Time to get smart (speakers): how publishers can build the voice of news

Nic Newman’s talking points from Reuters Institute’s report “The Future of Voice and the Implications for News”

Illustration by Francesco Zaffarano (based on Flaticon and Freepik)

“Alexa, play the news!”

How many of you say these words every day? More and more people are probably buying a smart speaker device while I’m writing. In fact, since the launch of Amazon Echo in 2014, followed by the Google Home and Apple Homepod devices, both released two years later, smart speakers have been growing incredibly fast — actually, faster than smartphones at a similar stage.

The Reuters’ report shedding light on the unknown world of smart speakers

So reveals The Future of Voice and the Implications for News, a study released earlier this year by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Nic Newman, senior research associate there, shed light on the theme at the Hacks/Hackers London March meetup.

One in 10 people in the UK said that they own or use a smart speaker and that they love it because of the ease of asking something and getting it back, because it’s fun or because they can now get rid of remotes, screens, and so on. News outlets shouldn’t get carried away though: even if many people listen to the news on their device, only one per cent of Reuters’ interviewees chose the news updates as the most valuable feature of their device.

You can watch Newman’s full speech on our YouTube channel or read below for our main takeaways.

How can newsrooms land on smart speakers?

News can be broadcast on smart speakers in three main forms:

  1. Radio content: easy and in great demand. Conversely, according to Newman, Podcasts are not the right fit for smart speakers as people tend to have a different approach to them — “we usually listen to podcasts on the go and with headphones.”
  2. Flash briefings, that tell the news in a narrative way and get constantly updated. But the Reuters report shows that only one in five people listens to flash briefings. “This is because -Newman explained- neither the content or the voice is yet right, and users can read the news easily on their phone.”
  3. Content of a conversational kind, but it’s still a ‘work in progress’

The obstacles faced by media outlets launching on smart devices

Most publishers are in fact refraining from jumping into the audio revolution. Newman highlighted the main reasons why.

“Firstly, in newsrooms, there is less money for innovation than there was a few years ago, and audio is not one of their top parameters. Secondly, there is no clear path for monetisation, and now newsrooms want to see that before they invest,” said Newman, alluding to the great ‘video’ delusion, where newsrooms invested generously, but it wasn’t really worth it in the end. But there is more.

“The platforms are not giving publishers enough data [on smart speakers’ usage] to know how this is being used and whether it’s possible to invest. How can you make thoughtful decisions?”

In fact, there are only two main players in the audio content market at the moment: broadcasters and newsrooms funded by… the smart speakers’ producers.

Nic Newman at Hacks/Hackers London

What the ‘voice pioneers’ are doing: BBC, The Guardian and the Evening Standard

Naturally, broadcasters already have audio content to play with, and they don’t need to create it specifically for the smart speaker. Their content is the most listened to, and, in the UK, 64 per cent of people listen to BBC News’ briefings — also because, “the BBC is the default option when you buy a smart speaker,” as Newman pointed out.

Non-broadcasting publishers that want to be successful in the voice era “need to provide something original, that is valuable to their users in a different way. There’s no point in following what the BBC is doing,” said Newman.

And this is exactly what the second category of players in the audio market is doing: experimenting, trying to create different experiences. An example is The Guardian, which inaugurated the Voice Lab last November, after receiving funding by Google. The Voice Lab test-piloted Year in review quiz in December, which tested listeners’ knowledge of stories published throughout the year, at the same time giving listeners a snippet of the Guardian content. As pointed out by Susie Coleman, software developer from the Guardian Voice Labs, at the NewsRewired conference last March, despite the discrete engagement achieved, the team is looking at new horizons and is planning to package already existing content for being broadcasted on smart speakers, rather than producing new content. Moving in this direction, the Voice Lab has already launched Guardian Briefing, mixing human and synthetic voices.

The Evening Standard, which is supported by Google as well, is aiming to produce 20 to 30 daily single-topic stories, from 45 seconds to a minute, focusing on an individual issue — as explained by ES video executive producer Chris Stone, also at the last NewsRewired conference. The ES will be also experimenting with longer forms, and producing podcasts.

What should publishers do now?

According to Newman, there are four things publishers should start to do right now:

  1. They should have experts in their organisation and work with other publishers to make sure they get better data. This could help to make more informed decisions and to shape the future of this thing in the right way.
  2. They need to think about the discoverability from the start. Since they can’t get discovered on the platform, they need to use other channels to promote their content.
  3. They need to develop a strategy for voice, understanding why it matters and how their content overlaps with audio
  4. They need to experiment and iterate, as things are constantly changing
“There’s going to be plenty of opportunities for publishers, as voice is going to be a gate for everything,” concluded Newman.

The more people will overcome their privacy concerns about smart speakers — and start buying more of them — the sooner media outlets will be urged to face this new reality.


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