Smart speakers are hot right now, and only getting hotter.
According to a joint report by NPR and Edison Research, 18% of American adults already own a smart speaker, like the Amazon Echo, Google Home, or Apple HomePod. That equates to about 43 million people (a 128% increase from last year). Other research even projects that by 2022, over half of U.S. consumers will have smart speakers in their homes.
That’s exciting news for content marketing, as smart speakers present a new avenue for connecting with customers—via smart speaker apps, which Amazon, the current king of smart speakers, calls “skills.”
What Are Skills, Exactly?
Alexa, the virtual assistant that operates Amazon’s smart home devices, has a lot of capabilities, but she can’t do everything on her own. That’s where “skills” come in.
“Hey Alexa, play Free Bird on Spotify.”
“Alexa, play Jeopardy!”
“Alexa, what’s in the news?”
Skills, when enabled, expand Alexa’s abilities. While other virtual assistants have skills of their own (Google calls them “actions”), Alexa was the first virtual assistant to fully open up shop for third-party developers. This allowed Alexa to accumulate a vast library of skills, over 30,000 in the U.S. alone, and has made Amazon smart speakers the most promising platform yet for smart speaker content marketing.
Brands Already Getting in on the Game
As we speak, Alexa’s skills are being integrated into the content marketing strategies of various brands.
Take Tide’s Stain Remover skill. “Alexa, tell Tide I have a red wine stain,” a user might say. With that simple invocation (to use Amazon’s terminology), the skill provides users with step-by-step directions on how to treat red wine stains—and other stains, too, if you ask; it knows how to treat over 200 types.
There’s also the Johnnie Walker Whiskey skill. “Alexa, open Johnnie Walker. Try a Guided Tasting.” This multifaceted skill offers a lot for whiskey drinkers, such as guided tastings of Johnnie Walker products, a Q&A feature to determine the perfect blend of whiskey for your palate, and cocktail suggestions.
Stubb’s Legendary Bar-B-Q has also gotten in on the game. “Alexa, ask Stubb for a recipe.” The skill provides recipe suggestions, barbecue tips, and bluesy music as you cook. What really sells the skill, however, is how it’s narrated by the actual Christopher “Stubb” Stubblefield, using past recordings to make it feel as though the old grill master himself is right there beside you. Check out how it works below.
Good content marketing nurtures customer relationships through valuable, relevant content. These brands are doing just that, and by providing consumers the option to order products directly through these skills, they also reduce friction between interest and purchase.
So the content at least is good. But are the skills finding an audience?
The Problem of Retention
Perhaps the biggest hurdle that Amazon and its competitors need to address for smart speakers is skill retention.
According to data from Alpine.AI (formerly VoiceLabs), there is only a 3% chance that a user will continue to use a skill after the second week. Traditional apps, such as those on your phone, have a retention rate as high as 36% after the first month.
This isn’t necessarily surprising. Voice is a relatively new and unfamiliar interface, and we’re still learning to navigate its challenges, both as developers and users. Alexa’s software, for example, still has clear limitations in understanding human speech. But it’s likely the lack of a visual interface that’s causing such poor retention.
When you download an app onto your phone, an icon appears, serving as both a visual reminder and easily accessible way to open the app. Push notifications also help us remember to engage with apps. Alexa, however, only offers the invisible voice interface. That means to use a skill, it’s entirely on you to remember you’ve enabled it (among the many others you’ve enabled) and to recall the right combination of words to open it.
It’s no wonder people are forgetting to use their skills.
Amazon has taken perhaps the most important step in addressing skill retention by rolling out a feature called skills arbitration.
Skills arbitration allows users to discover, enable, and engage with skills more easily and naturally than the usual invocation, and it doesn’t require users to remember the name of a skill. Instead, when users ask Alexa to do something outside her capabilities, she automatically arbitrates the task to a skill.
For example, if you say, “Alexa, how do I remove a grass stain from my shirt?” she might reply with, “Here is Tide Stain Remover.” Or if you say, “Alexa, what are some pulled chicken recipes?” she might respond, “Here is Ask Stubb.” Alexa seamlessly hands users over to skills (both enabled and undiscovered) to better assist in their requests.
Skills arbitration will go a long way in improving skill retention, and we’ll likely see companies other than just Amazon adopting such an approach for their smart speaker apps. (In fact, Google already has a similar feature called implicit invocation, though it’s not as seamless an experience as Amazon’s skills arbitration.)
But Amazon and its competitors could do even more to improve skill retention by taking advantage of their touch screens.
Amazon’s Echo Spot and Show speakers both have touch screens, for simple actions like telling the time and making video calls; and Lenovo similarly released a Google Home with a touch screen. While these screens do use text to educate users on how to use their apps, adding an easily accessible menu that lists the apps and allows for touch activation could go a long way in helping users more easily remember and access skills.
This could also be better implemented in the virtual assistant phone apps, where Alexa skills and Google actions are currently accessible, but not easily so. This would encourage more of a hybrid interface of voice and touch, rather than just voice, but for some users that may be the little extra help they need before fully committing to a voice-only interface.
What the Future Looks Like
Right now, smart speaker content marketing is in its infancy. While Amazon may be paving the way for a healthy skills-based marketing ecosystem, there are still significant barriers keeping brands from interacting with and retaining customers at large.
But the landscape is changing. Amazon, Google, and Apple are always improving their virtual assistants, and with smart speaker ownership rapidly on the rise, users are growing increasingly familiar with voice-enabled devices.
Skills arbitration, while still only a year old, will likely be vital for the future of skills-based marketing, and it makes now perhaps the perfect time for brands to carve a niche in the skill market. If a brand can make their skill Alexa’s preferred choice for arbitrating a particular pain point, that uniquely positions them to dominate that area. To gain that position now, before Amazon potentially incorporates a bidding element into arbitration (not unlike Google Ads’ bidding system), could prove especially advantageous.
Amazon’s access to user shopping data also makes a compelling case for the future of skills, as data could become rocket fuel for targeted content marketing. For example, say a user who utilizes Amazon for groceries views Stubb’s barbecue sauce, but doesn’t go through with a purchase. If that user asks Alexa, “What are some good barbecue rib recipes?” she could arbitrate the task to Ask Stubb, giving Stubb’s the opportunity to nurture a user through valuable content and bridge the gap between interest and purchase.
How to Make Skills Today, for Tomorrow
If you want to boost your Alexa skills, there are five things you can do to ensure your skills are not only successful now, but ready to succeed in the future landscape of smart speaker content marketing.
- Conduct a survey of your target audience. Right now there aren’t many methods of gaining insight into your customers’ smart speaker habits: if they use them, how they use them, and what types of pain points smart speakers might resolve. Amazon also doesn’t offer any method of viewing the types of requests your audience is making of Alexa, so surveys are the most direct method of discovering your audience’s needs. Keyword research tools that include voice-search results, however, could provide additional insights.
- Respond to your audience’s needs. With skills arbitration posed to be the dominant method of reaching users, it’s important to design your skill with arbitration in mind. That means ensuring your skill addresses specific problems and questions your audience has, as well as filling out the CanFulfillIntentRequest interface—where you get the chance to improve your chances of arbitration by telling Alexa the types of problems your skill can resolve.
- Keep reusability in mind. What makes the Tide skill so effective is that it’s something you’ll use any time you need help with a stain. Likewise, a good recipe skill will keep you coming back whenever you need ideas for meals, especially if there’s regularly updated content. So to ensure a higher retention rate, create skills that are more than just one-off gimmicks.
- Don’t sell too hard. Right now, many of the branded skills lean so heavily into selling their products that they sacrifice usability. Tide is particularly guilty of this, peppering their stain removal instructions with ads for their products, which has hurt their rating in the skill store. If applicable to your brand, you should make it easy for users to purchase products through your skill, but keep in mind that Amazon’s purpose for skills arbitration is first and foremost to improve the user experience. That means skills that allow self-promotion to eclipse usability will likely struggle to win arbitration spots.
- Read the Alexa blog. Amazon constantly updates how Alexa discovers, recommends, and arbitrates skills. By following the Alexa blog, you’ll stay up-to-date about these changes and find more technical tips on how to optimize your skills for arbitration and discoverability.
With smart speakers rapidly growing in sophistication and ubiquity, it’s hard to imagine a future where content marketing doesn’t thrive on these platforms. The question, really, is when will skills-based marketing gain traction?
And who will be at the starting line?
What do you think? Are Smart Speakers a passing fad or the next big opportunity? We’ve shared this post on Instagram and Facebook, so let us know your thoughts in the comments.