Is voice search a conversation for marketing or advertising?
A view from Tom Smith

Is voice search a conversation for marketing or advertising?

Before leaping joyously on the voice bandwagon, brands need to understand what the channel can do for them.

The recent news about Burger King triggering Google Home devices through an ad caused adland to rumble with discussions about how brands could make better use of voice search.

However, the discussions missed a key nuance – the distinction between voice as an input (that is to say a person speaking into their phone and asking it a question, while still looking at the screen of their phone for the answer) and voice as an output, via a device like Amazon Echo or Google Home, which interacts with the consumer via voice alone.

Therefore, for brands looking at voice search and monetisation it is important to look at the two as distinct categories. The brands that will succeed and the tactics they will use to do so will vary depending on whether voice is the input or the output.

While voice search as an input has been growing steadily over the past few years, according to Google 20% of search via the Google app now comes via voice.

The brands that will succeed and the tactics they will use to do so will vary depending on whether voice is the input or the output.

Google research found practicality was cited as one of the key benefits. 40% of those surveyed said they used voice search to find directions when out and about, 32% to make a call, 27% to check the weather and 23% when cooking.

When it comes to voice as an input, the brands that succeed have a crossover with those that have really cracked search, first on desktop and now on mobile.

These are the brands that understand the importance of relevancy and how external factors can impact search behaviour. So travel brands that have embraced digital and understand the immediacy of the initial urge to search for a destination or holiday deal (triggered, for example, by a TV programme set in another country to an upcoming Bank Holiday) will also do well when they can interpret the signals learnt from voice, which may include an uptick in search behaviour.

A brand that has really aced the importance of relevancy and the impact of external factors on search behaviour is small hotel chain called Red Roof Inn. Its flight-tracking tool processes live flight data and uses this data to serve search ads to those who were booked on a cancelled flight and are now looking for a hotel.

Fashion is another sector with the potential to make good use of  search as an input – especially when paired with the machine learning capabilities of Alexa or the Google Assistant. The assistant could act as a personal stylist and gather information such as the styles and colours that the individual likes before recommending the best match.

Fashion brands that are quick to embrace digital could really succeed in this space. However, due to the visual nature of fashion, it’s not a sector that I see being particularly successful when it comes to voice as an output.

Voice as an output marks a real challenge for brands, and it may be one that is better tackled by those coming at the problem with more of a digital marketing than digital advertising stance. Brands that try to insert themselves into people’s lives will do themselves no favours. Just look at the backlash about what many thought was an ad for Beauty and the Beast via Google Home, it was instead just a slightly clumsy update about what was going on that day.

Any brand that wants to succeed when it comes to voice search as an output need to either create something that solves a problem – in the same way that marketing tools like banking apps and AI assistants have provided a service which increased a consumer’s interaction with the brand in a positive and frictionless way – or need to be hyper-relevant to the conversation.

The best parallel here for brands to think about is Google Maps, which wasn’t monetised until, for many, it became an essential tool. At this point brands and businesses were then able to use it to show local search ads on maps.

For marketers, it looks like it will be slim pickings when it comes to voice as an output at least in the short term. However, marketers can take heart from the fact that consumers want to look at a visual representation of what they search for.

Voice as an output will undoubtedly continue to grow, especially in situations where looking at a screen is inconvenient or dangerous – such as when driving or cooking – and other technologies such as driverless cars will contribute to this growth.

However, while searching with voices appears to be the way forward, for certain categories consumers will always want to look at the results with their eyes, therefore voice search optimisation should not replace current SEO and paid search. It should complement existing strategies.

Tom Smith is the head of biddable media at mporium.