Searching, browsing, buying on your mobile is just so easy, isn’t it? Literally at your fingertips – which has been the stock phrase for smartphone shopping for a while. But now, we don’t even need to type or click – we can just talk. We can just say what we want. No doubt, voice is getting louder; and whilst it’s certainly going to shake up search, it looks like it’s going to revolutionise retail.

By 2020, according to a ComScore estimate, half of all searches will be voice. If that seems high, it’s worth remembering that many of these will be minimal, functional questions. Nevertheless, voice is going to account for a hefty chunk of search activity – and retail brands need to be thinking now about how they tackle this, and who they tackle it with.

And it’s not just smart speakers that are creating this buzz (although they do generate the most column inches): voice search on smartphones is huge too. Google estimates 1 in 5 searches on Android were by voice even back in 2016. Walker Sands’ 2017 Future of Retail Report, surveying over 1,600 US consumers, established that 19 per cent have purchased items on their Amazon Echo, Google Home or other digital voice assistants. Another 33% planned to do so over the next year. Unlike a personal smartphone, these devices are often sitting squarely, and shared, in the centre of home life. In March, it was calculated by that a fifth of US adults – equating to approximately 47 million consumers – can access a smart speaker at home. That’s a pretty sizeable opportunity for retailers.

So, mass adoption of voice search does not seem far away, but many brands are still casting about for their way to make use of a spoken interface. How companies treat voice functionality is going to be an integral part of their customer experience offering. Spoken interactions with specific brands (as opposed to general assistants like Siri or Cortana) will become commonplace on smart speakers before they do on mobile, and for some it will be a challenge to integrate a new touchpoint into their omnichannel offering.

Right now, there are more questions than there are answers. For your consideration, here are the areas we think brands should be looking at. Feel free to read them out loud.

1. Search has to be optimised for voice

This is critical to your SEO success, and requires the same careful thought and planning as your existing search strategy, with the added extra of needing to deal with more complex phraseology (when we type a search term, we will truncate it to make it simpler and quicker; when we speak, we tend to do so in longer sentences – and often using slang or dialectic words). Luckily, the AI that things like Google Hummingbird use get better each time you use it. It will learn the way you speak, your accent, the types of things you say – and what they really relate to. Clever (if a little unnerving).

2. To seem human, you need real humans

Ok, so it will be a bot you’re talking to – but if it’s going to be convincing at understanding and reacting to your speech, it needs a real person, or group of people, to program it with natural language. Retailers should be looking afresh at the skillsets needed to develop their spoken interfaces, and look at voice as an extension of their brand. We’ve written before about the evolving role of copywriters and the interplay with designers and other disciplines (voice artists, script writers?) when creating successful chatbots, but we think this is an area sometimes overlooked in digital – on your head be it if you ignore it now.

3. As (not) seen on screen

Customer experience-savvy brands have to examine, and potentially break down, exclusively screen-based customer journeys. Gartner predicts that, in under two years’ time, 30 per cent of web browsing will be done without a screen. Market leaders like Google and Amazon are pouring a lot of effort into their voice tech offerings – recognising the huge opportunity to interact with customers when they’re driving, exercising, or otherwise engaged (😳)… So if your customer journey relies solely on a screen, it’s time to start decoupling (see our post on legacy systems on why this is important, and how to go about it).

4. Hello? Is it me you’re looking for?

“Of all the potential brand touchpoints, none have the potential for deep personal connection at scale that voice does.” – Marcel Kornblum, BBH

It’s well understood that the better the relationship with your customer – i.e. a personalised, responsive, useful service (the best brands aren’t brands; they’re lifestyles) – the more successful your company. And the more certain your future is. So how does voice commerce and retail tie in to this? We think it will be interesting to see just how far out of the actual purchase moment voice tech can play a role. Perhaps we shouldn't be focusing too hard on the moment of sale, or even search, but right out at the brand awareness level.

Whichever way you slice it, voice tech is going to bring the noise. As is the case with any digital trend, brands cannot rest on their laurels – if you don’t step in and take advantage of this channel for interacting with your customer base, someone else will. Someone’s always listening. Wouldn’t you rather it was you?

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