Biggest Question on Eve of CES: Are Brands Losing Their Voice?

Pete Blackshaw
Jan 5 · 5 min read

To Win in Voice, Know Thy “Database of Curiosity” and Watch Your Back!

Even before the demo halls open, CES headlines are already screaming loudly on “voice” — from the Google vs Alexa face-off to voice integration in hundreds of new products and IoT devices.

With growth of 26% per year anticipated, there will likely be nearly seven-and-a-half billion voice-controlled devices in use in the coming years (according to Juniper Research) — roughly one for every person on the planet!

But here’s the rub. The latest glitter and growth stats around voice will not prepare brands for voice. To win with voice, brands first need to obsess with boring basics like identifying, mapping, and answering obvious & frequent questions. On top of that, brands need to prepare for “defense.”

If you look hard at Google or Amazon data, basic questions dominate the landscape of branded voice queries. How do I use the product? Is it safe? What are the ingredients? Where can I buy it? How can I contact service?

While the answers to such questions theoretically reside in the domain of “owned media,” most voice responses today source from third parties, starting with Wikipedia and then cascading into news articles and even activist sites.

This past Fall, a colleague and I led a voice innovation workshop with over more than sixty national brands. Our pre-audit analysis found that brands have massive exposure in the most basic brand voice queries.

This is especially the case with questions of acute interest to millennials and more-engaged consumers around sustainability, diversity, health, supply chain sourcing, and even privacy.

Don’t believe me? Just ask Google Assistant if drinking Pepsi is healthy? Or if Unilever is sustainable? Or if McDonalds, Nestle, or Danone responsibly use plastics. Brand-created content, to be sure, rarely leads the response.

Examples of basic voice queries leading to third party sites often in a negative context.

Moreover, voice search — especially via smart speakers — removes the so-called “long tail.” While desktop search yields 10–35 results, and most smart phones between 3–15 results, a smart speaker yields one response.

On top of this, our own Cintrifuse custom research found that millennials were three times likely as baby boomers to research products and services with a smart speaker. Net the stakes are high!

Let’s return for a moment to CES! Ask any smart speaker about CES and in most cases the responses source from Wikipedia — this despite that fact that CES has an excellent, well-trafficked and highly transactional website.

Now, this isn’t always bad. Credentialed content (e.g. news, expert reviews, science journals) can validate and bolster brand positioning and drive persuasive impact. And let’s not forget that the notion of a voice devices as “objective third party” has real appeal to consumers.

But most brands today are not even in the “hunt” for being the FIRST response to basic questions; and they are completely vulnerable on the hard questions.

Is There a Way Forward for Brands?

So what should a brand or business do? First, brand builders need to quantify the potential impact. If in fact 40% of consumer search activity migrates to friction-free voice, we’re talking billions of dollars in potential media impact.

If the responses coming from third parties disparage the brand (or contradict official site positioning), we have what I like to call Spurned media. If Alexa bad mouths Hilton or AT&T over customer service, that has real cost!

Second, brands must triple-down on understanding common questions consumers ask through channels such as Contact Us, FAQ, or even Twitter — and develop informative and engaging content around those responses.

Don’t assume — even for a second — your well-intended site blurb or FAQ on sustainability will automatically route to the consumer. To influence voice algorithms, brands must rethink quality, frequency, and engagement levels (very important) of basic content.

And there’s no “one size fits all” approach. Indeed, the chart below by Voice.bot (excellent content BTW) illustrates what matters to the algorithm that index content for voice results. For Google, local really matters

In a recent TED talk, I underscored the critical importance of thinking & acting like a “concierge” as new technology from voice to bots to AR thrive on the “database of curiosity.”

Brand builders are not wired or incented to think this way. The symbiotic relationship between serving and selling is horribly misunderstood and poorly reflected in organizational design.

Case in point: in virtually every speech or workshop, I ask brand builders and execs if they know the top 5–10 questions consumers ask their brands via service channels. Only on rare occasions do hands go up!

There’s irony here is that every hand would go up if you asked the same audience whether they are throwing cash at AI, voice, AR/VR, talking robots, smart fridges, IoT, and more.

Third, focus on vulnerabilities. If your CEO is declaring bold intent to analysts or investors around ‘purpose’ or social responsibility, don’t be surprised by the responses of Google, Alexa, JD.com, and other voice devices on these topics.

In this context, basic PR strategy may be more important than ever, as those positive or negative stories may well be the first “result” voice devices play back on certain queries. Ensure your media planners model this out, so resources properly flow to this area.

Privacy Policy + Voice: Low Hanging Fruit?

Lastly, brands will benefit by getting ahead of inevitable and instinctive voice queries about privacy. Right now, responses to basic voice queries about privacy policies (e.g. terms of use, use of data, value-exchange) are all over the map…and beyond frustrating for consumers.

Cintrifuse recently hosted a “Hacking Trust” conference, and our #1 scoring startup concept was a voice service that delivers fast, simple, and trusted answers related to privacy for any brand.

Startups can play a key role is solving for the gaps, but they alone can’t solve this issue. Consumers and brands alike would benefit if industry groups like the BBB, IAB, or Association of National Advertisers (ANA) stepped up to influence standards for how obvious privacy questions about brands consistently — and reliably — answered via voice devices.

Final Word

If voice continues to stampede the #CES landscape, the implications for brands easily trumps the power and impact of many Super Bowl ads.

Raise your voice, but scream in the right direction.

At a minimum, don’t be naïve.

Pete Blackshaw is CEO of Cincinnati-based startup incubator and Syndicate Fund Cintrifuse. He recently served as Global Head of Digital Marketing and Social Media for Nestle, S.A. in Switzerland.

Pete Blackshaw

Written by

Proud padre. Author. CEO, Cintrifuse startup incubator and syndicate fund. Recent Nestle Global Head of Digital Innovation. Proud alum: UC Santa Cruz, HBS.

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