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.”

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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.

 

Mobile, Voice, Amazon, and Personalization: Four Big Themes from Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends Report

Mobile, Voice, Amazon, and Personalization: Four Big Themes from Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends Report

Marketing

The Internet Trends 2018 report from Mary Meeker of Kleiner Perkins is a must read for any advertiser. This sprawling report – a presentation, really – provides pithy insights into the state of digital and offers clues for how advertisers should invest their time and money. Mary Meeker released the report on May 30 and delivered its findings at the annual Code Conference. We reviewed all 300 pages and came up with the following key observations from just some of the content:

  • We’re increasingly online and mobile. U.S. adults are online 5.9 hours per day, and 3.3 of those hours – or more than half of our time — were spent on mobile. Both these numbers represent steady increases year over year. In 2010, adults were online a total of 3.2 hours per day, which doesn’t even match how many hours we’re on our mobile devices today. With more of consumers’ time going online, it follows that more brands need to be, as well.

  • Voice has reached a tipping point. The Amazon Echo now has more than 30 million users, which is astonishing for a product that launched only a few years ago. In addition, thanks to artificial intelligence, voice assistants are accurate enough to achieve widespread adoption. Businesses need to be thinking of how they express their brands through voice. And with the advent of tools such as Alexa Blueprints that make creating voice-based experiences easier, businesses need to start understanding how voice-first interfaces change the way their customers interact with them in industries such as retail.

  • Large technology companies are converging around advertising and commerce. Amazon, traditionally a commerce platform, is expanding its advertising services as more and more people rely on Amazon as their primary search engine. Meanwhile, Google, which built a robust online advertising business, is expanding into commerce with services such as Google Home Ordering, which makes Google Home a vessel for doing business with Walmart. Amazon is an advertising destination even for businesses that don’t have any products on Amazon. Just capturing a share of eyeballs on Amazon is motivation enough to advertise on Amazon.

  • Despite concerns about user privacy, people are willing to give up personal data if they can get a personal experience. As Meeker pointed out at the Recode conference where she delivered the report, “With personalization, data improves engagement in experiences and drives growth and scrutiny. Personal collective data provides better experiences for consumers. They’re 2.2 billion Facebooks, 200 million Pinterests, 170 million Spotifies and 125 million Netflixes . . . People putting their data into these products to make their experiences better and then there’s the collective data of many other users that effect a lot of real time products, whether it’s Waze or SnapMap or NextDoor, or Uber Pool.” What this finding tells us is that despite all the bad press that Facebook has received for the way it manages our personal data, everyday consumers are going to remain receptive to businesses asking them to share personal data because the overall value delivered exceeds the occasional negative headline.

We believe that advertising will continue to become more mobile – and, as artificial intelligence adoption ramps up, even more personal. Meanwhile, Mary Meeker’s report offers a useful snapshot for what the near-term future holds. Contact us for more insight into how to grow your brand in the digital world.

Amazon, Apple, and Google Race to Lead Voice

Amazon, Apple, and Google Race to Lead Voice

Search

The war to dominate voice technology is heating up – and getting more interesting. Both Amazon and Google have recently announced important enhancements to make their voice assistants, Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, smarter and more useful. And to increase the level of competition, on June 5 Apple announced its HomePod smart speaker, powered by Siri, at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). The ability of a consumer to search from multiple devices anywhere they are makes it clear that brands’ strategies need to adapt for voice searches.

Apple Plays Catch-Up

 The launch of HomePod represents Apple’s attempt to gain a stake in the market for smart speakers activated by voice. Apple has been late to the playing field before, but when it enters, Apple creates hardware that leaves competitors in the dust. Think of the iPhone and how it changed people’s lives, and, even more so, the way people search.

Having access to another voice-activated device no matter where you are, whether it’s the HomePod, Apple Watch or iPhone, will only increase the use of voice search. Apple’s sneak peak of the HomePod mainly focused on its abilities for music in the home, but it also touched on similar smart speaker features such as weather, directions, messages, and reminders.

Additional Siri-related announcements included a new voice that is more conversational, which will match with the way consumers speak to Siri. Apple also announced a new Siri-powered watch face for the Apple Watch. Apple is enhancing Siri on the Apple Watch by using machine learning to gather data on how you utilize your device. Siri will use this data to then show you relative and interesting content.

Apple’s release of HomePod occurred on the heels of Google’s and Amazon’s own announcements related to voice technology. It’s instructive to review how Amazon and Google built off their already established products to differentiate themselves.

 Amazon Integrates Voice and Search with Echo

On May 9, Amazon – which dominates 70 percent of the market for voice controlled speakers – announced that its Echo voice-activated home speaker is getting more visual. The new Echo Show product includes a touch screen that integrates visual features with voice. According to Amazon, “Echo Show brings you everything you love about Alexa, and now she can show you things. Watch video flash briefings and YouTube, see music lyrics, security cameras, photos, weather forecasts, to-do and shopping lists, and more. All hands-free—just ask.”

In addition, Echo Show users can make video calls, thus making Echo Show a competitor to Apple’s FaceTime, Google’s Hangouts, and Microsoft’s Skype.

What Echo Show does for brands and consumers is create a more integrated way for them to share content with each other. For instance, consumers can ask Alexa to make their dining reservations at a restaurant and also call up a menu, display available movie times at different theaters, and watch movie trailers, among many other possibilities.

According to Mashable’s Lance Ulanoff, “The Amazon Echo Show is a quantum leap beyond any Alexa-infused product we’ve seen before” because of the new interface with the touch screen. He also noted that Echo Show will always communicate with you, while other devices wait for you to initiate.

It’s obvious Amazon is becoming a stronger platform for amplifying your brand through paid and organic content, both visual and voice-related. If you do not have an Amazon strategy yet, True Interactive highly recommends experimenting with advertising on their platform.

Google Gets Smarter

Meanwhile, at its annual I/O event, Google introduced a slew of features to make Google Home  and Google Assistant more useful.

As if to answer Amazon Echo, Google launched Visual Responses, which also integrates visual content with voice. As Google noted on its blog, “You’ll be able to see Assistant answers on the biggest screen in your house, whether you’re asking ‘what’s on YouTube TV right now?’ or ‘what’s on my calendar today?’”

In other words, Google provides the same functionality as Amazon but with the power of the Google search and discovery ecosystem more closely integrated into the experience.

Google made many other enhancements to Google Assistant and Google Home. For instance, with Proactive Assistance, Google Home sends people information without being asked. So if you have an appointment with your doctor entered on your Google calendar, Google Home will remind you of the date and time, suggest a driving route, or provide other useful information such as helpful stops on the way to the doctor.

Another interesting improvement consists of making Google Assistant more conversational and more contextual. As Google noted on its blog, we often want to have follow-up conversations with Google Assistant. So Google has made it possible to see the history of your conversation with Google Assistant as you would a text thread, thus making it easier for you to re-engage with a conversation – say, managing a shopping list at the store after you’ve started one and then had your trip to Target interrupted by something else.

Bottom Line

Google, Amazon and Apple understand that people and brands find each other in more sophisticated, multi-dimensional ways. All of these companies have evolved to incorporate voice search tools and now multi-media discovery platforms.

Brands need to think of themselves as multi-media advertisers in the world that Amazon, Google and Apple are shaping. Performance media is not an either/or choice between voice, text-based, and visual platforms such as Instagram and YouTube. These three leading brands are forcing businesses to think of their media as overlapping, integrated platforms.

Virtual assistants are using machine learning to understand the consumer’s voice, interests, behaviors and intent to give them a better search experience. And with voice-activated devices advancing, consumer’s search behavior is shifting. We’ve mentioned before that voice searches are more conversational and natural. Advertisers now need to focus their content strategy not only around conversational language, but also visuals and the context of the search including the type of device and location.

Image source: PC Magazine