Three Paths to Growth for Smart Speakers and Voice Technology

Tom Webster
Jan 17 · 6 min read
By Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Scalable Grid Engine — Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=83244198

Last week, at the VOICE Summit at CES in Las Vegas, I presented the results of the latest Smart Audio Report from NPR and Edison Research. For the past three years, as a part of this ongoing series, we have fielded a national study during the week between Christmas and New Years Day to determine how many Americans got a new smart speaker (Alexa, Google Home, etc.) under their Christmas tree/Menorah/Pagan Present Pole, in order to issue an updated national projection of ownership and usage. We conduct this study to the highest research standards, using mobile and landline sampling, to ensure the most representative estimate possible.

Our 2020 estimate is that 24% of Americans 18+ now own at least one smart speaker — and, in fact, the average owner has more than one.

Certainly, the fact that about one in four Americans has one of these devices in their home is significant and evidence of a rapidly-growing technology. And these devices are changing audio consumption behavior — we have previously published data in the Smart Audio Report that shows that smart speakers increase the consumption of spoken-word audio of all types, and certainly, audio consumption is the number one use for these devices.

And, as I mentioned earlier, the average owner has more than one of these devices. In fact, they have 2.6 — a remarkable increase considering the increase in new owners, who likely enter the fray with one device:

As a result, with both the numerator and the denominator of smart speaker ownership increasing, the number of devices extant in America has increased tremendously, as this graph shows:

But I think there are two parallel narratives for smart speakers. Consider this graph:

Cover the middle two bars with your hand — smart speaker penetration has more than tripled in three years. There’s no denying that this has been one of the fastest-growing technologies in terms of consumer adoption that we have ever tracked. So stipulated. But now cover the left-most bar, and look at the growth from December 2017 to December 2019. In no way do I want to characterize that as “slow growth;” it’s 33% growth in two years. But compare that to the growth in the number of smart speakers in households in that same span: 135%. It’s not the same, is it?

The story these stats tell is a very simple one — once you get one of these devices in your home, you love them. Behind that 2.6 devices-per-owner stat is a bunch of people with one, but another large group with three, four, even ten or more of these devices throughout their home. But the growth in ownership from Jan 2017 to Dec 2019 was enormous, while the growth from Dec 2018 to Dec 2019 was about 14%. As our ownership figures grow, we would naturally expect the growth slope to flatten out — that’s statistics — but at the very least it is fair to say this: while the number of devices sold has more than doubled in two years, that stat obscures the fact that many of those devices are being sold to existing owners, and not new ones.

This is not an alarm bell. Rather, it’s an opportunity to reflect at what got the smart speaker market here, and what will get that market to its next inflection point. And I think there are three things that will propel this tech into more widespread adoption:

  1. The Car

A short take here — once this technology gets baked into vehicles, natively, the brakes are off for digital media consumption in the car. Our commutes are getting longer, not shorter. When we can safely ask for exactly the media we want to consume in the car, and not risk a fiery death by thumbing through Spotify playlists in the left lane, we will see digital audio of all stripes flourish. And requesting podcasts or playlists is just the Trojan horse for this technology — as we get used to successful requests for Up First or the latest Grisham or my Boards of Canada playlist, we will also venture into other uses of voice assistance technology — and take that behavior with us when we leave the car.

2. Privacy

Privacy and data security issues remain extremely important to the future of smart speakers and voice assistance technology adoption. Consider the following graph, from our Spring 2019 Smart Audio Report in partnership with NPR:

As you can see from the bars on the right, privacy issues are a significant barrier to adoption for non-owners of these devices. Over half express qualms that hackers could access private data, or that the devices are always on and listening. These perceptions are real, and for some people represent a hard “no” on inviting these devices into their homes. But look at the bars on the left, amongst owners of these devices — the concerns are the same! In our qualitative research, we uncovered that many early adopters of these devices are just resigned to the fact that we have no privacy (our smartphones are even worse) and that’s just the price we pay for the features and benefits of this technology. But while privacy hasn’t been a barrier to ownership for these early purchasers, it is a barrier to something else: experimentation. Yes, we may allow these devices into our homes, but only to listen to audio or set timers. Doing our banking, or trafficking in our health data? Another story entirely. So the privacy issue remains one of the most important barriers to increased adoption of voice technology, even in homes that already have it.

3. The Innovation of the Mundane

CES is great if you are a complete geek about technology and gadgets like I am. And at this year’s convention, I saw plenty of cool voice-assisted technology. But it’s the “cool” tech that took smart speakers from zero to 18% adoption in the short period of time before our December 2017 estimate. Many of the people who are using these devices for advanced home automation or health tech were amongst the earliest adopters. The industry has them. But consider this graph from our Spring 2019 Smart Audio Report from NPR and Edison Research:

It is a litany of the mundane, and I say that with no malice or irony. These requests are the fabric of everyday life. To break through the next adoption barrier and to truly get into the average American home, smart speaker innovation can’t just be about the cool — it has to be about the boring. Help me cook my dinner. Help me get to work. Help me get to sleep. The more the tech can innovate around everyday behaviors, and not try to change or create new ones, the more indispensable these devices will truly become.

For more on The Smart Audio Report, visit www.npr.org/smartaudio.

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