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Of all the technologies dreamed up by mid-twentieth century futurists and the creators of The Jetsons, several have become a reality sooner than expected. Handheld supercomputers? Check. Hoverboards? Got ‘em. Video calls? Old news. 

One hallmark of yesterday’s “The Future” hasn’t yet reached the mainstream: voice recognition technology. But it’s getting there, and fast, and it may change the way your marketing strategy works.

Voice-powered search (speaking into your phone instead of typing) is quickly becoming a meaningful part of both the online search and shopping ecosystems. Data from Google shows that 27 percent of the global population is already using voice search on mobile devices, and that group skews heavily towards younger people. For marketers, that means making changes to everything from traffic metrics to how products get seen—or, in this case, heard. 

Voice Recognition, Then and Now

From its inception, the integration of speech into web technologies held a lot of promise: increasing accessibility, maximizing convenience, and speeding up the development of machine learning.

In 1997, Microsoft founder Bill Gates predicted that within 10 years, we’d have “perfected speech recognition and speech output well enough that those will become a standard part of the interface.” And while his timeline was a little ambitious, his forecast is beginning to ring true. Since then, voice recognition has helped make the web a more accessible place; it has also laid the groundwork for major advancements in artificial intelligence (as seen in self-driving cars and lifelike robots that can understand complex commands).  

But Gates also shed light on the emerging race among tech behemoths to do it best (and fastest) for mass markets. By the late 2000s, Google had introduced its voice search function; fast forward to 2022, and voice-powered actions have already crept into our lives in ways previously unimaginable. Amazon, for instance, has an Alexa add-on that lets you square up at any Mobil gas station in America by simply saying, “Alexa, pay for gas.” Need to handle your American Express bill? Command Alexa to “make a payment,” and you’re settled in no time. 

With a new understanding of what hands-free can really mean—a 24/7 personal assistant—the stage is set for wide-scale adoption. 

Assistants Abound

So in the age of the personal assistant, is voice search really changing how commerce is conducted online? 

While both individuals and companies continue to integrate voice technology into their lives and business models, the industry as a whole is steadily growing. Alongside widely available and affordable connected devices, more and more apps electing to include voice interfaces, and a spike in demand for contactless search options in the wake of COVID-19, the market for voice recognition devices is set to reach nearly $30 billion by 2026.

Yet even while the amount of households with voice-enabled devices increases and accuracy improves, some consumers are only partially on board. In a survey conducted by PwC, respondents noted that the top two reasons holding them back from embracing assistants were limited knowledge of what they could truly accomplish and a nagging lack of trust (by nature, voice-based assistants like Alexa are always listening for their “wake word”). 

Still, as PwC outlines, “search, advertising, content, and commerce are being impacted industry-wide as consumers transform the way they interact with brands as a result of voice technology.” 

Where shopping is concerned, both the efficiency and speed of using voice have led to a significant uptake in the last few years alone. Despite the concerns of some consumers, the percentage of adults in the U.S. who have used voice shopping at least once has more than doubled since 2018.

The question, then, is how marketers can stay one step ahead.

The Anatomy of a Voice Search 

While strategists and SEO experts have long agonized over predicting text-based searches and understanding which keywords give their brands a fighting chance to reach consumers, voice search offers a new, more natural, way to make content connect.

Some companies are doubling down and creating their own interfaces, too. Beauty company Estée Lauder developed a voice-powered cosmetics advisor, Liv, which gives users personalized skin care tips based on their queries in real time through a Google Assistant device. It’s a personalized approach that showcases what a voice interface can really do while solidifying trust.

But just because your brand isn’t quite ready for high-profile collaborations, it doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to make an impact during the rise of voice-first interactions.

Consider how you might make an online query to find a cafe on a morning of errands. Odds are, you’ve omitted a few words and come up with something like, “best coffee near me.” As people get more comfortable with voice search, these requests are more likely to reflect normal interactions: “are there any good places to get coffee nearby?”

In short, specificity and user research are the name of the game. That starts with realizing the importance of who, what, where, when, and why. Marketers should examine what questions lead consumers to their products, then dig deeper to analyze keywords and related phrases. Additionally, if there’s a location component, business information needs to be kept up to date and content can be tailored based on cities, regions, and even neighborhoods.

On the more technical side, content marketers have also turned to long-tail keywords in order to maximize voice search traffic. Long-tail keywords are descriptive, highly-specific terms that often have lower search volume. Though at first glance they may appear a risky strategy, these search terms offer a higher return on investment and more closely mirror natural speech patterns.

Will personal, voice-powered assistants rule the future of commerce or remain just one piece of the puzzle? As the technology keeps accelerating and amassing more daily users, now is the time for marketers to stake out their space and look beyond the keyboard.

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