Monday 10 December 2018

Steve Dempsey: 'Smart speakers finding their voice - but are news producers listening?'

Many smart speaker owners just use them to listen to live streams of their favourite radio stations.
Many smart speaker owners just use them to listen to live streams of their favourite radio stations.
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

It's an oft-repeated statistic that 50pc of all searches will be voice activated by 2020.

Unfortunately, it's a bum steer. The stat originally came from Andrew Ng, Baidu's former chief scientist and was specific to the Chinese market, where voice is quicker and more convenient than typing Chinese characters and users haven't been exposed to the evolution of text-based search.

So the 50pc stat about voice searches may just be hot air. But voice is big news.

And voice-activated speakers with intelligent assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, are growing faster than the smartphone and tablets at a similar stage in their development. As a result, it's worth tracking smart speakers as they infiltrate our homes, and examining how they're changing how users access information, and how marketers can access users.

A new report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism aims to shed some light on what the implications are for smart speakers and news. The report focuses on the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany, markets where smart speaker penetration has more than doubled from 2017 to 2018. Most people who own one, however, use it as a replacement for a stereo. In the UK, 84pc of users regularly play music on their smart speaker, while only 46pc say they regularly use smart speakers for news, and only 1pc say that news is the most important feature on their smart speaker. Why not?

"Well, it's partly because you can get the news in other places," says Nic Newman, the report's author. "We found some people said it's not compelling enough, some said the news was too long - what they wanted if they asked for the news was a one-minute summary of the news. Depending on the context, people wanted a range of things. If you were at home and you asked for the news, you may want a minute, but if you're out and about in the car you maybe want half an hour."

Many smart speaker owners, though, just use them to listen to live streams of their favourite radio stations. In the UK, 60pc of speaker owners said they'd listened to the radio on their device in the last month. It was 41pc in America.

But some news providers are trying to create something a little more unique.

"The BBC and others are really trying to improve this and not make news for smart speakers an off-cut from radio," Newman says. "So they're starting to think about what this could be in its own right, something properly native that allows you to move backwards and forwards through it, that's the right length and allows people a bit more control over the experience."

So what do news organisations need to do to get their head around delivering the news over smart speakers? "The first thing is to make your content findable and accessible through voice," Newman says. "If you're a broadcaster it's critical that your live radio is available and there's a good news bulletin in the flash briefing space.

"If you're a newsprint publisher, it's a bit more difficult. You need to work out what your differentiated offer might be in a voice space. Rather than trying to do exactly the same as everyone else, how can you do something different, that plays to your strengths. That may be leveraging a podcast you've already got, or it may be doing something completely different."

But it's unclear how best to monetise news on smart speakers. Broadcasters should be wary of ceding control of distribution to Apple, Amazon and Google. While legacy publishers have had their fingers burnt before; previous investments in podcasting, video and VR haven't always resulted in the expected windfall.

One issue is that the platforms haven't been rushing to share data on the amount of news usage. It seems that publishers have also learned not to create content for these new platforms without any guaranteed returns for their effort. Subscription-based publishers want ways to enable premium services on smart speakers. Others want some kind of up-front payment from platforms in return for content to help build usage. Others - like the Washington Post, Sky News and Zeit Online - are testing the water with good ole advertising. Newman approves of the softly, softly approach.

"The challenge is not to kill the opportunity like we did with video by putting pre-roll in front of it and killing the experience," he says.

"There's a danger of trying to monetise it before we build up the utility. There are certain areas like podcasting and longform audio where advertising and marketing should transfer quite nicely into voice.

"You've got people with a lot of attention and that's what advertisers want, and young people are listening as well. But for short-form content and quick answers it's hard to see how you're going to add some sort of commercial message without annoying the hell out of users. I think there will be big opportunities in native content. But it's such early days it's going to take some time to see how this will pan out."

Overall Newman thinks voice will prove to be a major disruptor. "We talk about new technological developments like AR and VR but I think this is much bigger change, because it solves a real problem for consumers; how do you access content more quickly and more easily. Even today in its infancy it's doing that incredibly well and delighting a lot of people

"But when it tries to do something more complicated it's not working right now. The platforms need to solve that, then there are lots of possibilities.

"It won't replace everything we've got but it will be an additional functional layer in terms of access and we'll see some really different opportunities for native storytelling on these platforms."

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