence is programmed to be objective, neutral and free from emotion is very much mistaken.
Created by humans and based on algorithms drawing on masses of statistical information and big data, smart speakers grow with us and – as they improve and learn with every passing day – pick up on our attitudes and the culture around them.
The upshot is that a smart speaker is a mirror of the society in which it exists. To prove this, an experiment was carried out in 2017 whereby the same statement – “I’m sad” – was read to two different artificial intelligence devices: Google Assistant and the Russian technology Alisa or Alice from search giant Yandex.
So how did the devices respond to the users’ cry for comfort? Well, while the Californian device consoled the user – “I wish I had a pair of arms so I could hug you” – the Russian device was unmoved: “Nobody ever said that life was just about having fun.”

How voice technology is changing the way we do business

What should we expect from the spread of voice technology?

We need to be prepared to feel the effects of a revolution that will rapidly transform the way we live our daily lives, communicate and engage in relationships with digital devices.

Relationships, we hear you ask? Yes, relationships. The first – unexpected – consequence of the voice technology boom is that users are building stronger and stronger bonds with their assistants, forging relationships based around trust, habits and closeness.

Yet the biggest consequence of the voice technology revolution will come in the way it forces companies to innovate and adapt to a plethora of new customer requests.

One of the main tasks will be to turn smart speakers from simple suppliers of disposable information into personal mentors and assistants present 24 hours per day. The future AI devices will, for example, be able to come to our aid in the case of emergency or give us advice on how to lead a healthy, balanced lifestyle.

In the not-too-distant future, smart speakers will also be able to analyse the tone of our voices to figure out if we’re sad, depressed or confused. It’s something that could prove invaluable in delicate situations such as when mothers are suffering from post-natal depression or elderly people are susceptible to senile dementia.

The growth of AI will also influence the way we think about brand experience, prompting companies to develop new ways of enriching this using voice technology. Food brands, for example, could talk users through jobs in the kitchen, perhaps offering interactive recipes. And of course, it finally makes it possible to give a proper body and soul to a brand, starting with their tone of voice – you don’t think Gillette are going to have the same voice as Pringles, do you?

Dear smartphone, take me shopping!

Whether it’s Cortana, Siri, Alexa or Google Assistant, we speak to our virtual assistants almost every day. We ask smart speakers to guide us through the streets of cities we don’t know, to play our favourite song or track down a recipe we can’t remember.

So what’s next, according to market analysts?

Soon we’ll be asking our virtual assistants to help us do our shopping, simply by calling out the products we want to buy. Science fiction? No – according to eMarketer, the voice shopping industry will be worth over $40 billion by 2022.

It’s still a very limited phenomenon – but one that is piquing the interest of consumers. According to research by Adobe Analytics, over 20% of people who use home smart speakers would be interested in using the device to buy goods and services more easily. The advantage of using voice technology to do your shopping is that you get to enjoy a personalised, quick and friendly service that is always accessible, any time of the day, without any need to type, write or look at a screen.

As well as appealing to end customers, the use of smart speakers as personal shoppers is also of interest to companies, who see the devices as a means of offering ultra-local customer service, accompanying clients as they search for products, helping them to create lists and giving them all the information they need – things like product details, customer reviews and updates on deliver and payment status.

The main target audience for the smart speaker shopping phenomenon?

Millennials, of course!

City-dwelling, modern and tech-savvy, millennials are currently the biggest demographic group in the active population, as well as the biggest-spending generation. In fact, nearly 50% of all those who have made purchases using voice technology and artificial intelligence are between the ages of 22 and 32. Mainly, these purchases relate to food and personal objects. You see, they treat themselves pretty well, millennials – and companies can’t wait to spoil them even more.

Dear smartphone, take me shopping

How our smart speakers decide what goes into our shopping baskets

And so it seems we are destined to shop by asking our smartphones to make purchases for us. It will prove an innovative step for the world of consumption which will end up changing the very choices we make.

Entering into the infinite space that is the online store can be a confusing experience. Just try searching for dental floss on Google Shopping – you’ll be inundated by hundreds of results.

Tough to take in, to say the least. Especially when you’re simply buying a commodity or a product with low added value and little scope for emotional engagement.

For this reason, smart speakers are programmed to provide a small selection made up of a few solid choices designed to make the client’s purchasing experience easier and smoother.

To stick to the same example, once we’ve chosen our oral care brand, our voice technology assistant will continue to suggest the same brand every time we order the same type of product. “Rather than choosing again and skimming through all the various different brands, wouldn’t it be easier to ask me to reorder the same object again?” to quote Siri, Alexa or Cortana.

In this way, brand loyalty occurs almost by accident, driven by convenience, by speed or – surprise! – by the biggest investor in sponsored voice technology ads.

Because when it’s a smart speaker calling the shots, being the second-highest hit in a search engine just doesn’t cut the mustard.

Who will save themselves from the digital guillotine?

Companies that have forged a loyal customer base.

Companies that have an extremely strong, bold brand.

Companies whose names have become synonymous with an entire product category. If you want to buy some Kleenex or a Hoover, for example, there’s just no decision to make.

So who will lose out?

The main losers will be companies whose names are not easy to pronounce. How likely are Elah sweets to get the nod when we get that hankering for a treat? Is DAZN really going to be our first choice when we go to sign up to a web-based television service?

In the era of voice commands and automatic reordering, the latter constantly generating indirect loyalty, having an unfavourable brand name could become a real issue, potentially capable of cutting a company out from the possible purchasing panorama.

And the more we turn to smart speakers to make purchases for us, the more we will begin to trust them and – unconsciously – build a credible relationship based on delegation. We’ll leave it up to them to choose what kind of toilet paper to buy, what type of water to order and what variety of cereal to be delivered to our house.

The result will be a paradox: though we are living in a golden age in terms of options and possibilities, we risk having our real choices limited to a very select group of brands and products.

And while voice command technology delivers on immediacy and convenience, at the same time it strips us of our ability to view things as a whole, prevents us from discovering new products on the market and deprives us of the decision-making power we have earned as consumers. By expressing judgement through the purchases we make, we’ve helped environmentally friendly, sustainable, responsible companies grow and launched innovative, courageous new organisations – burying a toxic, harmful consumer model in the process.

So we must be careful not to let the new paradigm spiral out of control – else we risk reawakening ghosts we thought were long gone.