The rise of virtual assistants

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Published: June 5, 2018 1:00 AM

There are Alexa devices like Echo, Tap and Fire TV Stick selling globally which respond to a voice command.

virtual assistants, Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, whatsappSearch is now moving towards voice commands and giants like Google, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are trying their best to bring in the change in consumer behaviour.

As the Alexas and Siris of the world become a part of millennials’ daily habits, marketers are bound to use them as a platform to reach out to their target group.


Search is now moving towards voice commands and giants like Google, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are trying their best to bring in the change in consumer behaviour.

“You have all the information at your fingertips,” is soon going to be replaced by, “You just need to ask for it.” During Google’s annual tech developers conference Google I/O last month, the company’s CEO Sundar Pichai demonstrated something that surprised, if not shocked, the entire world. The company’s Google Assistant made a couple of real phone calls and it was so human-like that the person on the other end could not recognise that she was speaking to a bot. Google Assistant and Amazon’s smart personal assistant Alexa are leaders in the category with Apple’s Siri following behind. Microsoft’s Cortana is still catching up.

There are Alexa devices like Echo, Tap and Fire TV Stick selling globally which respond to a voice command. “In the US, the UK and Germany, the response has been incredibly positive and we have received more than one lakh five-star reviews for Echo devices,” shares Puneesh Kumar, country manager, Alexa experience and devices, Amazon India. “Customers love how the Alexa service is getting smarter every day with the addition of new features; it is becoming a part of their family.”

As of today, the Google Assistant is available across more than 500 million devices; it works with over 5,000 connected home devices and is available in cars of more than 40 brands, informs Scott Huffman, VP — engineering, Google Assistant in the company’s official blog. “Hey Google” or “Alexa” are the commands that wake up these assistants and they respond to queries like, “What is the weather condition?”, “What are the top headlines?”, etc. The assistants also possess capabilities to set reminders, alarm or put items in the shopping list. With so much customer behaviour data at their disposal, can marketers come aboard for fine targeting?

The India story

With the proliferation of smartphones in India over the last few years, the technology usage and adoption habits are changing rapidly, also due to the increasing number of millennials and more affordable data rates. “For long term success of any consumer technology company, the Indian market is very important, which is why Amazon and Google are focussing on India,” says Navkendar Singh, associate director — connected devices, India and South Asia, IDC India.

As per Amazon, thousands of customers in India have already adopted Echo devices and are interacting with Alexa to play music, get news briefs, weather updates, book a ride and more. “We get millions of utterances a week, which is among the highest in all the countries where Echo devices are available currently. These utterances have helped us in improving voice recognition and understanding requirements of Indian users,” informs Kumar.

The company launched in India with 10,000 Alexa skills in October last year and has added over 5,000 skills in just six months. Many developers published skills with an Indian flavour, enabling customers to listen to devotional songs like Hanuman Chalisa, Gayatri Mantra and Vishnu Sahasranamam, find diverse information ranging from Indian pin codes, Indian Presidents to Indian Railways PNR statuses or even playing the Mahabharata quiz and Indian GK Quiz, adds Kumar.

A marketer’s arsenal?

In its recent report, global technology market analyst firm Canalys rated smart speakers as the fastest growing consumer technology segment, with year-on-year growth of 210% in the first quarter of calendar year 2018. As more people start using these devices and voice assistants, marketers will soon start looking at these as tools to reach out to their target groups. Of course, this would require huge amount of work and effort in data mining and customer segmentation, to develop specific conversation and context based marketing campaigns.

Amazon’s Alexa has ‘skills’ which provide brands another way to engage with their customers. “Brands and merchants can use Alexa skills as an additional engagement channel for their goods and services, like Zomato to order food online or Ola to book a ride. Brands can also provide added benefits to their customers,” shares Kumar. For example, Jet Airways and its ‘skill’ that provides flight details using simple voice commands, and skills by Cleartrip and ixigo that can help you plan your next holiday travel.

Tech giants are spending heavy bucks on making virtual assistants as smart as a human being. But how will they make money? “Advertising,” answers Sanchit Vir Gogia, chief analyst, founder and CEO, Greyhound Research. “It is all about data. Essentially, the more data they have about you, the better they know you and the better they are able to sell insights about you to marketers.” Soon, Alexa might respond to a “How to clean a dirty stain?” query with, “You can try Tide stain remover”.

These assistants can promote content from select brands and partners of these platforms (Google and Amazon), and monetise them on the promotion from assistants. “Google and Amazon can charge an affiliate fee for using their platform for marketing. They could also take a certain percentage from select partners when a certain purchase is carried via the assistant which gets credited to the partner’s sale,” Singh muses.

‘Voicing’ the concerns

If the market size is the most lucrative aspect about India, the heterogeneous nature of the country is always a big challenge. There are multiple languages with different dialects. To work around that, Alexa for example currently supports English with an Indian accent and its natural language understanding has been expanded to comprehend context and intent, even if sentences include Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam or Punjabi proper nouns. Language is not the only challenge. Indian marketers like to follow the traditional mode of advertisements. The cost per mile of print is more than TV and digital is the cheapest available medium in the country. “Voice based advertising will take at least two years to take off in a significant way,” adds Gogia.

Currently, advertising through chatbots is growing with HDFC and other brands using them. Businesses are more interested in advertising on WhatsApp, Facebook and Google right now.

Another big challenge that these assistants need to overcome is the threat to privacy. The recent uproar about Alexa recording a private conversation between a lady and her husband, and then sending it to a random contact, has come as a huge blow for the category. “It is a big challenge for these players. Whether you like it or not, there is someone listening to you all the time,” opines Gogia. Given that these assistants are always connected to the internet, risks multiply if they have access to passwords and sensitive information with apps linked to them in a manner that they are vulnerable to being hacked.


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