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Voice-activation will change marketing – and our lives

A little bit of Irish radio history was made last week when the country’s commercial radio sector came together with RTÉ to launch a new voice-activated version of the popular Irish Radio Player on Amazon’s Alexa platform.

In case you are not familiar with it, the Irish Radio Player is a useful one-stop shop for stations around the country, all of which are bundled up into one single app that can be downloaded to your mobile phone or listened to on your desktop.

And in case you are wondering what the hell Alexa is, it’s an assistant on the likes of Amazon Echo, one of several voice-activated devices on the market that allows users to search for information, goods and services by simply asking the internet-enabled device to do the searching for them.

If you haven’t heard of voice-search up until now, brace yourself for one of the most important developments in the digital marketing world in recent years.

Voice-activated devices, sometimes referred to as voice assistants, are becoming increasingly popular amongst consumers and the launch of the Irish Radio Player’s “skill” – which is essentially an app that responds to voice-coincided with the official launch of Amazon’s range of voice-controlled devices on the Irish market.

The Irish Radio Player is by no means the only brand to use Alexa to extend its reach. Ryanair, for example, is up and running on Alexa. Developed by the Irish company Cation Consulting, Ryanair’s skill covers flight status, routes and price information across its 1,800 daily flights as well as an accommodation finder.

Elsewhere, RTE News was the first media brand to embrace Alexa.

As its popularity gathers momentum, many more Irish brands will inevitably follow.

Of all the voice-controlled offerings on the market, Amazon is the clear leader with over 37,000 different skills available across its three key markets – the USA, the UK and Germany – at the end of 2017. Some way behind is Google’s Assistant, with 1,719, while Microsoft’s Cortana trails the pack with a paltry 235.

While Amazon has stolen an early lead on everyone else, expect to hear a lot more from the likes of Apple with its new HomePod, Samsung’s Bixby, Cortana and, of course, Google’s Home which is the fastest growing of them all.

Given that Google effectively owns the global mobile and desktop search market, you can be sure that it’s not going to take Amazon’s early lead lying down, so a fascinating and possibly bruising battle lies ahead.

But like every new shiny new digital thing that comes along in the marketing and advertising world, there will be early adopters who will test the waters by putting down a marker with a first-to-market claim.

There will also be a no shortage of voice gurus and strategists, armed with a dizzying array of statistics, forecasts and insights, who will be there to help brands part with their money.

And, of course, there will be the eager beaver brands that will pile earnestly into voice-search without a clear strategy only to find tumbleweed blowing through their endeavours several months later. With comScore estimating that as much as 50pc of all search activity will be voice search by 2020, this will have huge implications for digital marketing as we know it.

It will also have significant ramifications for every consumer-facing brand and the retail channels through which they are distributed. So, it will come as no surprise to learn that the big FMCG companies like Unilever, P&G, L’Oreal and Uber are already planning for a future where voice-search will be an integral part of how they engage with their customers.

If you can picture somebody baking a cake in their ultra-modern kitchen, sometime in 2021, and they find that they have run out of flour, all they have to do is ask their voice assistant, Alexa, to add flour to their virtual shopping list.

But will that be Odlum’s flour or a Tesco or Lidl own-brand? Or even an Amazon brand like Whole Foods? And does it really matter to the consumer if the flour comes from Tesco, SuperValu or Amazon?

In reality, the vast majority of products consumers purchase on a weekly basis are what’s known in marketing parlance as low-involvement products.

They are consumable items that entail minimal effort and consideration on their part prior to purchase, since they don’t have a substantial effect on the buyer’s lifestyle and don’t represent a significant investment.

Even so, this is where the lion’s share of marketing investment is ploughed into every year and giants like P&G and Unilever spend billions of euro marketing low-involvement products.

Brand recognition and recall mean everything to them. In a world where voice-search becomes the norm, this will pose all kinds of challenges for them.

But rest assured, Irish consumers still have some way to go before voice-activated devices go mainstream in households. When they do, a recent piece of sobering research from Google noted that 41pc of people who use voice-activated devices say “It’s like talking to a friend or another person”.

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