Nic Newman: ‘Voice technologies will be hugely disruptive in terms of how people access media’

Voice-activated speakers powered by intelligent assistants, such as Amazon Alexa, Apple Homepod and Google Assistant, are growing faster than the smartphone and tablets at a similar stage. What does this mean for the media industry, and what change does the interest in these devices bring to newsrooms?

Audio looks set to be one of the hottest topics in media during 2019, driven by the growing popularity of podcasts and the sale of hundreds of millions of new audio devices (aka smart speakers) — now spreading rapidly across the world,’ writes Nic Newman in the report ‘Journalism, media, and Technology Trends and Predictions 2019’, released on 10 January 2019.

The trend of smart speakers and voice activated devices, and how they will alter the media landscape, has been a burning topic for publishers in recent time. When the research report ‘The Future of Voice and the Implications for News’ was released in November 2018 by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, the findings got wide spread across media publications, and on social media.

Nic Newman, the research associate and lead author of the two reports mentioned above, now updates on further development, and explains how the use of smart speakers is growing and what it entails for publishers, how news consumption plays a part in the smart speaker usage, and what’s next for the ‘pivot to voice’.

GEN: A very small percentage of owners of smart speakers access to the news briefing functionality every day (18% in the US, 22% in the UK). Do you foresee an increase of this usage? What is the trend?

Nic: Our research found that news has not yet established itself as an indispensable part of people’s routines. Although almost half say they use the device for news, only around a fifth is doing this daily (18% in the US and 22% in the UK).

When we look at the value of different features (see chart) for smart speaker users we see that although around half of them listen to news, only 1% rate news as the most important feature. For the most part, people are using these devices for a small number of command and control tasks — especially playing music which 61% of users rate as the most important followed by asking questions, weather updates and setting timers

Most used and most important features by UK smart speaker owners

There are a few reasons for low news usage. Many people say that there is plenty of news — too much even — on other devices and don’t want to hear more. Others say the length and tone is not right with many wanting updates of no longer than a minute. Instead, they frequently are presented with a longer bulletin or podcast.

What are the news habits on smart speakers? (Time of consumption, in which room, etc.?)

In terms of news the bulk of listening to ‘news updates’ happens in the morning, along with checking the weather or traffic updates. Later in the day, users tend to be more interested in podcasts or entertainment content, or perhaps a recipe when cooking. Then, there is another small peak for news just before bed.

Usage throughout the day

For heavy users, VOICE is now the first & final interaction with technology (replacing smartphone in this respect). Smart speakers have also replaced radios in bedrooms and in shared spaces such as kitchens and living rooms.

Is the word ‘smart speaker’ well accepted for all similar devices?

Sometimes people talk about ‘voice-activated’ speakers, sometimes they are ‘smart’. And now speakers have screens (the Amazon Show and Google Homehub) so it is become even harder to define the category. The common element is that inside them live voice assistants like Amazon Alexa, the Google Assistant, or Apple’s Siri.

Over time, I expect the ‘speaker’ part to become less important. The assistants will be increasing embedded inside a range of other devices including televisions, cars and headphones. This will both increase media usage in general and provide new opportunities to distribute news and other content of all kinds.

Are Amazon Alexa and Google Home the winners of the competition? What can be done by Apple in the future?

I suspect that Amazon and Google will become the main platforms in most countries due to their track record and their heavy investments in voice. At the moment Amazon has 63% share in the US and 74% in the UK according to our YouGov poll, with Google getting 26% and 14% respectively. That doesn’t leave much space for others. On the other hand, Siri is installed already in around 500 million mobile devices, even if the Apple HomePod is not selling that well. Samsung’s speaker is only just coming to market but million of users of its phones are already familiar with Bixby, its voice assistant.

Do journalists have to change anything in their working habits to be compatible with smart speakers? Can it affect news flash production?

At the moment most of the content is a by-product of existing processes. Radio bulletins are mostly recut for the news briefing format and existing podcasts are re-distributed on these new platforms. Synthesised voices take weather and other data and turn this into automated audio.

In the future, though, there will be content created specifically for voice. One example of how this might develop can be seen in the ‘speakable schema’, a new metadata field that journalists may wish to fill out that contains content that is designed to be read out by an automated voice — as an answer to a question. Here journalists will need to anticipate questions that might be asked and add an answer in the metadata field. That’s just one example of native content that may need to be created for these platforms , there will be many more — and we don’t yet know what will be involved.

2018 was really the year when voice speakers became made available in many more countries and languages. For the last three years the main action has been in the US, UK and Germany but that is changing (see table below). Amazon devices are sold in 12 countries, Google devices are now sold in 19 and the Apple HomePod in 8. Much of this growth has come in the last year.

In Asia, a number of other devices are popular including Line Clova (Japan), Naver Clova (South Korea) and the KaKao MINI (South Korea). China launched its first AI driven smart speakers in 2017 with Alibaba and Xiaomi early market leaders. Chinese smart speakers are already responsible for around a third of global sales. In Russia, Yandex launched its first speaker in May 2018.

How users will combine smartphones and smart speakers regarding news consumption?

The short answer is that we don’t know yet, but some early experiments are giving us a few clues. In the example (left), a recipe can be found using a search on the smartphone and then sent to the voice device using a touchscreen command. When you ask your smart speaker to ‘start recipe’, it starts reading the ingredients and steps.

A reverse use case involves asking about films playing at your local cinema on your voice device, but at the point of booking — a message is sent to your phone to allow you choose the performance time and add your payment details.

A key question is how news publishers can take advantage of these potential linkages between screens and voice- enabled speakers but the platforms will be pushing these multi-modal journeys far more in 2019.

To what extent are these devices fuelling the growth of podcasts?

Not so much. Publisher data suggests that only about 1–2% of podcast usage is coming via these devices and our own research suggests only a minority are using them for podcasts monthly. Most consumers are unaware that podcasts are available or how to ask for them, while others prefer to consume this very ‘personal’ form of media using headphones on the go (e.g. while commuting, exercising). Speakers are often in the wrong room, they say, or podcasts are too personal to share with family.

By contrast live radio listening is already significant via smart devices. Almost a fifth (19%) of all online listening to National Public Radio (NPR)’s member stations’ live radio streams now comes from smart speakers, a figure that has increased significantly over the last year. Over half (60%) of our sample use smart speakers to access radio monthly in the UK and just under half (41%) in the US.

Is there a space for legacy media or is it still a domain for startups and newcomers? (The Washington Post is working on a daily podcast of news. The Guardian is launching their Voice Lab, a six-month program with Google, etc.)

In terms of podcasts — and live audio too — it is really just another distribution platform. In that context it doesn’t really matter if you are legacy provider or start-up. Success largely depends how good your podcast is, and whether you can build a buzz for it. Legacy providers have some advantage because they can use their offline channels to promote it, but start-ups can push the boundaries more and still drive big audiences.

The smartspeaker is configured — by default — to source its responses from only one newsprovider. Does this ‘winner take all’ dynamic put the diversity of information at risk?

In the world of voice, it is hard to provide more that one answer to any given question. If you ask for the ‘latest on Donald Trump’, the platform decides which brand you might get — or which headline or snippet should be selected from a range of news brands. Many publishers are worried that in that context their brands will be devalued and the relationship with the reader/listener will be further weakened.

It is hard to see a small news provider emerging as the top result in voice search, so diversity could be affected. On the other hand, voice is likely to be only one way of accessing news, so we should probably see this in a wider context. The platforms are thinking very hard about how to attribute content to a brand in a voice context and how to reward the best content too.

What are the business models working for smart speakers, and news producers, for these devices?

It is too early to say. Podcasts and live radio already has a business model so much of the focus will start there and will be advertising based. This is why podcasts or slightly longer daily briefings are currently favoured options by commercial publishers, even if these are not always the most native way to use these technologies.

Beyond this, publishers like the New York Times and the Economist are looking at audio as a way of building brand awareness and marketing subscriptions to a new audience.

Others are starting to look at the potential for exclusive audio services as a way of enhancing the value of subscriptions or membership.

Can video add something to existing smart speakers?

Smart speakers are now coming with screens but it is hard to see how these will work in the long term. Our research suggested that people were tired of spending all day with screens and part of the value of these devices is to be free of all that.

Audio allows you to multi-task without distraction and I would anticipate that the majority of usage will be without screens. On the other hand, I can see assistants being integrated with televisions to access favourite programmes more easily without the hassle of remote controls.

Did you receive any criticism regarding your latest report about smart speakers?

Many people were surprised that I was so enthusiastic about the potential in the long term, given I have been cautious in the past about other developments like video, Augmented Reality (AR) and VirtualReality (VR). But I do think voice technologies will be hugely disruptive — at least in terms of how people access media. I also think they will accentuate the trends we are seeing towards greater consumption of audio.

Voice ultimately will make it quicker and easier to access media that you know you want, but to be truly successful, these platforms need to do far more. They need to help us discover new things too and provide native content experiences that delight and engage.

What would you like to add in 2019?

We’ll see voice technologies becoming more natural and more pervasive but still mainly for simple command and control tasks. It will make many years for true conversational interfaces to take off or resonate with ordinary people.

Nic Newman is a journalist and digital strategist who played a key role in shaping the BBC’s internet services over more than a decade. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism where he recently released his research report ‘The Future of Voice and the Implications for News’. He is also a consultant on digital media, working actively with news companies on product, audience, and business strategies for digital transition.

He was a founding member of the BBC News Website, leading international coverage as world editor (1997–2001). As head of product development for BBC News, he helped introduce innovations such as blogs, podcasting and on-demand video. Most recently he led digital teams, developing websites, mobile and interactive TV applications. He has played an important part in the development of social media strategies and guidelines for the wider BBC.

Nic Newman will be a speaker at the GEN Summit 2019, in Athens.