Evidence mounts that smart audio is a big freakin’ deal

 
Shel Holtz's picture

Amazon Echo

The data Edison Research’s Tom Webster shared about smart audio earlier this week reinforced my view that voice will become the most ubiquitous form of digital interaction. Not Virtual Reality. Not Augmented Reality. Plain old talking.

The reason is simple: Talking is the oldest form of human communication. While scientists disagree about when grunts and gestures first evolved into language, it’s a safe bet that it began over 100,000 years ago. Cave paintings (the prehistoric version of visual communication) is only about 40,000 years old and we didn’t start writing until about 8,000 years ago.

We talk more than we engage in any other form of communication. We talk to ourselves. We talk in our sleep. Talking to a smart appliance, therefore, is far more natural than using any other kind of tool. I’m not suggesting that Augmented Reality glasses won’t be a big deal. They will. Huge, in fact. But they won’t come anywhere close to being the big deal smart audio will.

We’re already well on our way to incorporating smart audio into our lives, as Tom demonstrated with data. Ecosystems are developing to reinforce that trend. Amazon, for example, has partnered with a coding school, Coding Dojo, to present more than 30 workshops across the country to teach developers how to create new commands for its Alexa voice technology. The coders will build new commands that make Alexa more useful to people which will inspire more purchases, which will lead to more brands and other entities to develop new skills, and round and round we go.

Amazon’s Alexa product line dominate the marketplace with 10 million sold so far, according to some estimates. The Smart Audio Report from Edison and NPR Public Media finds 76% of smart speaker owners own only Alexa devices, 16% have a Google Home, and 8% have both. Forty-two percent of smart speaker owners own two or more speakers, and 45% plan to buy another one.

Whether Amazon can maintain its leadership is open to debate, especially given one study that Google Assistant—the brains behind Google Home—is six times more likely than Alexa to come up with an answer to your question.

On the other hand, asking general questions is only one of a laundry list of uses to which smart speakers are put. Listening to music tops the list and, remarkably, Alexa’s link to IHeartRadio is driving new listenership to terrestrial radio. A medium many have written off as a relic of the pre-digital age seems to be getting new life because it’s so damn easy to ask Alexa to play a station. In fact, 65% of smart speaker owners say they’re listening to more music since getting a speaker.

 

(In case you’re wondering, yes, I was definitely chuffed to hear a Grateful Dead reference in that video.)

Smart speakers owners are also listening to more news and talk (yes, even talk radio), more podcasts, and more audiobooks. Of the 28 tasks types Edison asked people about (shown below), owners use an average of 7.5 routinely.

Smart Speaker Uses

Seventy percent of smart speaker owners listen to more audio now than they did before they got the device.

Even though smart speakers are a relatively new product category—Amazon introduced the Echo less than three years ago—18% of owners listen to more audio on their device than any other platform, including their phone, tablet, or a radio. Most remarkably, 65% of owners agree that they would not want to return to life without one and 42% say they’re essential to their everyday lives.

As I have noted before, I use my Echo to ask questions I would never sit down and type into a search engine. The question would drift from my mind before I was motivated to walk to my computer or pull my phone from my pocket, type in a query or wake the phone up and push the button to active Google Assistant. (I’m not alone. Only 5% of consumers responding to a survey said voice capabilities were important features of their smartphones, and 62% said they wouldn’t give up their apps even if their phone’s voice assistant was perfect.) But it’s just so easy to blurt the question out knowing my Echo is right there, ready to answer (even if the answer is that she doesn’t know the answer).

And that’s the point. Smart speakers just make life easier. Parents are finding uses for their kids. People with connected homes are using them to control the lights, adjust the thermostat, turn the sprinklers on and off, and manage their home security. All by just talking, the most natural thing humans do.

While only 7% of Americans (if I remember the number correctly) have a smart speaker—lower than the penetration of smartphones and tablets nearly three years in—Gartner expects there will be 100 million in American homes in another three years. And as more people grow accustomed to voicing a question or command than typing or tapping one, companies that don’t embrace the technology simply won’t exist in consumers’ minds.

There are challenges to be overcome, mostly dealing with security and privacy concerns. At the same time, manufacturers are planning on integrating the technology into everything from cars to lamps. It’s not hard to imagine that before long, a Bluetooth headset is all you’ll need to ask an always-listening assistant to give you a sports score or a stock price, make a lunch reservation, get a news update, or tell you a joke.

The idea of Augmented Reality glasses is undeniably cool. As a consumer device, they’re also a good decade or more away. Marketers and communicators need to make plans for cracking the smart speaker market now.

 

 

Feedback Form