Technology isn’t silent anymore. It talks, and its voice shapes the way we live — working and virtual learning, shopping for cleaning supplies, playing daily music mixes, cooking new recipes, or exercising — all by just asking for it out loud. Since the pandemic hit, more and more brands realize the endless possibilities for interacting and engaging with users in a natural, contactless way.
Whether for working, learning, or playing, here’s why voice is the “natural,” touchless solution for next-level brand engagement.
Some of the world’s leading companies like American Express, Estée Lauder, Nike, Headspace, Campbells, Dunkin’, Snapchat, Tide, and Bank of America have started rethinking customer experience and brand strategy from the voice tech perspective and the opportunities it presents. Brands like these are finding that voice brings their relationships with customers to a new level. A touchless interface is a straightforward reason to adopt voice in the current pandemic. Still, another is how voice technology offers greater accessibility and inclusiveness to customers regardless of ability, race, age, gender, or geographic location.
The voice space has become a topic of heightened interest for thought leaders across industries, including Sofia Altuna, who heads Global Product Partnerships for Google Assistant and hosts VOICE Talks, a monthly live-stream series focused on the voice sector and the experts, technologists and innovations impacting voice technology. The coronavirus, she says, “has provided a new perspective of the importance of this technology.”
Additionally, in a recent VOICE Talks episode, she emphasized how inclusion and accessibility are being prioritized for ambient computing and noted that disabled rights and social justice are equally essential.
To learn more about the innovations in voice, the brand partnerships working to solve users’ needs, and the growing voice community (VOICE Talks has grown to nearly 50,000 users in four months), we recently had a conversation with Altuna, who is working (and exercising, cooking, learning and playing) and now filming VOICE Talks live from her apartment in New York. The interview is slightly edited for length and clarity.
What is so intriguing about voice technology for you?
I’ve always been very passionate about empowering people through technology, so one of the most intriguing things to me about this space is that voice is universal and easy for anyone to adopt. Voice is the most “natural” way to engage with technology and requires no user manual. All types of people of all ages are using Voice Assistant, defying the early adopter stereotype.
As host of VOICE Talks, what do you strive to bring to the monthly live streams?
Every month, we try to bring viewers insider content from the world’s leaders in voice technology. From industry trends to case studies to business tips to product demos and announcements — there is a lot we want to cover. We want the content to resonate with the viewers, so each episode also focuses on what questions or themes the viewers have submitted at #AskSofia. This is about reaching the community in a way that is meaningful and relevant to what they want to see, learn, and share with each other.
Tell us on a professional level why you are at the right place, at the right time, as host of Voice Talks and your work on the Global Product Partnerships?
Previous to working on the Google Assistant, I was already interested in the space and was involved with other projects at Google around Conversational AI. Since I joined the Assistant team three years ago, I’ve worked across multiple different product features globally and with many partners.
This has given me a broad understanding of the voice tech ecosystem, the possibilities and challenges across the platforms, and the opportunities for brands and users. Being at the intersection of product engineers and partners also provides a unique perspective to understand both the technical complexities and our partner brands’ vision, goals, and requirements. We work with partners to allow for powerful user experiences that help solve users’ needs.
How has your background prepared you for this role?
Having led the go-to-market strategy and execution for multiple Google Assistant initiatives globally with many different brands across multiple industries has provided me a broad view of the voice tech ecosystem and a good perspective. I’ve also participated in many conferences, client summits, and as a guest speaker at MBA classes. I’ve been passionate about raising my voice and sharing my perspective on this technology.
Typically events are always a great opportunity to learn about the ecosystem, exchange ideas, and listen to partner feedback. However, without these this year, VOICE Talks is a great platform to bring the voice community together and share learnings that can propel this technology into the future.
Fun fact: when I was 15, I also did a pilot for a Spanish TV show as a host. Maybe it was all practice to lead to this moment
Has the pandemic heightened your awareness of the importance of voice technology?
Definitely. Although we began our journey towards voice technology long before this current crisis, COVID-19 has provided a new perspective of the importance of this technology. First, as more people are at home, voice assistants can play a bigger role in work productivity, education, and family activities.
Secondly, people want to avoid touching shared devices (or any device), so I think Voice is poised to be part of the solution that helps shape our new normal and make our lives easier and safer. This is something that makes me excited about this space, of all the opportunity there is and the impact that we can have.
Why do brands want to include Voice in their strategy?
Today, brands are particularly excited to join the Voice ecosystem at the ground floor with the vision that it can grow into a large surface for their business.
There’s a clear new medium with Voice that users are getting more and more comfortable within their homes and on-the-go. As brands look to innovate and adapt to cutting edge technology, they partner with voice tech companies, like Google Assistant or Amazon, to learn what works for this new medium (hand in hand with us). The conversational design also seems deceptively simple, so brands incorporate voice technologies to create more seamless conversations with their customers and learn how these users engage with their brand via voice.
Google Assistant’s large footprint across devices (1B devices) also excites brands that are interested in making their content available across new surfaces.
Why should more consumer brands utilize voice technology?
Voice has taken a major leap forward, and it has emerged over the last couple of years as a new foundational interaction model in computing. As users start to have access to this technology everywhere, and this behavior becomes more normalized, if brands want to meet the users wherever they are, they’ll have to start incorporating voice technology into their strategy.
Voice technology also allows brands to engage key audience segments in personalized conversations through more natural and seamless interactions, which can ultimately drive retention and business growth.
Brands that are using voice technology as part of their strategy today are not just creating new experiences for their users but are beginning to learn and invest in the future of customer interactions (i.e., they are developing the technical know-how to navigate the new computing era — the first-mover advantage).
What are the one or two things that brands always ask you about building for a voice assistant?
The first question brands normally ask is: how should we think about what experience to build? Users are not just looking to access a brand’s website in audio form (at least not now). Voice is a much more “intent” base (i.e., use case base). Brands should spend time thinking about those moments where they can be truly assistive with voice and create re-engagement.
At first, it’s important to think about how to help users in sustained, often daily/weekly/monthly repeatable interactions. For example, it’s become common for food ordering apps to start their voice journey around use cases like “reordering,” as well as for banks to build an experience to quickly check your account balance or bills vs. purchasing a new credit card or opening an account.
Secondly, brands also ask questions about their personas. Voice can be the most natural and personal way to engage with brands – it has more to offer than a website or a device, so for the first time, brands really need to think about who they want to be and evolve their brand identity into a fully-developed personality. However, while this is important for a successful voice strategy, it can feel daunting and will likely require a lot of time since developing a voice that represents your brand is no small feat. For this reason, my advice for brands is to not let this deter them from starting to experiment now (without their own fully-developed personality), but rather to do both in parallel.
What do you want potential brand partners to understand by watching the next episode of VOICE Talks dedicated to predictions for voice technology that is coming on December 10?
Virtual assistants are increasingly becoming part of our daily life, but we are truly just at the beginning of this new era of voice and ambient computing.
This new era won’t just be something we launch, but something that we work towards — a new way of thinking about computing and about how we engage with technology. For this reason, VOICE Talks is not just about Google Assistant, it’s platform-independent, as it aims to teach viewers about the wider advances and opportunities in the space.
Given the novelty of this technology, when watching VOICE Talks, my hope is that brands can learn and be inspired by peers and users alike, from the top companies that are investing in this space and from the broader community.
The opportunity for Voice is huge. Through creating a platform that unites the community as VOICE Talks does, we can all learn from each other and propel this technology forward, creating extraordinary experiences that empower all users.
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