Soon enough, your breakfast bar could be your search bar. Your lamp could be how you shop for lightbulbs. Your Chevy or Ford might be your vehicle for finding a YouTube video, like the classic SNL skit of Chevy Chase’s send-up of President Gerald Ford, to make a long drive less tedious. And you won’t have to lift a finger—all you’ll need to do is turn toward one of those inanimate objects and say something. Welcome to a future where your voice is the main signal for the elaborate data grid known as your life.

Two decades ago when Amazon and Google were founded, only a seer could have predicted that those companies would eventually start turning the physical world into a vast, voice-activated interface. Artificial intelligence-powered voiceis what perhaps makes Amazon and Google the real duopoly to watch (sorry, Facebook), as their smart speakers—2-year-old Amazon Echo and 8-month-old Google Home—are gaining traction. Forty-five million voice-assisted devices are now in use in the U.S., according to eMarketer, and that number will rise to 67 million by 2019. Amazon Echo, which utilizes the ecommerce giant’s voice artificial intelligence called Alexa, owns roughly 70 percent of the smart speaker market, per eMarketer.

“Our vision is that customers will be able to access Alexa whenever and wherever they want,” says Steve Rabuchin, vp of Amazon Alexa. “That means customers may be able to talk to their cars, refrigerators, thermostats, lamps and all kinds of devices in and outside their homes.”


While brand marketers are coming to grips with a consumer landscape where touch points mutate into listening points, search marketing pros are laying important groundwork by focusing on what can be done with Amazon Echo and Google Home (the latter of which employs a voice AI system called Assistant). With voice replacing fingertips, search is ground zero right now when it comes to brands.

But how will paid search figure into it all?

Gummi Hafsteinsson, Google Assistant product lead, says that, for now, the goal is to create a personalized user experience that “can answer questions, manage tasks, help get things done and also have some fun with music and more. We’re starting with creating this experience and haven’t shared details on advertising within the Assistant up to this point.”

While Hafsteinsson declined further comment about ads, agencies are now preparing for them. “In the near term, [organic search] is going to be the way to get your brands represented for Google Home,” says 360i president Jared Belsky, who points to comScore data that forecasts 50 percent of all search will be via voice tech by 2020. “Then ultimately, the ads auction will follow. You’ll be bidding to get your brand at the top of searches. I believe that’s the way it will go. Think about it—it has to.”

Jeremy Lockhorn, vp of emerging media at SapientRazorfish, remarks, “The specificity of voice search combined with what any of the platforms are already able to surmise about your specific context [such as current location] should ultimately result in more personalized results—and for advertisers, more narrowly targeted.”

Brands—which are accustomed to being relatively satisfied when showing up in the top five query results on desktops and phones—should brace for a new search reality, Belsky warns, where they may have to worry about being in either the first or second voice slot or else risk not being heard at all. “There’s going to be a battle for shelf space, and each slot should theoretically be more expensive,” he says. “It’s the same amount of interest funneling into a smaller landscape.”

Scott Linzer, vp of owned media at iCrossing, adds that consumers may not “find it an inviting or valuable-enough experience to listen to two, three or more search results.”

Marketer interest in voice search is downright palpable in some circles. Fresh off a tour of client visits in Miami, Dallas, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis, 360i’s Belsky reports that “every CMO, every vp of marketing and, especially, every ecommerce client is asking about this subject first and foremost. And they have three questions. ‘What should I do to prepare for when voice is the driver of ecommerce?’ The second one is, ‘What content do I have to think about to increase my chances to be the preferred answer with these devices?’ And, ‘Will all my search budget one day migrate onto these devices?’ There’s not obvious answers to any of these questions. Being early to all of this means you get the spoils.”

National Public Radio may not seem like an obvious media brand when it comes to being an early AI adopter, but the 47-year-old news organization has moved quickly in the space. Its news, music and storytelling app, NPR One, is evidently infused with machine learning, offering listeners curated options based on their shown preferences. And the organization extended the reach of NPR One’s content by inking a deal with Amazon Alexa in February. Since then, the phrase, “Alexa, play NPR News Now,” has been regularly heard in 400,000 homes that use the service. Additionally, NPR One has functionalities that its corporate sponsors have appreciated for some time; in particular, letting brands get extended audio mobile messaging when consumers want to hear more.

“They can press a button on the phone to hear more about what [carmaker] Kia is doing around innovation,” says Meg Goldthwaite, NPR’s marketing chief. Is voice-enabled digital advertising—where the listener asks for more Kia content and perhaps even fills out a test-drive form—right around the bend for NPR? “It’s absolutely possible,” she says.

Goldthwaite is probably onto something. Last year, IBM launched Watson Ads, which lets viewers “talk” with a brand’s ad and request additional info. Toyota, Campbell Soup and Unilever have tested the units, often averaging between one and two minutes of engagement, per Big Blue. “We have already begun to see that consumers are spending more time with these cognitive ads than with other digital ads,” says Carrie Seifer, CRO for the IBM Watson content and IoT platform.

Imagine being able to talk to video ads via Amazon Echo Show, a smart screen that comes juiced with Alexa voice functionalities. Costing $230, the device shipped in late June and provides a glimpse into next-gen households of the 2020s with talking screens, holograms, appliances and vehicles that Amazon exec Rabuchin alluded to.

“Voice is a productivity tool,” remarks Linda Boff, CMO of GE. Her company provides an intriguing business-to-business example of how AI-based utilities will soon help enormously expensive products like locomotives, jet engines and turbines sell themselves. For instance, GE has developed a prototype that lets an otherwise insentient locomotive send a voice message to a repair technician describing what needs to be fixed. It’s part of GE’s Digital Twin program, which creates 3-D representations of industrial assets and can process information gathered from individual machines globally to better inform decisions. It’s essentially machine-based crowdsourcing for when trains need to fill up on digital feedback instead of diesel fuel.

“The twin can call you and tell you, ‘I have an issue with my rotor,’” explains Colin Parris, vp, GE Software Research, who reveals that his brand’s voice AI features will roll out widely in 2018. “It can provide basic information that a service rep would want. Like, ‘What was the last journey you took? How many miles did you travel?’”

Staples also plans to flip the switch on its b-to-b voice AI initiative early next year. In  partnership with IBM Watson, the retailer’s Easy Button—a fixture in its TV spots—will add an intelligent, voice-activated ordering service, which already has been tested in recent months by office managers with enterprise clients.

The business supplies chain is practically providing a step-by-step tutorial on how to build such an Echo-like device. Teaming with conversational design and software company Layer, Staples first built an AI-anchored chat app and carefully analyzed the conversations.

“It helped us narrow down our use cases and create more robust experiences around the core challenges we were trying to solve,” says Ian Goodwin, head of Staples’ applied innovation team. “Once we got a really good idea of what our customers were asking on chat channels, then we built the voice experience with the Easy Button. It was really a gradual ramp-up rather than just going out and doing it.”

Indeed, voice AI probably shouldn’t be rushed to market. One company that understands that is Trunk Club, a Nordstrom-owned men’s clothier that recently rejected an offer from Amazon to be a fashion partner for Echo. Justin Hughes, Trunk Club’s vp of product development, isn’t AI-averse—he’s hoping to use voice activation in the next 18 months to spur his company’s subscriptions-based sales. But the timing with Amazon wasn’t right for his brand.

“If you are going to purchase between $300 and $1,000 of clothes, we don’t want it to be a weird experience—we want it to be something you return to often,” Hughes says. “There is so much imperfection in voice AI right now; it can be clunky.”

The vp also pointed to an elephant in the room—data ownership—when it comes to retailers partnering with Amazon or Google. “We just don’t want to give them all of our talk tracks,” Hughes says.

What’s more, hackers in the future might find a way to siphon off data collected from various “listening points” in homes and offices. Just last spring, Burger King caught considerable heat from privacy advocates after its television spot—which, in spite of the brouhaha, won a Cannes Grand Prix—hacked Google Home devices around the country.

The last thing voice-focused marketers want is Uncle Sam on the case. “As in-home, voice-controlled AI technology becomes even more prevalent and evolves in terms of substance—more capable of offering real answers to real questions—marketers will need to be increasingly careful to properly follow FTC disclosure and advertising guidelines,” notes advertising lawyer Ronald Camhi.

And since voice AI could greatly impact search-driven commerce, it’d probably be wise for Amazon and Google to encourage industry best practices. Then again, they might want to actually form a larger circle that also includes Facebook, Apple, Samsung and Microsoft. Facebook last week purchased AI startup Ozlo and is rumored to be developing speaker technology of its own. Apple has star power in Siri, and Samsung in late July debuted voice capabilities for its assistant, Bixby. Also, Microsoft will continue to market its AI assistant, Cortana, in hopes of getting a significant piece of voice real estate.

Says Abhisht Arora, general manager of search and AI marketing at Microsoft, “Our focus is to go beyond voice search to create an assistant that has your back.”