Consumers around the world are more frequently starting their online experience with the phrase, “Ok Google.” Over the past few years, digital voice assistants have primarily been used for relatively simple tasks such as checking the weather, playing a song, or turning the lights on. However, these capabilities are expanding every day, and the business implications could be huge.
But as voice recognition technology advances, voice search no longer includes only digital assistants. People are also starting to use voice search and other voice capabilities on mobile devices, in stores, and on smart TVs.
Conversational commerce is on the rise in a number of ways. For instance, instead of manually searching through multiple streaming platforms to find a specific show, Apple TV users can speak into their remote and retrieve results across multiple apps at once. Retailers are also beginning to use voice search in their brick-and-mortar stores, enabling consumers to quickly learn about product details and where they’re located within the store by speaking into an app.
As online users get more comfortable interacting with digital voice assistants and voice search functions on mobile, in stores, and on televisions on a daily basis, shopping and other forms of commerce will continue to move where the customers are. Even if consumers aren’t yet buying through voice search, voice commerce will become a normal part of everyday life as people begin using the function more regularly to research and build relationships with brands.
What is voice commerce?
Voice commerce is the set of technologies and systems that allow online consumers to use their voice to explore and purchase products. By allowing users to interact with brands through a more conversational interface, businesses can reduce some of the friction of traditional websites and mobile apps and provide a more human experience.
In brick-and-mortar retail, sales representatives provide a human interaction that allows the customers to naturally learn about the products that they may be interested in buying. With the rise of e-commerce, however, much of this experience has been lost and customers have been left to fend for themselves. Voice commerce is a novel way to bridge the gap between the two by adding a layer of conversation on top of computer systems.
While talking to a computer to buy products may sound odd, consumers around the world have actually been interacting with these types of systems for nearly a decade. Popular voice assistants like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa have trained us to ask questions to our devices as we would any other person. As this becomes a more normal and accepted practice, these companies will almost certainly try to better monetize these services by promoting products for purchase.
While voice assistants are still the most popular and recognizable form of voice search, the opportunities go far beyond Siri and Alexa. Consumers are doing research and building relationships with brands through voice, including in mobile apps on smartphones, smart TVs, smart speakers, and even inside stores.
With users beginning to interact with online services in new ways like this, it’s important for e-commerce brands to make themselves easily accessible through such systems and interfaces. No longer is it sufficient to simply have a website and online ads to get users to buy your products.
The importance of voice commerce
Digital voice assistants are expected to rise to 8 billion active units by just 2023—up nearly 2.5x from 2019. By then, the voice commerce market produced by these digital assistants is expected to top $80 billion per year. The implications for brands over the next decade are staggering and should be carefully considered by all e-commerce businesses.
As more consumers start their buying journeys through voice search, the process for navigating different product options and competitive brands will almost certainly change. Paid product placements and large brands will likely dominate for generic product searches and thus smaller businesses will have to rethink how they acquire customers.
While the rise in voice technologies will likely increase competition, it also opens up a number of opportunities for brands of all sizes. If businesses can differentiate their brand image and provide a great experience to their customers, these voice technologies may actually provide a new level of customer loyalty and engagement. The key will be to ensure that your competition doesn’t beat you to providing this level of experience.
The challenges of voice commerce
Voice commerce provides great opportunities for brands to grow and gain loyal customers.
For smaller organizations, the challenge lies in choosing the right voice technology partner, and building your online store (and online presence) in a way that’s compatible with voice search.
For larger organizations with a huge catalog of products, the challenge lies in organizing vast amounts of content in a voice-friendly way.
But regardless of the size of the organization or the online catalog, there are inherent challenges in voice search that need to be solved. Some of these challenges are solved by voice search technology partners, while others require collaboration between the solution provider and the brand.
However, there are a number of concerns that businesses of all sizes will have to work through to get these systems working in a sustainable, long-term manner:
- Natural language. Voice commerce is inherently a difficult technology problem. It requires advanced natural language processing (NLP). For international businesses, this must be done in many different languages and dialects.
- Privacy concerns. Given that voice commerce and natural language processing require users to speak to their devices, companies will need to provide reassurance of privacy to end-users. Many people will only utilize the app if they’re confident that it isn’t listening in on everything or sharing what they’re saying with a third party.
- Lack of trust in the businesses. In addition to technology security concerns, there’s also simply the fact that consumers are losing trust in technology companies. Voice search technology partners will need to establish trust in the marketplace for the technology to be fully adopted. Individual businesses using this technology will have to figure out how to communicate their policies to customers to ensure that they’re comfortable with the information being collected and understand how it’s being used. We’ll likely see some regulatory scrutiny about these practices in the coming years.
- Lack of trust in the ASR/NLU. Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) and Natural Language Understanding (NLU) are key components of voice commerce and allow digital voice assistants to break down and understand language. While people are becoming accustomed to these systems, there are still many that are not comfortable with them yet. Businesses will have to figure out how to train users to trust these systems and assuage public concerns about “big brother” devices in their homes.
Looking ahead: the future of voice commerce
In the short-term, e-commerce brands and technology companies have a number of challenges to work through. They need to continue to improve their natural language processing technology, get users accustomed to using it, set up systems to securely manage the data and satisfy regulations, and figure out the processes of product discovery and transacting.
These issues will resolve themselves—likely fairly quickly—as voice commerce is a much more natural and personal way for users to interact with their favorite brands and websites. As such, consumers will have a much more intuitive online experience and will no longer be bound by a small screen or keyboard. This should open up opportunities for novel new technologies, systems, and businesses.
With all of this change, existing e-commerce brands will need to figure out how to reach customers wherever they are. To do so, they’ll need a strong technology partner that can provide tools for them to reach all of these channels without significant custom development work or expensive technology investments.