Local publishers should pay attention to the rise of smart speakers

Over the next six months, so-called “smart speakers” like the Amazon Echo and Google Home are expected to reach an estimated 36 million active users, according to a study by eMarketer. Meanwhile, Apple recently announced plans to introduce its own smart speaker, “which comes in the form of a bulbous appliance rather awkwardly called the HomePod,” writes Nicholas Quah.

“While it’s understandable to replicate that move,” Quah explains, “it does mean that whatever improvements the smart speaker brings to the podcast listening experience — and whatever listening gains for publishers and podcasters might come from it — we’re probably not going to be seeing much of a substantial broadening of the active listening base from a demographic perspective, at least not initially.” Instead, Quah predicts that in the meantime, we should see an increase in depth within the existing listener base: people who already consume podcasts and other on-demand audio content as part of their daily media diet.

Still, Quah says it’s important to keep the larger picture in mind. The big takeaway here is the continued rise in the popularity and ubiquity of audio-first computing and user experiences. If we follow this line of thinking to its conculsion, Quah writes, “the long-term structural value that this potential shift brings is one that ultimately liberates the growth trajectory of on-demand audio content from being principally tethered to the mobile device toward a trajectory that extends across whatever vessels audio-first computing is going to be channeled through in the future.”

USC journalism students Cristina Galvan, left, and Almond Li worked on stories for Alexa in the “Advanced Journalism for Mobile and Emerging Platforms” class. Photo by Alan Middlesteadt via MediaShift.

Some journalists, publishers, and j-schools are already taking proactive steps to prepare for the expected smart-speaker explosion. As Amara Aguilar reports, journalism students at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism are already learning how to program and create new skills for the Amazon Echo in their “Advanced Journalism for Mobile and Emerging Platforms” class.

The class, writes Aguilar, “promotes experimentation with a variety of emerging technology — including mixed reality, augmented reality, chat bots, stories for Alexa, 360 photo and video storytelling, and other new formats that allow journalists to tell stories in different ways.”

Meanwhile, Gabriel Spitzer and Brian Edwards-Tiekart have already begun the work of preparing publishers and journalists to embrace smart speakers as an emerging platform. Aside from the somewhat alarmist headline — “Will Alexa Destroy Us?” — their piece offers some great advice to newsrooms: get in front of the on-demand audio wave before it’s too late.

“There’s a lot of potential here for public newsrooms, even local ones,” they explain. “Smart speakers are expanding the parts of the day in which listeners have easy access to your content. The platforms they’re running seem well-suited to hard news.”

No word yet as to how publishers might monetize this new on-demand audio format, although that didn’t seem to stop people from falling all over themselves trying to figure out how to use Snapchat for news. (Behold exhibits A, B, C, D, and E.)

That being said, I don’t remember seeing anything in the Amazon rulebook that says Echo publishers can’t use their Flash Briefing to ask for listener support, read scripted ads, or do any of the other stuff radio already does to sustain itself. Amazon’s new Alexa Skills Developer policy recently banned all ads in other skills. But, luckily for publishers, the policy excludes music and Flash Briefing skills from said ban.

As Spitzer and Edwards-Tiekart remind us, the benefits of smart speakers are clear: the barriers to entry are either negligible or non-existent, existing audio and radio stories can easily be adapted to fit the new on-demand format, it allows publishers to tap directly into listeners’ daily routines, and the opportunities to increase or improve engagement (and hopefully revenue) are expanding every day.

“As smart speakers proliferate and their digital assistant platforms develop,” they write, “the upsides of having your news there are going to grow.”


Joe Amditis is the associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media. Contact him at amditisj@montclair.edu.

About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. The Center is supported with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Democracy Fund. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.

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