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The era of the digital assistant

Digital assistants set to play a critical role for consumers in the years to come

An Amazon Echo Show smart speaker and screen sits on display. Photograph: Andrew Burton/Bloomberg

An Amazon Echo Show smart speaker and screen sits on display. Photograph: Andrew Burton/Bloomberg

 

With more than two billion devices globally now featuring the voice of Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant, and a recent report in this newspaper that more than half of Irish households will own a smart speaker in the next four years, a huge shift in consumer behaviour has begun. Is the era of the digital assistant upon us and are we about to see a fundamental change in how Irish consumers communicate with brands?

To gain clarity to this question and to better understand consumer views and expectations, iProspect surveyed more than 10,000 respondents across the world in the past two years. What can Irish brands learn from other countries around the world in order to prepare for this new era of the digital assistant?

From the limited data available, the use of digital assistants in Ireland is yet to reach a substantial level, with some estimates of about 25 per cent compared to markets such as India, where 82 per cent of smartphone consumers use voice-activated technology on a daily basis. Today’s consumers demand convenience, they demand a seamless experience and expect to get an answer to a question quickly. We believe the use of digital assistants will become much more prevalent for Irish consumers in navigating their daily routine, but there are some hurdles to overcome before they have a significant impact in driving Irish ecommerce sales.

What is a digital assistant?

A digital assistant such as Siri or Alexa is a software programme that helps you navigate your iPhone, your car or smart-speaker in a hands-free way through voice commands. An entire ecosystem of app developers, car manufacturers, wearable technologies and smart speaker manufacturers are betting on digital assistants playing a critical role for consumers in the years to come.

According to Juniper Research, the adoption of digital assistants is one of the fastest-growing trends in consumer technology, with more than eight billion digital assistants predicted to be used by consumers globally by 2023. In the US, with more than 100 million monthly consumers using assistants, OC&C Consultants is estimating a 20-fold jump in transactions through voice commands by 2022, to $40 billion.

Who is using digital assistants? And how?

The use of this technology isn’t the sole preserve of younger age groups like millennials. In Latin America, our survey found strong consumer adoption across all age groups, but it was highest with baby boomers (age 50-55) at 56 per cent. Consumers are at least trying digital assistants, if not using them daily for two key reasons – the first is a general curiosity about this new technology and the second is the perception that voice commands are more convenient.

Consumers are using assistants to complete a variety of tasks, like listening to music, making a call, checking the weather or even ordering food. When thinking about how this list of tasks will evolve, it’s important to bear in mind the context of where you are and what you are doing. Are consumers going to speak into their phone on the Luas, or is it more likely they will do this at home or in the car?

In every market surveyed, we have seen this technology is adding value for consumers by providing immediate convenience. Digital assistants are here to stay, and their usage will continue to grow over time.

Mark Fagan: ‘We believe the use of digital assistants will become much more prevalent for Irish consumers in navigating their daily routine’
Mark Fagan: ‘We believe the use of digital assistants will become much more prevalent for Irish consumers in navigating their daily routine’

The challenge with digital assistants

Voice recognition is nearly at parity with human interaction in accuracy, as platforms such as Google and Amazon have invested greatly in this space. Whilst there is still room for improvement, people who use assistants are comfortable having conversations with devices and the artificial intelligence underpinning them means the more you chat, the better the assistant gets to know you.

The area needing to evolve most is around natural language processing or conversational fulfilment – enabling a natural and succinct flow of conversation with the assistant and getting to the desired outcome quickly. Today, if you wish to purchase a flight or hotel room via an assistant, it can mean a protracted and clunky user experience. Businesses are investing a vast amount of time and resource in resolving this experience but until we see it evolve, assistants will be limited to more simple tasks.

The pace of change in technology has raised issues around trust and transparency. This is no different for digital assistants, where concerns have been uncovered recently with regards to “active listening” that has left consumers exposed and trust eroded. As businesses evolve in the digital economy, the most successful brands will be defined through their ability to establish transparent and trustworthy relationships with their customers, whilst leveraging new technology such as digital assistants.

What can Irish brands do to prepare for this new era?

There are some interesting cases of brands around the world leveraging assistants that are relatively simple in nature, for example, ordering a Starbucks coffee, or finding out your daily steps on your Fitbit. New advertising models and businesses are positioning themselves as businesses built to help brands in this era of digital assistant. Amazon is testing audio ads in Alexa but, in contrast, Google hasn’t yet released any plans for how it is going to monetise this space.

We believe it is going to be a substantial opportunity for Irish brands to have a seamless engagement with consumers, however, they will have to think clearly about the consumer need they want to resolve. Brands must consider how they can provide value for consumers in the relevant moments such as commuting to work, cooking at home, watching TV or driving in the car. Brands should start small, understand the consumer need, solve a simple request and build from there.

When looking towards the future, the user experience isn’t always going to be a “voice-in-voice-out” interaction. If, for example, a consumer asks a digital assistant “to buy a yellow shirt”, the assistant may be able to tell what retailer will have the best selection but consumers might want to see the product or maybe even “virtually” try it on. This is where we might expect augmented reality, image or video to become more prevalent. Hence, why digital assistants won’t be solely accessed via Amazon Echo or Google Home devices, but through TVs, mobile phones, wearables or even fridges.

One telling insight across all markets we surveyed is that once consumers start using a digital assistant, their consumption does not decrease. If Irish brands can help users better navigate their daily routine, this will have a significant impact in driving daily adoption for the Irish consumer.

Mark Fagan is Chief Operating Officer, iProspect Global


Listen to episode two of the Inside Marketing podcast, an interview with Mark Fagan of Dentsu Aegis Network