Voice tech is the new interface to everything

Shel Holtz's picture

The Conversation Frontier

If you want an influencer to have conversations about your products with her followers, you can pony up some big bucks and hope she has the time to engage with each and every fan who reaches out to her. Or you can do what CoverGirl did. After getting 16-year-old dancer, model and TV personality Kalani Hilliker Kalani Hilliker's Bot

onboard, they studied her conversational style across her various social media accounts, then unveiled a chatbot on the Kik mobile messaging platform that simulates conversation with her.

Hilliker has 3.3 million followers on Instagram alone. A lot of her fans flocked to the clearly-labeled chatbot, generating 14 times more conversations than with a typical post by the real Ms. Hilliker. The conversations were 91% positive. Each conversation produced an average of 17 messages. Nearly half led to the delivery of a CoverGirl coupon. More than half the coupons delivered were clicked on.

Welcome to the conversation frontier.

Chatbots—programs that simulate human conversation—are nothing new. They were first proposed in a 1950 paper by British computer scientist Alan Turing. When I first wrote about chatbots, a colleague noted wryly that he had written code for chatbots in the 1990s. Those automated customer support avatars on websites? Chatbots.

What has changed to suddenly make chatbots the hot new marketing platform?

  • Mobile messaging apps—Messenger, WhatsApp, Kik, Slack, and other mobile messaging apps are natural platforms for bots. It’s why Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and other tech titans have gone all-in with conversation technology. Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, has proclaimed that bots are the new apps. “People-to-people conversations, people-to-digital assistants, people-to-bots…that’s the world you’re going to get to see in the years to come,” he said. As of right now, there are some 30,000 bots on the Messenger platform alone. These bots deliver news, handle commerce, summon Uber cars, play games, handle banking chores, make doctor appointments, and much, much more.
  • Artificial Intelligence—Until recently, bots were limited by the scripts written for them. If you did not query or respond with exactly the right words, you got a default that asked you to rephrase the question correctly. AI, however, enables bots to understand natural language no matter how a query or reply is phrased. AI can also learn the more it interacts with people. A recent survey found 80% of marketing executives believe AI will revolutionize marketing within the next three years. Science fiction fans hear the term “AI” and think about Skynet. I have good friends who insist the next big tech phase, enabled by AI, will be Augmented Reality (which will, in fact, be a big deal). But conversation will be the most ubiquitous consumer technology AI will deliver.
  • Voice tech—Amazon ran out of its Echo voice appliance during the just-ended holiday shopping season, shipping 9 times more than in 2015, easily in the missions. A report in November estimated that 5.1 million Echo devices had already been sold in the U.S. Add to that the sales of Google’s competing device, Google Home, which runs on the AI-fueled Google Assistant. Both of these devices (and new competitors waiting in the wings)—along with smartphone and computer-based voice tools like Siri and Cortana—are just AI chatbots with voices. Even Mattel’s Barbie doll is being morphed into a voice tech appliance via the Hello Barbie doll, lets girls hold conversations with their dolls.


Whether we access them by talking or tapping into our phones, talking to our home voice-tech appliances, or talking to our AR headsets, we will use bots to accomplish most everything that requires more laborious inputs today. We won’t type searches into a text query box. We will say, “Alexa (or OK Google, or whatever), where is the closest dry cleaner open until 8 p.m.?” And Alexa (or whatever) will answer, then ask if you want her to call or send driving directions to your phone. (A lot of people are starting to wonder how Google will make money when a spoken search query response doesn’t include paid ads.)

Let me be clear: Bot-enabled conversation will quickly become the new digital interface. Not the browser. Not smartphone apps. Bots. And voice will become the dominant input method.

Given that the spoken word is already our most common mode of communication, this makes perfect sense. Gene Roddenberry foresaw it half a century ago:


(If you have an Echo and haven’t asked Alexa to initiate the self-destruct sequence, what are you waiting for?)

More evidence of voice tech’s rise came at CES, where Amazon announced that a broad range of device manufacturers are building Alexa voice control into their products, including Whirlpool. It will undoubtedly be built into automotive entertainment systems so you can query Alexa while driving. It will also be built into Bluetooth headsets so you can get information you need without reaching for your phone. (Some analysts doubt this will become commonplace because of the social implications of talking to yourself in public, but talking into a Bluetooth headset or earbud when you’re in a crowd is already a common behavior; we’re just talking to another person and not our digital assistants.)


Marketers are already immersing themselves in bot technology. Adelyn Zhou and Marelene Jia are releasing a book next month featuring 100 successful business and brand bots across a number of chat and voice platforms. Another book due for a February launch, Mariya Yao’s “Conversational Interfaces,” is a guide to creating bots, and it’s not the first.

Both the Echo and Google Home make tools available for third parties to build Skills (on the Echo) or Actions (on Home). Marketers are piling on, sensing the opportunity to enable one-to-one conversations with customers. Laundry detergent Tide, for example, built an Echo skill that lets you ask how to remove a particular kind of stain; you get step-by-step instructions for more than 200 types of stains and a link to buy the detergent from Amazon. Tide’s is just one of hundreds of brand-created Echo skills.

Media is getting in on the action, too. Hearst has assembled a team to develop skills centered around its publications. Two of its daily newspapers offer daily news briefings. A Good Housekeeping skill offers the same stain-removal assistance as Tide, but plays music between steps.

Voice Tech Products

Where is PR?

While marketers are fully aware of the shift to voice tech and “conversation marketing” (yes, it has a label), the PR industry is, for all practical purposes, nowhere to be found. In my conversations with PR practitioners and corporate communicators, I find that bots and voice tech are not on their radars at all.

Edelman Digital has listed “conversational experiences” as one of its key 2017 trends, focused more on chatbots for messaging apps than voice tech. Edelman’s Adam Hirsch and Andrew Ryder advise companies get started with a test to learn how the technology works and inform future strategies, including where conversation fits in larger communication plans. Nevertheless, when I bring up conversational marketing and chatbots, the most common response I get is, “I haven’t heard of that.”

A couple years ago, my colleagues Richard Binhammer, Mark Dollins, and I developed a matrix identifying more than 30 digital and social competencies that could be required by a 21st-century communicator. (We offer an audit that will reveal the gaps in your team’s skills mapped directly to the digital/social strategies you plan to implement.) Chatbots and voice tech absolutely need to be added to that list.

PR and corporate comms, after all, has always been about dialogue; it has always been two-way. Marketing and advertising—the functions that have embraced bots and voice tech—are historically one-way. Who is best equipped to craft the conversations the bots that power voice tech will engage in?

Startups are hiring screenwriters and poets to write these scripts based on their ear for dialogue. What they don’t bring to the table is an understanding of how to influence via conversation, a skill at PR’s very core.

The PR/corporate comms potential for conversation tech is unlimited. Just off the top of my head, I can imagine talking to Alexa about a political issue on which a company is lobbying (“Alexa, should I support the plan to limit production of the F-35 military jet engine to one company instead of two?”), dig into a corporate decision (“Alexa, why did Snap buy Cimagine Media?”), research a company where I might want to apply for a job (“Alexa, what’s it like to work for Marriott?”), or get details on a crisis (“What’s going on with Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder problem?”). The more we can figure out how to deliver the content people will hear and respond to when making these queries, the better off we and our clients will be.

Or we can leave it to marketers and advertisers to hire poets and screenwriters while we crank out press releases and tweet our hearts out.

Spoken conversation—along with conversational marketing and conversational experiences—will be our standard interface to information, knowledge, services, and more. We are standing on the edge of the conversation frontier. How long will it take for PR and corporate comms to cross the threshold?


To get up to speed quickly on chatbots, I recommend subscribing to Chatbots Magazine. It’s free. Also, shell out the $150 or so to buy an Amazon Echo (or the cheaper versions, the Dot or the Tap), or the Google Home appliance. Get in touch with me if you want to discuss a chatbot or voice tech solution. (Image courtesy of Abhishek Maji’s Flickr account.)



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