Amazon and Samuel L. Jackson: The Future of TTS Technology?

Amazon and Samuel L. Jackson: The Future of TTS Technology?

Amazon

As Samuel L. Jackson character Ray Arnold said in Jurassic Park, “Hold onto your butts,” because the iconic actor’s voice is coming to Alexa. Later this year you can enable Jackson’s voice to respond in different capacities: fill you in on the weather or play your favorite music, for example. And given the colorful, expressive style of some of Jackson’s characters—FBI Agent Neville Flynn in Snakes on a Plane comes to mind—you’ll have a choice of either an “explicit” or “clean” version. (Note that Alexa won’t suddenly start speaking to you as Samuel L. Jackson across the board: he can’t help you with skills such as shopping or lists.) The new skill, which Amazon will offer at an introductory price of 99 cents (regular price will be $4.99), is an example of neural text-to-speech technology (TTS) in action. And it’s instructive for businesses examining how voice might play a role in their advertising going forward.

What Is TTS?

TTS, sometimes referred to as “read-aloud technology” or text to speech, essentially converts a digital text string to spoken word. Early on, TTS applications lacked nuance: the resulting speech, while accurate, sounded robotic. But with advances in artificial intelligence (AI), it’s becoming possible to render voices that sound more human, with all the cadences we associate with how real people speak. As a result, businesses are exploring TTS as a viable way to inject personality into voice-based interfaces such as bots, or content that requires voice-over narration. Parameters can be established, too: as noted, you can’t make Alexa talk like Samuel L. Jackson all the time. The skill is limited to whatever it’s been programmed to do as Jackson.

“Fill It With Gravy”

Common applications for TTS include educational ones, in which a tablet or computer reads words on a screen out loud to a student who might have difficulties reading or seeing. Sometimes they border on the wondrous, as when sound engineers from Scottish company CereProc made it possible for listeners to finally hear the 21-minute speech President John F. Kennedy never got to deliver on November 22, 1963: in his voice.

And there are the fun applications, as witnessed by Alexa’s sanctioned use of Samuel L. Jackson’s recognizable voice. Of course, Amazon is not the only business using TTS to make their brand more familiar and fun. In 2015, KFC teamed up with the navigation app Waze to give motorists a fresh voice option for their audio directions: Colonel Harland Sanders. Users who opted in to be directed by The Colonel got clear directions as well as humorous Colonel-isms such as, “Pothole on the road ahead. I’d fill it with gravy.” More recently, KFC celebrated National Fried Chicken Day by using speech recognition, AI, and TTS to playfully make drive-through operators sound like The Colonel, too.

Sonic Branding

TTS is in a position to create even greater impact as the technology continues to grow. Businesses are wise to recognize that potential, and to pursue voice personality as a way to differentiate themselves. Forrester Analyst Dipanjan Chatterjee notes:

Forrester predicts that 50% of US households will have smart speakers by 2022, accounting for 68% of all smart home devices. Voice will be much more than assistants and speakers. It will fundamentally alter how consumers and brands interact . . . If you don’t have a voice strategy in the making today, it’s time to move now or risk falling behind.

The big picture Chatterjee alludes to is the phenomenon of “sonic branding”—that is, anything that uses voice, music, or sound to express a brand. In some ways, sonic branding has been going on for years: think about the brands that have hired an actor for voiceover advertising, or jingles that long after the fact still resonate. TTS is just the latest example of how sonic branding can be used effectively.

What You Should Do

As Chatterjee points out, sonic branding—specifically, voice strategy—is an opportunity you don’t want to miss. Assess the role of voice in your marketing and advertising. No, you don’t need to worry about one-upping Amazon and hiring a famous movie star to narrate your online and voice bots. But consider how you can inject personality, and even humor, wherever people encounter the “voice of your brand.”

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What Advertisers Should Do about the Rise of Voice Search

What Advertisers Should Do about the Rise of Voice Search

Search

We’re living in an era in which people are using their voices to do everything from shop to check the weather. Signs continue to indicate that the rise in voice is more than a passing trend. In fact, recent data shows that businesses need to pay closer attention to voice search and the impact it can have on advertising and organic content.

What Are the Latest Statistics about Voice?

  • According to a 2019 report from Microsoft, 72 percent of people use voice search through a personal digital assistant, and 75 percent of households will be outfitted with at least one smart speaker by 2020.
  • A 2018 BrightLocal study reveals that over a 12-month period, 58 percent of surveyed consumers used voice search to find local business information. In addition, Forbes notes that consumers want voice search to help them with myriad tasks, including:
    • Making reservations.
    • Gathering price data on services and products.
    • Confirming whether an item is available.
  • According to estimates from eMarketer, more than 74 million Americans — almost 27 percent of the U.S. population — will be using smart speakers in 2019, a 15 percent uptick from 2018.

What Should Businesses Do about Voice?

In short, it’s becoming a world in which businesses must be prepared to use voice for advertising. As Jelli CEO Mike Dougherty shared with Forbes, voice will “open up opportunities for marketers and brands to get creative and interact with customers in new ways . . . The goal of any marketer is to establish a genuine connection with customers. Voice is their chance to get one step closer.”

Jennifer Hungerbuhler, the EVP and managing director, local video and audio investment, at Dentsu Aegis Network, concurs. She also notes that voice search will not only be important in the marketing, advertising, and media worlds, it will continue to evolve.

How Should Businesses Prepare for Voice?

Part of staying relevant in a world of voice search means understanding voice, and creating content that optimizes how voice works. For instance, as we have discussed on our own blog, advertisers should evaluate voice search queries and pay attention to the conversational text that occurs.

Conversational text, which tends to be more complicated than simple Google searches, is a clear indicator of how people express themselves during voice search. It can be an excellent resource when companies want to write copy consistent with how people are using their voices to search. “Who,” “What,” “Where,” “When,” “Why,” and “How” are great words to focus on. Long-tail queries that include natural phrases such as “near me” or “can I get the number for” can also be useful/telling. These queries can help identify what consumers most want to know about a company’s products or services—and how they parse their request via voice.

As Hungerbuhler notes, “Advertisers will need to get better at understanding how consumers want to find them in voice, the language they will use to do so, and how they can get onto a shopping list.”

The bottom line? Search behaviors are different when consumers use voice. Because brands, increasingly, want voice assistants to find their site, savvy businesses will tweak their advertising and organic content accordingly.

What You Should Do Next

What are next steps in this brave new world?

  • Prepare now by rethinking your approach to content.
  • Don’t panic. Realize that even though people are using voice assistants, it doesn’t mean they are doing so in droves. According to research firm Stone Temple, voice assistants still rank behind other choices such as mobile browsers or search engine apps.
  • But do act. Voice search isn’t going away. Andy Franco, the founder of Facebook advertising agency Live Surge, explains, “Just like search has become second nature to people who used to use card catalogs, voice is likely to be well used by those who are multitasking and need hands-free tools.”

Contact True Interactive

Contact True Interactive. We can help you better understand voice search as you craft your strategy.

Photo by Sebastian Scholz (Nuki) on Unsplash

Alexa Stars in Amazon’s 2018 Earnings Announcement

Alexa Stars in Amazon’s 2018 Earnings Announcement

Amazon

The conversation about the voice interface no longer focuses on whether we’re entering a voice-first world. The questions have quickly shifted to who will lead it and how soon using our voices to search for things and manage our lives will be as second nature as texting.

My teammate Taylor Murphy recently discussed an answer to the first question: no single firm “owns” the voice-first world, but both Amazon and Google have a strong lead. The answer to the question about how quickly voice will saturate our lives comes down to how soon people will be comfortable using voice to do tasks that require extremely high levels of trust in the device you’re using, such as buying a product or handling an emergency. Most people use voice to do mundane things like check the weather. Few actually ask Alexa or Google Assistant to order a pizza or conduct other transactions. That’s because we’re not quite ready to trust a device to interpret our speech with enough accuracy.

The major players in voice are trying to address that issue. In Amazon’s January 31 earnings announcement, CEO Jeff Bezos said, “The number of research scientists working on Alexa has more than doubled in the past year, and the results of the team’s hard work are clear. In 2018, we improved Alexa’s ability to understand requests and answer questions by more than 20% through advances in machine learning, we added billions of facts making Alexa more knowledgeable than ever, developers doubled the number of Alexa skills to over 80,000, and customers spoke to Alexa tens of billions more times in 2018 compared to 2017.”

Normally CEOs comment on high-level, visionary messages in earnings releases, such as top-line growth, major product launches, and corporate strategy. I find it interesting that Jeff Bezos decided to talk about Alexa’s accuracy, and the number of Alexa skills developed. What does this tell you? That Alexa is strategic to Amazon. Jeff Bezos already saw the voice-first world coming, and he decided to help shape it.

So what does all this mean to businesses that advertise online? It means that before you know it, we’re going to turn the corner with voice accuracy. Consumers will use their voices for e-commerce. So it’s important to prepare. For example, as noted previously by my colleague Taylor, advertisers should evaluate their search queries and look for conversional text (“Who,” “What,” “Where,” “When,” “Why,” and “How” are great phrases to focus on). Also, pay attention to any long-tail queries that include a natural phrase such as “near me” or “can I get the number for . . . ”

The above advice applies not only to optimizing content on your websites but also preparing your paid media, such as paid search campaigns. Thinking like a customer might be the most effective way of ensuring your digital marketing efforts are visible to RankBrain – part of Google’s core algorithm that employs machine learning to draw the most relevant results from a search query. RankBrain collects multiple data points like keywords and the searcher’s location in an attempt to identify the intent of a search to then pair the query with the most relevant and valuable result.

Remember, voice isn’t just about using Echo or Google Home. It’s also about doing voice searches on devices where ads appear.

If you sell products on Amazon, the sense of urgency to adapt to voice is even greater. Amazon is clearly using its own retail platform to sell more Echo speakers, and more Echo speakers means more people using their voices to find and eventually buy things on Amazon.

You don’t want to be a laggard in that world. Contact True Interactive to make your online advertising flourish.

 

CES 2019 Reminds Advertisers about the Power of Voice

CES 2019 Reminds Advertisers about the Power of Voice

Marketing

In 2019, more than 74 million Americans will own smart speakers, up 15 percent from 2018. So it’s no surprise that the annual CES, occurring this week, has been showcasing products powered by voice interfaces. Within the first few days of CES, Google alone made a slew of announcements intended to show why Google Assistant is catching up with Amazon’s Alexa as a leading voice assistant. For instance, Google Maps now incorporates Google Assistant, and Google is working with Lenovo on a voice-activated alarm clock/visual display. Not to be outdone, Amazon announced a relationship with technology firm Telenav to make Alexa a more useful voice-based navigation tool in automobiles.

So where do these developments leave advertisers? After all, it’s not as if people are using their voices to buy products and services online. For the most part, consumers use voice as a way to find music and get weather forecasts. And most people do not use voice to search for anything online. But here’s the thing: people are using voice, and more than ever. They might not be using their voices to interact with your brand just yet, but the day is coming when they will. For a number of businesses, that day is here.

For quite some time, we’ve been advocating that advertisers prepare for a voice-first world. As I noted in a 2017 blog post, advertisers can do a number of things now to be savvy about the rise of voice. For instance, advertisers should evaluate your search queries and look for conversional text. (“Who,” “What,” “Where,” “When,” “Why,” and “How” are great phrases to focus on.) Also, pay attention to any long-tail queries that include a natural phrase such as “near me” or “can I get the number for . . . ” Use these queries to understand what consumers want to know about your products or services. That’s because consumers exercise a more natural and conversational language when they use their voices, thus altering their search behavior. You can then gather those learnings to strategize a personal user experience for voice searchers.

CES should serve as a reminder that a voice-first world is coming. You don’t want to be a laggard in that world. Contact True Interactive to make your online advertising flourish.

 

Apple Plays Catch-up with Voice at WWDC

Apple Plays Catch-up with Voice at WWDC

Marketing

At Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), Apple showcased a new and improved Siri voice assistant, which was a must-do for a company that pioneered voice only to fall behind competitors such as Amazon and Google.

As we have discussed on our blog, voice is without question an important wave of innovation fueling how businesses interact with their customers. In her widely read Internet Trends report, Kleiner Perkins Venture Capitalist Mary Meeker said, “With voice, we’ve hit technology liftoff with word accuracy, and we’ve certainly hit product liftoff with Amazon Echo’s install base estimated to be around 30 million plus.”

Indeed, adoption of smart speakers alone has skyrocketed in the United States. According to NPR/Edison Research findings, 39 million Americans owned smart speakers in January 2018, an increase of 128 percent from January 2017. Businesses such as Jim Beam are literally figuring out their brand voices through voice assistants. Jim Beam, for instance, offers a playful bourbon container that relies on a voice assistant.

Apple knows voice is the future, but the company has struggled to shape that future. Its Siri voice assistant is widely viewed as a weak alternative to Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant, and the HomePod smart speaker didn’t launch until 2018 (to tepid reviews). At WWDC, Apple did not unveil any dramatic breakthroughs in voice, but it did showcase some tangible improvements to Siri.

First off, Apple has made Siri more efficient by incorporating short-cut commands through an app known literally as Shortcuts. With Shortcuts, users can rely on commonly used commands that Siri learns to act on. The idea is to make Siri more convenient. As Mark Vena of Moor Insights & Strategy noted, “Shortcuts could also be used to help proactively plan for your day. For example, if you were about to go to the beach, Siri might suggest that you check the weather and remember to bring a beach towel with you.”

But as Vena also wrote, Amazon and Google have already developed a short-cut capability in their own voice assistants. The more interesting development from WWDC is how Apple is making Siri smarter. The voice assistant can actually learn from the way you use Siri to suggest to you activities based on your habits. For instance, Siri might suggest to a cup of coffee at a time of day when the user often seeks coffee. But here again, Apple is achieving status quo instead of leading. As Kevin C. Tofel wrote on Stacey on IoT, “If you open the same exercise tracking app at roughly the same time and location — say at the gym at 5pm — Siri will eventually pop up a suggestion to open the app at the same time and place for you. This is similar to Google Assistant, which I love, but it’s just Siri starting to catch up since Google’s product  has done this for nearly five years now. In fact, I get my contextual alerts on the Apple Watch from the Google Assistant app today, although I’ll test Siri in this capacity once watchOS 5 arrives.”

Amazon is leading the marketplace for voice-based products and experiences and possesses a formidable platform with which to integrate voice to search, discover, and buy. Google and Microsoft are strong challengers. Apple is still catching up. But don’t count out Apple. The company has the money, talent, and patience to get where it needs to be.

 

 

Voice Search Gets Louder

Voice Search Gets Louder

Search

Recently we’ve seen some news developments that underscore how rapidly voice technology is growing as a way for people and brands to accomplish increasingly sophisticated tasks. Companies are evolving their strategies to accommodate the rising popularity of voice. It’s time to take a closer look at adapting your digital marketing for voice search. These examples show how big companies such as Amazon, Google, and Samsung are accommodating the rise of voice:

Voice Assistants Take Hold

Research firm Parks Associates recently announced that the number of voice assistants such as Amazon Echo and Google Home more than doubled from 2015 to 2016. According to Parks Associates, the adoption rate of smart speakers with voice assistants grew from 5 percent of U.S. broadband households in Q4 2015 to 12 percent in Q4 2016. Parks Associates Research Analyst Dina Abdelrazik said, “Voice interfaces are advancing due to continued improvements in machine learning and natural language processing, paired with the prevalence of portable devices. Apple increased consumer familiarity of voice control with its introduction of Siri in 2011, but the later-to-market Amazon Alexa has taken a clear lead in this category.”

Voice assistants are taking hold for a number of reasons, and Parks Associates cites an important one — advancements in forms of artificial intelligence, which make voice assistants more effective at interpreting complex commands. The growth of voice assistants, along with the popularity of mobile devices, is helping fuel a rise in voice search. Voice search has quickly developed from a topic of research to a reality. Consumers, armed with mobile devices, are finding that they can ask for more complex things to buy, find places to go, and decide on things to do with increased sophistication, by searching with more conversational questions such as “When are the Cubs hosting the St. Louis Cardinals next at Wrigley Field?” or “Where can I find deep dish pizza with free parking on Chicago’s north side?”

Samsung Launches Bixby

On March 20, Samsung announced the launch of its own voice assistant, Bixby, which gives Samsung an entree into a field that includes tools such as Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Apple’s Siri. Samsung claims that Bixby will feature a better user interface that combines touch and voice and an improved ability to interpret commands. As Samsung noted in a press release, “Bixby will be smart enough to understand commands with incomplete information and execute the commanded task to the best of its knowledge, and then will prompt users to provide more information and take the execution of the task in piecemeal. This makes the interface much more natural and easier to use.” Samsung will make Bixby available with its Galaxy mobile device and plans to expand Bixby to TVs and other appliances.

Google Changes AdWords

Recently, Google announced some changes to AdWords exact match close variants, which will affect advertisers’ keyword strategies for voice search. Close variants, which Google introduced in 2012, is a feature that makes it possible for an ad to appear in a search result even for searches that contain misspellings, plurals, and close matches to keywords that an advertiser is bidding on. Now, AdWords is expanding the feature to include variations in word order and to ignore function words such as “in” and “for.”

Google suggests this change will benefit advertisers by decreasing the amount of keywords needed in a pay-per-click (PPC) campaign, which is true. But the expansion of close variants is also Google’s way to accommodate the rise of voice search. Here’s why:

  • Voice searches use more conversational language.
  • Conversational language can include many variations, such as the use of who, what, where, when and why questions.
  • Because of the conversational nature of voice search, campaign managers might feel compelled to over-build their keyword list in their account in order to cover all possible variations of voice searches that fit their brand. But Google has mitigated against over-building keyword lists by making word order and function words irrelevant. A keyword bid will match for “Flights to Chicago,” “flights in Chicago,” “flights for Chicago,” and so on.
  • In other words, now advertisers do not need to worry about building out exact match keywords in a variety of orders or even include every function word. Advertisers still need to focus on conversational questions including what, where, when, and why, as well as long-tailed queries. But the variations in keywords will now be minimized.

It’s obvious brands need to adapt their paid and organic search strategies to accommodate the use of voice search. In a recently published blog post, we discuss some of the key ways that businesses need to adapt their pay-per-click (PPC) strategies for voice search. Check out our post and contact us to discuss how we can help you adapt your digital marketing for voice search.

Image source: Digital Trends