Magazines Learn a New Language

By: Steve Smith

If adults had their own hit toy this holiday—our own Talking Elmo—surely it was a new voice assistant. Amazon’s Alexa topped the e-tail goliath’s sales charts, and even a Google Home was hard to find. Research firm VoiceLabs estimates 6.5 million dedicated voice assistant devices shipped in 2016, with 34.5 million projected for 2017. With Cortana, Alexa, Siri and “Hey Google” competing to talk with us on every major new and old connected device, service media brands like BabyCenterGood HousekeepingAllrecipes and Elle are already trying to learn the new language of voice user interfaces (VUI) and get their content into what many believe to be the future of search—straight talk.

Meredith’s Allrecipes’ recipe search and cooking walkthrough skill on Alexa had a good holiday, with a “steady increase in ‘downloads’” since its launch in early November, VP of Consumer & Brand Strategy Esmee Williams tells min. Early indications for this category suggest similar voice search patterns to the web. Activity peaks late in the day at meal planning time but also on Sundays when week-long planning and shopping take place.

Similarly, BabyCenter ported the popular pregnancy tracker format—My Pregnancy—to an Alexa skill in September and is “pleased with the metrics so far,” says executive editor Janet Ozzard. The skill gives subscribers who ask Alexa for the updates week-specific information on their pregnancy.

But VUIs are different from device interactions that preceded it, and there are already warning signs that voice search and interactions will suffer some of the same challenges magazine media brands encountered with mobile apps. A survey of early users by VoiceLabs shows that the most popular use of these devices is playing music and audio books (46.7%), controlling smart home devices (29.1%) and playing games like trivia (29.1%). Worse, the Alexa library is already cluttered with over 7,000 skills, 69% of which are likely “zombies” with one or fewer user reviews.

Discovery and recidivism are again the big challenges for magazine brands venturing into this space. Users not only need to find the right skills and install them to the device, but also must remember the right branded “invocation” term (i.e. “Alexa, open Good Housekeeping”). Williams says that despite VoiceLab’s warning about zombie skills, Allrecipes continues to see installation and usage growth. They are addressing the challenge with a dedicated skill page, FAQs and video tutorials distributed across social media.

Chris Papaleo, head of emerging tech and partnerships at Hearst, a company division that tests and learns from emerging technologies, suggests that promotion from Amazon has been a key discovery driver. Elle’s horoscope was a “Skill of the Day” and enjoyed featured placement in Alexa newsletters. Part of the strategy of starting with a horoscope skill was to provoke recidivism with information that invited daily, habitual use. But as in the app world, publishers can’t rely on the capriciousness of platform promotion. “What we can control is the quality of the experience,” Papaleo says. And again, as in the app economy, word-of-mouth and user ratings power adoption. Good Housekeeping’s stain advice skill, for instance, got voted and featured in Alexa’s customer favorites section at the end of the year.

Despite some similarities to the app-iverse, VUI does pose a unique challenge for media brands. This is an iconless realm without multiple search results. The “invocation” word is the new keyword of voice search that is likely to become hotly contested terrain. Knowing this, Papaleo and his team extended conversations with Amazon about the trigger for Elle’s horoscopes app, which provides daily readings for all signs. Rather than the user having to remember to invoke the Elle brand to launch the skill, Hearst secured the generic term so that “Alexa, ask Horoscope for Gemini” works. “We own that ‘Horoscope’ term right now,” he says. “But we fully expect the voice search economy to explode and generic terms to be highly valued, and costly to publisher partners.”

Still, companies like Hearst are already listening and learning new tricks from Alexa. Papaleo says his team was surprised by horoscope subscribers asking for multiple signs and spending more time with the skill than was needed for a single look-up. He theorizes that multiple people in the room are asking Alexa for their daily horoscope. “The group phenomenon tells us to think harder about designing voice experiences that better suit the scenario,” he says. “Once we have people engaged, what other content experiences can we come up with?”

This is an investment media companies absolutely need to make, because the potential reach of VUI is staggering. Google and Amazon are working to extend their voice assistants to cars. Google packs its VUI into its new phone, and Apple is scrambling to improve Siri, which now also lives on Mac desktops and the new AirPods. The bet (and not a bad one) is that users get comfortable quickly with voice search, which becomes a 24-hour content retrieval platform that extends from home to car to pocket.

It’s Alexa’s turn to ask a question: “Can you hear me now?”

Author: Steve Smith

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