The push toward voice adoption across mobile apps, websites, cell phones and smart speakers underscores consumers’ fervent interest in engaging with devices through conversation. There have been small but numerous signs in recent years throughout the media and entertainment world that this industry is ready to embrace, learn and, most significantly, leverage voice technology.
According to technology resource company Voicebot.ai, voice assistant users on smartphones rose 11% between 2018 and 2020, while daily active users climbed 23%. In January 2021. The site also found the installed base of smart speakers in the U.S. reached 90.7 million, which is equivalent to a third of the U.S. adult population.
The public’s adoption of voice has grown at an even faster rate than smartphone ownership. By 2023, voice commerce is predicted to hit $80 billion, with its uses advancing rapidly as it becomes the desired entryway for consuming video content.
Comcast was a leader of this movement, with the introduction of the Xfinity X1 remote in 2015. As viewing choices multiply, streamers, broadcasting and cable companies are finding uses for voice commands and developing new voice-controlled experiences to help customers search and discover their programming.
Today, we’re seeing voice functions becoming a standard for TV remotes, such as those by Roku and Amazon Fire TV, and voice-enabled apps for both are available on iOS and Android platforms.
A study conducted in July by Los Angeles market research company Guts+Data showed that 50.2% of 1,000 active streaming consumers surveyed have used voice commands to help find and view movies and series on streaming services, up from 44.4% last October.
But even harkening back to 2018, the U.K.’s Juniper Research predicted that “the fastest-growing category for voice over the next several years will not be smart speakers. It will be smart TVs.” And by the end of 2020, smart TVs were already number one in the smart-home adoption category, with some 37.9% of U.S. households incorporating them into daily life.
As more and more technology adds voice function, the line blurs between dedicated in-home voice assistants and mobile devices. Texting by voice in the car, searching for content and resources through hearables like Airpods, accessing shopping lists at the market — all of these uses and dozens of others are prompting behavioral changes important to media and entertainment, marketers and content creators for engagement, search, discovery and retention.
Finding a Voice: Early Media & Entertainment Experiments
As the public first learned to access voice skills and apps through conversational agents — think Apple’s Siri, Comcast’s XFinity X1 and Samsung’s S Voice — marketing teams at some media and entertainment companies pushed the boundaries.
In one of the earliest examples, Warner Bros. launched a 2016 collaboration to create the first Amazon Alexa skill to combine voice-first technology with produced audio assets for music and sound effects. The choose-your-own interactive task was called the Wayne Investigation, aptly named to promote the feature film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
John Limpert, former Warner Bros. VP of emerging marketing technologies, noted that during its first week, the Wayne Investigation engaged seven times more (per weekly average) than all other skills combined, earning the top spot for both total time spent and average time spent per user.
In 2017, Showtime Networks launched an Amazon Alexa skill that provided program scheduling and featured audio clips of the stars from its series Billions, Shameless and Homeland. Two years later, to promote its Shazam! superhero movie, Warners released the first voice-activated “haunted reality” lens on Snapchat, a speech-activated filter that responded to the voice command “Okay, Shazam!” and allowed users to see themselves as the superhero.
Engaging over voice adds an information-rich layer to the experience that can also be mined for audience insights, though companies will have to grapple with privacy policies and the security of user biometric voice data. While it will be of enormous value to media and entertainment companies in delivering targeted messaging and content to high-prospect audiences, it is also smart business to allow consumers to control its use.
Back in 2019, marketing insights firm Gartner forecasted, ”Brands that put in place user-level control of marketing data in 2023 will reduce customer churn by 40% and increase lifetime value by 25%.”
Brandon Kaplan, CEO of voice-first agency Skilled Creative, which has worked with HBO Max, Warner Music, Pottermore and other entertainment brands, believes there’s a great opportunity for media and entertainment as companies adopt voice as a strategic element in marketing to support the natural growth of awareness and demand.
Media companies have the scale and audience to do that. And studios will continue to experiment, mindful of the opportunities at their disposal as well as the legal and technological challenges in such a rapidly developing industry.
As voice technology matures, so does the testing and learning by those companies willing to engage at the beginning. In some cases, they discover what they don’t want, in an effort to move closer to defensible results and something resembling a ROI.
Audio Natives Lead the Way
In 2014, when the first Amazon Echo hit the market, a partnership between NPR and Amazon allowed users who asked Alexa to “play the news” to hear the most recent NPR hourly newscast. Now years later, that has extended to the automatic delivery of a continuous listening stream from the public-radio king, still all controlled by a simple voice command for information. Both companies saw the connection as a natural extension of the NPR.org brand.
Pandora was among the first to start testing interactive voice ads with early adopters, such as Comcast and Turner Broadcasting. These new advertising formats were ideal for people busy with activities that were occupying their hands, such as cooking, driving, or housecleaning, and success was measured using a new metric called say-through rates.
Spotify, too, grew up as an audio native. The company’s March 2021 acquisition of Betty Labs, creators of the live social-audio app Locker Room, signaled its shift as a community facilitator for anyone with fans — from musicians to sports teams. The platform provides options to process subscriptions, sell merchandise or jump into pay-per-view. Spotify launched the remade Locker Room as Clubhouse competitor Greenroom on June 14.
Ear-worn devices are another fruitful avenue for the voice-tech industry. Spending rose some 124% in 2020 — totaling $32.7 billion, with an expectation of hitting $39.2 billion in 2021, according to Gartner. This growth has been largely attributed to remote workers upgrading their headphones for video calling and consumers purchasing earbuds to use with their smartphone devices.
Voice technology is moving quickly and offers media, entertainment, advertising and other industries a broad range of possibilities to generate value by creating accessible ways to engage with audiences, connect communities and maximize the value of existing digital assets through voice interfaces and platforms.
Donald Buckley is a media consultant and veteran Warner Bros. digital marketing executive. He serves as media and entertainment industry advisor at the Open Voice Network and was formerly chief marketing officer of Showtime Networks.
This article was adapted from the Open Voice Network’s expansive white paper “The Future of Media and Entertainment Informed by Voice,” cowritten by Buckley and communications consultant Janice K. Mandel.