The rise of personal assistants
How will personal assistants change the game for users and marketers? And what can marketers do to adapt to this new paradigm? Columnist Eric Enge tackles these topics.
Market disruptions are times of great stress, but they also provide great opportunity. They define new winners and losers in the marketplace. And the next major disruption is just around the corner — it’s the coming era of the personal assistants, and there are many market forces that are driving this shift.
The first of these market forces is the explosion of the Internet of Things: Internet-connected devices will be something other than a PC, tablet or a smartphone. Gartner predicts that 8.4 billion connected devices will be in use in 2017 (up 31 percent from last year) and that this number will reach 20.4 billion by 2020.
What will those other devices be? Here are some of them (though there are many, many others not on this list):
- Alarm systems
- Smart speakers
This will create a world where a connected device is always within immediate reach, and for the great majority of those devices, there will no search box and no browser. That leads us to our next major disruptive event: the rise of voice as a UI.
Voice: The UI of choice
In a world with no practical keyboard and a small screen, voice communications will become the UI of choice.
One reason for the fast rise of voice that we’ve seen already is the ubiquity of smartphones. Trying to type in commands on a small keyboard is already an incentive to speak your commands. But the explosion of the Internet of Things provides us with many devices with NO keyboards. As a result, forecasts for the rise of voice search are already quite stunning — comScore even predicts that voice searches will make up 50 percent of all searches by 2020.
There is definitely still some self-consciousness regarding speaking voice commands to phones in public. In a poll that we conducted recently of more than 900 users, we found that more than two-thirds of users polled use voice commands with their phones when at home by themselves:
Still, despite the self-consciousness around using voice search in public, many are willing to break through those barriers. Our data also showed that 13 percent of respondents were willing to speak commands to their phones when they were in a public restroom!
Smart speakers: Amazon Echo and Google Home
Amazon launched their “smart speaker” back in 2014, but it’s now beginning to really take hold. In May of 2017, eMarketer released data indicating that “[t]he total number of Americans using voice-activated assistant devices will reach 35.6 million this year, up a whopping 129 percent jump year-over-year.”
They also shared data on estimated market share:
Global Market Insights forecasts that smart speakers will be a $13 billion market by 2024. How fast these devices can become available in international markets will limit how quickly they can grow, but I still expect their rate of growth to be impressive.
What makes these devices so interesting is that they are powered by Alexa (for the Echo) and the Google Assistant (for Google Home). These personal assistants are at the core of their functionality.
The digital personal assistants
The sale of smart speakers is indeed interesting to track, but the driving forces are broader than that. The idea of having a personal assistant on a smartphone has been around since Siri’s launch in October 2011. Google Now came shortly after in 2012 and has since been superseded by the Google Assistant. Cortana from Microsoft put in its initial appearance in 2013.
The Google Assistant is what powers the Google Home device, and it’s also available on Android and iOS phones. What makes this interesting is that the goal is for each user to have one assistant that can be accessed from all your devices:
In this world, the device just acts as a portal to access your personal assistant, and that assistant lives in the cloud. Imagine being able to seamlessly conduct all your online business via your smartphone, watch, thermostat, refrigerator, TV, car, or any other device simply by speaking voice commands. This is a powerful vision, especially when you consider that the vision for these personal assistants is that they will address nearly all your online needs:
It’s the active use of digital personal assistants that I expect will reach 1 billion users quite quickly. There is no major hardware limitation to slow them down, as they already run on smartphones. In the case of the Google Assistant, it already runs on Google Home as well. How fast can they get there? Let’s take a look at recent history to see how fast consumer adoption can reach 1 billion users:
Both Facebook and smartphones took about eight years to get to an installed base of 1 billion. How quickly can the highly active use of personal assistants get to 1 billion users? That depends largely on how complete their service offerings become. I believe that this will happen quite quickly.
The bigger question is how quickly personal assistants will become a central focal point of users’ activity online. As more and more services get mapped into them, that value proposition will continue to grow, and that growth in functionality will drive the depth of users’ level of adoption.
Each of the major players (Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft) is doing everything they can to make their personal assistant offerings as comprehensive as they possibly can, and it’s this fact that creates new opportunities for all of us as digital marketers.
How can you get ready for this next era of disruption?
The first step is to get your products and services plugged into the personal assistants. One of the easiest ways to do that it to start working with Amazon Skills and Actions on Google. These are not that hard to work with, and getting in early will help you start learning how this world will differ.
Anyone can start working with these services to build their own app to plug into Amazon’s Alexa or the Google Assistant, respectively. It’s easy to use each of them in a test mode so that you can work to debug a basic app. Once you’ve got that working, you can submit your app for acceptance into their respective ecosystems. You can submit an Amazon Skill for publication here, and learn how to distribute your “Actions on Google” app here.
While you’re doing this, one big area for you to explore is that of conversational interfaces. The first obvious difference is that users will use more natural language when they speak a query or make a request. In the early days of voice interfaces, it will be natural to ask users questions to determine what it is that they want.
Take pains to avoid questions that are open-ended; instead, learn how to ask questions that lead them to provide the type of answer you need to progress them through your navigation. Confirm that you understand the question before moving on to the next step.
In the longer term, you can imagine that these interfaces will evolve, and programs for processing language will improve. Traditional websites are based on a navigation metaphor, where users work their way to the content they want on your site on a step-by-step basis. But imagine a world where a user can state their entire need in one go. For example, imagine a query such as: “Get me a large pepperoni pizza with a 12-ounce diet coke and deliver it to my home address, please use the usual credit card,” where the personal assistant can process that entire query all at once.
We’re a long way from that day just yet, but it’s where we’re headed, and gaining early experience in these areas will be invaluable. You can get a leg up by building some initial smart speaker apps. Here is a summary of the benefits you’ll get by doing that:
- You can get plugged into those app marketplaces early, and that can gain you an edge in long-term exposure there.
- You can learn how to work with conversational interfaces.
- You can begin collecting data on how people use voice to ask for things in your market.
This next wave of disruption is already beginning to unfold, and we’re already exiting the early adopter stage, so the time to jump on board is now!