Many leading brands are asking how they can use voice to answer specific search questions via agents like Alexa and Siri, and how this will revolutionize the way we search and purchase. But, according to Forrester analyst Collin Colburn and his presentation (entitled “The Future Of Customer Discovery”) at this year’s Forrester Consumer Marketing Summit, it seems no one is yet addressing the “why” and “what” of voice agents.

“The first thing we learned about voice search today is that it is pretty primitive, as evidenced by how people conduct voice searches.” – Collin Colburn, Forrester analyst

To attempt to answer these and related questions, Forrester recently conducted research into questions such as “Why voice now?” and “What should brands do about it?” First, as a marketer, just because your customers are using voice do not assume that your brand needs to. Rather approach voice from the customer’s perspective. “The first thing we learned about voice search today is that it is pretty primitive, as evidenced by how people conduct voice searches,” said Colburn.

Just what is the current state of voice search? It’s really more of a command-based query. Think of using Google assistant to turn the lights in your house on and off or to play a certain type of music. That’s not really search. That’s a command.

The second type of common search today is question-based. But people are not asking questions that brands can easily monetize. People typically ask things like “What will the weather be like today?” or “When is Wayne Gretzky’s birthday?” “These are not the kind of questions most companies care about,” added Colburn. “We tend to forget that these are things people care about.”

Voice Agents as Primitive Tools

Why are people not using voice the way they use search engines? “I think it is because customers do not yet know how to use voice in a sophisticated way. Customers do not know how to interact – how the assistant will answer [your] question when you ask for a recommendation for $150 running shoes. Voice agents are not yet very intelligent, but that will change and (with it) customer behavior will be radically altered,” Colburn argues.

Customers will surely adapt to using voice in more sophisticated ways over the coming years. For example, Google added voice activation to search queries in 2011 and, on mobile especially, people use voice to search via the Google app. There are also many intelligent agents in circulation, with 10 million Amazon Echo Dots were sold last year alone. And, according to Forrester data, 97% of consumers that have intelligent agents say they want to use them to discover more generalized information.

While consumers’ search habits become more sophisticated, the key question is how will agents become better at answering their questions? Over the next three years, Amazon, Google, and all other companies that own agents will focus on learning even more about their customers and how to answer their questions appropriately. Rather than focusing on monetization (which will surely appear in the form of paid search or voice ads), these brands will start by improving the customer experience.

Voice as an Engine of Customer Experience

This trend will accelerate over the coming three to five years and will come to fruition as agents begin to anticipate people’s needs and wants. So, rather than me asking Alexa or Google about $150 running shoes, my device will proactively suggest that I need new shoes – based on the 350 miles I’ve tracked with my Under Armour app – by stating something like, “By the way, Reebok has shoes on sale today.”

Beyond anticipating one’s needs, agents will begin to execute orders based on product usage patterns. Very close are the days when your Google assistant or Echo (connected to your smart refrigerator) will place an order for milk every Monday, while also checking your calendar to cancel deliveries if you’re on vacation.

So, how quickly should brand marketers pivot to capitalize on evolving agents? Forrester’s Colburn suggests you “start by asking yourself two questions, which sound simple but are not really easy. (1) How many of your most valuable customers use voice search, a question, which is difficult to answer definitively today? To gauge usage, look into Google’s search counsel for long-tail questions that are customer-based. Or use ‘OK, Google’ to see how people are using voice to look for information related to your brand. (2) How highly considered or complex are my product/services? Voice works well for reoccurring purchases based on price, but not so much for complex products like life insurance.”

Based on these two questions a marketer can measure the near-term importance of voice search to their brand set. Once you have some sense of the potential importance of voice, you can then determine whether you need to mobilize staff to respond now or rather keep your eye on developments to determine the right time to engage.

What Marketers Need to Consider

Any and all marketers can begin to prepare for voice search, regardless if they believe it will become important to their brand’s growth in the near or distant future. In fact, there are four things a marketer can do now:

  1. Start tuning SEO to voice search. SEO is your number one play when it comes to voice search today because there is no paid advertising within Google assistant or Alexa. Consumers rely on them for search results, so Alexa, for instance, partners with Bing for its data. What this means is figuring out what questions people ask that are different on voice rather than search. Several techniques are helpful here: social listening tools or call center tracking systems can show the questions consumers are asking, reveal keyword usage, and unveil how they relate specifically to a product or brand.
  2. Utilize discovery marketing. Determine where your customers go to find your brand or product and then, whether its Amazon or review sites, work to optimize those places.
  3. Localize your marketing efforts. Consumers mainly ask local questions as they search for directions or points of interest. Think about how this relates to your brand and how your brand can create content that engages people in their moments of need.
  4. Make brand a priority. This is the most important point, but also the hardest one to achieve. When you look at the coming five-year evolution of voice, agents will be making executive decisions for customers based on their purchase habits, personal interests, and emotional connections to brands. Which means that you have to consider questions such as “If the agent knows that I only buy Nike running shoes, then why would it present me an offer from another brand?”

There is no doubt that today’s voice assistants will mature to surpass their current roles as information purveyors and become partners in managing many daily, lifestyle functions for their owners, as well as providing them guidance amidst a wide range of product and service offerings. Brands that hope to thrive in this new age need to begin to find their digital voice today.

Cover image: Tyler Lastovich