AT&T eyes programmatic giant AppNexus for $1.6bn

US telco AT&T is reportedly in talks to snap up ad tech firm AppNexus for a possible $1.6bn (£1.2bn), according to Wall Street Journal, in a move that would equip it with firepower enough to take on the likes of Facebook and Google in the advertising space.

The news emerges just a week after AT&T’s $85bn (£64bn) acquisition of Time Warner, while a bid for the New York programmatic specialist would likely be backed by the complete buyout of Otter Media, a video streaming company already part-owned by the telco, and a number of smaller ad tech deals.

Following AT&T’s purchase of the media giant, the group’s CEO, Randall Stephenson, told CNBC there would be further mergers to cement an advancement in advertising; “You should expect some smaller, not like Time Warner, but some smaller M&A in the coming weeks to demonstrate our commitment”.

Meanwhile, asked about an upcoming play for AppNexus, AT&T advertising and analytics CEO, Brian Lesser, reportedly didn’t confirm, but did concede that, “we need more tech”.

‘More tech’

Since his appointment to the role last year, having previously served as GroupM North American CEO and as a board member of AppNexus itself, Lesser has been tasked with advancing the telco’s ad business based on data from its TV, mobile and broadband services.

He’s also tasked with managing ad inventory on the company’s pay-TV offering, of which AT&T is now the largest provider in the US following the acquisition of DirecTV. However, given a slowdown in subscriber rates, AT&T is moving towards an ad-supported streaming service, DirecTV Now.

This is where AppNexus could be a real boon; as AT&T would be looking to tap into its wealth of user data to target and serve different ads to different households, known as addressable advertising, the ad tech could provide the full platform, technology and know-how to achieve this.

In terms of competing against the ad tech dominators, Facebook and Google, and to a slightly lesser extent Netflix, a merger would allow AT&T to fully capitalise on its masses of hard-to-come-by wireless consumer data and a range of ad formats including TV and digital video.

– by Mark Jones

Google announces new YouTube tools for advertisers

Google has announced the release of four new tools for YouTube to help capture the attention of viewers.

Google knows all too well about the importance of catching consumer attention with advertising. In an ever-connected world, where we watch TV while flicking idly through our phones or listen to podcasts while working, advertising is everywhere and consumer attention is a valuable commodity.

And while the majority of us have seemingly developed an ability to tune out TV adverts or billboards as we go about our days, the ability does not seem to extend to the world of online video.

The company has conducted research with Ipsos that shows that people are three times more likely to pay attention to online video ads when compared to television ads. And within online video, people pay twice as likely to pay attention to YouTube ads then those on other social media. The reason for this is likely that people go to the site specifically to watch videos, which is not always the case with other social media.

Here is a rundown of the new tools.

Custom Affinity Audiences

Since January, Google has been working on bringing the success it has had with search marketing to video. The key is intention. Campaigns that use intent-based audiences on mobile have 20% higher ad recall lift and 50% higher brand awareness when compared to those demographic audiences.

The company is expanding the ways people can use the Google ecosystem using Custom Affinity Audiences to deliver more relevant, useful as on YouTube. It is now possible to serve ads based the kind of searches users do, as well as the places they go and the apps they use.

Director Mix

Director Mix is designed to simplify the process of making different versions of the same content that are tailored for distinct audiences. By putting in the fundamental elements of your video ad (such as voiceovers, background and copy), the system will create hundreds of different versions to match whatever audience segments you are targeting.

Video Ad Sequencing

Video ad sequencing allows brands to create “an ad experience that unfolds over time”. A new feature in AdWords Labs let you tie together content in ways that react to the ways that customers react to ads and take them down different paths.

For instance, you start with an introductory ad that builds awareness and then continue with longer spots that communicate specific product attributes or pain point solutions.

Measuring sales lift

Finally, Google is releasing a new global approach to measuring sales lift. Based on the Nielsen Matched Panel Analysis, the geo-based solution is a fast way to work out with online ads drive to offline sales.

Taken together, YouTube hopes that this suite of new tools will help people create ads “that are relevant and useful, so that instead of interrupting people’s viewing experiences, you’re enhancing them.”

– by Colm Hebblethwaite

YouTube tweaks monetisation model in response to ‘adpocalypse’

Social video sharing platform YouTube is rolling out a “channel membership” paid subscription option to its top creators, following criticism that its latest ad policies make it hard for publishers to earn money.

In a model already employed by competitors such as Twitch and Patreon, the platform will let publishers with more than 100,000 fans charge $4.99 a month for access to exclusive content, while those with over 10,000 followers will be able to host live-streamed “premieres” and advertise merchandise beneath their videos.

YouTube updated its advertising policies in the wake of a number of complaints about popular brand ads appearing next to inappropriate content on the site, branding a large portion of videos “unsuitable for advertisers”.

However, this prompted a backlash from YouTube’s video-maker community who called the update the “adpocalypse”, many of which saw their income from advertising fall as a result.

Competitor pressure

The announcement from YouTube comes just days after Facebook launched Instagram TV (IGTV), enabling users to publish vertical videos of up to 60 minutes long on the popular photo-sharing app, in what Marketing Tech reported to be a bid to move in on YouTube’s long-form influencer marketing ad revenue.

While YouTube may have reacted to early rumours in launching its membership options today, it’s more likely the platform has been reconsidering its monetisation strategies in recent months in order to catch up with aforementioned rivals, Twitch and Patreon.

However, the launch of IGTV may have thrown a spanner in this plan, attracting influencers currently active on both YouTube and Instagram to consolidate their efforts onto the app, which may eventually result in a migration of some of its key creators.

Speaking to BBC News, editor of YouTube magazine TenEighty, Alex Brinnand, said; “Creators are largely in favour of the direct-to-creator monetisation options, as it offers them higher revenue from people who are passionate about watching their content.

“This is something we’ve seen on crowd-funding platforms for a long time now, so it is really interesting to see the online video industry adopt this revenue model.”

– by Mark Jones

Are structure and process the glue that holds marketing, technology and creativity together?

Consumers like to feel a human connection to the brands they love. Whether it’s through empowering athlete endorsements like Nike or connection to an inspiring founder like Virgin, humanity is a critical element in successful marketing. That’s why it’s somewhat ironic that while a human touch in brands is more important than ever, the behind-the-scenes technology that makes marketing scalable has also exploded in recent years.

According to a prediction made in 2016 by Gartner, chief marketing officers (CMOs) would spend more on technology than chief information officers (CIOs) by 2017. Today, in more than 30 per cent of organisations, at least some aspects of sales, IT and customer experience now report to the CMO, suggesting that Gartner’s prediction is inching ever closer. The challenge is to ensure that the right technology is being used in the right way, in order to encourage marketing and creative excellence, rather than stifle it.

With consumers interacting with brands through an increasing number of channels, marketers are being held to greater accountability when it comes to measuring the performance of each. The level of customer targeting available today, coupled with the measurement capability of most marketing tech means marketers have the power to make an even more significant impact on the commercial success of the businesses they work for – and businesses are demanding aggressive tactics.

If you add into the mix a commitment to streamline processes within the marketing department, this perfect storm could prove a true game-changer for all marketers and the businesses they serve.

Process is not a dirty word

According to an article in Harvard Business Review, “firms with strong managerial processes perform significantly better on high-level metrics such as productivity, profitability, growth, and longevity”. Top performing teams are 75 per cent more productive and businesses that implement best-in-class management practices experience 25 per cent faster annual growth.

Typically, the biggest cost in a marketing team is people. As a result, the only way to drive efficiency is to cut out the cognitively routine, mundane work these teams are doing, in order to free up their time to do the real value-add stuff. Doing this requires visibility into the work that is being done and an approach to efficiency that is more akin to the assembly lines of old.

An “assembly line” sounds rather old fashion for a modern marketing organisation, but giving workers the ability to execute work efficiently as it arrives to them should not be an outdated concept. There is a plethora of technology available today – from project management to collaboration platforms – to help marketers work in a more agile way and streamline processes. These systems can give CMOs the confidence to work in a demanding work environment, knowing deadlines are being hit and high-quality work is getting done.

How to build technology into the marketing discipline

An overview of the most recent marketing technology landscape highlights no less than 5,000 marketing technology tools. This makes it almost impossible for CMOs to know what technology tools to use, and when in a company’s growth to deploy them.

If CMOs are going to embrace their new role as one of the main technology purchasers/ users within an organisation, it needs to be approached with a firm eye on the business needs. Here’s a quick head start:

  • Where are the problem areas? Take a long look at the way your marketing team operates today. Are you consistently hitting deadlines on time? Are you keeping over-service to a minimum? Do you track the ROI of your campaigns? And when you need this data, are you able to obtain it easily – or does it cost hours upon hours of time pulling reports together?
  • Are we working well together as a team and across the organisation? The most efficient businesses have a high degree of interaction across teams. To deliver high quality of service to customers, it’s critical to examine how that interaction is occurring. While chat tools may be better in some respects than email, neither may be enough to bring organisation to your workflow and collaboration behaviours.
  • How can I ask for more, without prompting burnout? Getting team members to take accountability for the work, and ensure they are working on the right stuff is at the heart of productivity. Ensuring your team has access to the right information and context will enable better decision-making at every level. Collaboration technology has the potential to add a layer of transparency to facilitate this decision-making. Finding solutions that empower the team can be a big boost to morale as well.
  • What challenges am I up against? The single most important step is to work out exactly what you do now and what you want the technology to achieve. Then you need to look at your organisation’s culture around deploying new technology and think about how you can ensure that bringing in a new tool will genuinely enhance productivity.

Aim for operational excellence

Technology is having a transformative effect on the marketing industry as a whole, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. From audience analysis tools, sophisticated chatbots, to team collaboration platforms, marketers are embracing new technologies to improve their speed of delivery, quality of work and ability to provide customised offerings for each individual.

We mustn’t lose sight of the ultimate driver – business success. Pursuing a culture of operational excellence in every corner of a business’s operations in a managed, coordinated and seamless way will be an important key to that success.

– by Frazier Miller

Apple takes aim at Facebook user tracking features

Apple has announced it will be making efforts to block Facebook’s user tracking tools within the next iteration of its iOS and Mac operating systems.

Announced at its WWDC developer conference yesterday (June 4), the tech firm’s software chief, Craig Federighi, said on the social network’s automatic tracking features, “we’re shutting that down”.

Those tracking tools in question allude to Facebook’s like buttons, share buttons and comment fields, which when integrated on a publisher’s site – even if not interacted with directly by the user – can be used to track users across the web using a cookie, providing advertisers with a wealth of valuable data on users’ browsing habits.

This is available to all other pages with the features integrated; a substantial amount given that the buttons are a requirement for any site wanting to drive traffic from Facebook.

When unveiling the new features on Safari – which will request via popup for user permission before allowing Facebook to attach a cookie – Apple’s Federighni made little effort to hide the firm’s disdain for user-tracking techniques.

“We’ve all seen these – these like buttons, and share buttons and these comment fields. Well it turns out these can be used to track you, whether you click on them or not,” said Federighni, according to BBC News.

“Do you want to allow Facebook.com to use cookies and available data while browsing? You can decide to keep your information private.”

With certain sources believing the move could throw down the gauntlet for other browsers to follow suit, the update will change how Safari loads content and the level of information it provides while doing so, with browsers typically releasing data to any plugin that requests it.

But while Facebook was the only company directly called out on stage, the change could have similar implications to its key competitor in ad tech Google, which also relies on tracking users to deliver targeted ads.

In addition to the browser update, Apple also revealed it would be rolling out an update to MacOS Mojave that would crack down on ‘fingerprinting’, where advertisers aim to tracked users who delete their cookies by identifying configuration details such as fonts and plug-ins installed.

Apple will therefore present web pages with less detail about a user’s specific computer; “As a result your Mac will look more like everyone else’s Mac, and it will be dramatically more difficult for data companies to uniquely identify your device,” said Federighi.

– by Mark Jones

Google scraps 12-vendor cap on GDPR consent tool for publishers

With the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) now in full swing, Google has made a surprising u-turn on its consent management platform (CMP) policy.

The Alphabet-owned search giant has scrapped what was a 12-vendor limit for publishers that used its Funding Choices CMP, used to gain the consent of users to access their data to improve ad personalisation in line with new European data regulations.

The former policy was applied based on tests by Google which found users are more likely to opt-in when fewer vendors are listed in the consent pop-up, becoming negligible when this figure is more than 12.

In efforts to balance this, however, Google’s CMP will now allow users to click through to vendors’ individual policy pages, before selecting a ‘Yes/No’ option for consent as with the previous iteration.

Mixed reception

The surprise reversal was described as a “monster win” by one industry news outlet, having put heavy restrictions on the number of publishers’ third-party integrations vying for integration (which can often run into the hundreds), in what members previously thought was a play by Google to accrue more power and undermine the “open ecosystem”.

Others have regarded Google’s move as a caving in of pressure to align its consent framework more closely with that of the IAB’s (Interactive Advertising Bureau), in the wake of wider concerns about its potential to hamper innovation within ad tech.

Speaking to AdAge, CEO of publisher trade body Digital Content Next, Jason Kint, called the turn-around a “sad attempt” to win over the ad tech industry while continuing to maintain dominance of the supply chain.

A spokesperson for Google, meanwhile, claimed the decision was based on both publisher feedback and discourse with the IAB, and that Funding Choices had been operating in beta, and as such, was never finalised.

– by Mark Jones

Why design-driven companies cut through to customers

Twenty years ago Joseph Pine and James Gilmore welcomed us all to the “Experience Economy” in the Harvard Business Review (HBR). They claimed that ‘services’ alone were not enough to satisfy experience-hungry consumers, and that “staging experiences” would generate more value. Although the examples they used were more physical experiences (aka Niketown) than digital experiences, they had rightly identified a pivotal moment in history.

One month after the HBR article was published, Larry Page and Sergey Brin set up Google. One year later, Steve Jobs returned to Apple as CEO. Fast forward through the digital revolution to 2018, and the concept of experience – and indeed of the economy – is inextricably linked with technology. Now when we talk about experience we can’t help but talk about tech stacks, data integration, omni-channel and mobile. Viewed from the top down, the experience economy is pretty bewildering.

Despite their increasing age, even Pine and Gilmore offer us a way out of this most modern situation. They had put forward five “design principles” to help navigate the new landscape. The principles themselves have dated somewhat but the idea that design can solve big problems and unlock opportunities is resurgent.

Inspired by the success of Apple, and by the design-driven approach to CX taken by many others – from Audi and Capital One to Airbnb and Monzo – more and more companies are turning to design as a means of delivering awesome CX. And it is working.

According to the Design Management Institute, design-driven companies outperformed the S&P 500 by 219% between 2005 and 2015. In the Digital Trends report, design-driven companies were 69% more likely than their peers to have surpassed their business goals last year. In a separate Forrester paper entitled ‘Design-Led Firms Win The Business Advantage’ 41% of the same reported greater market share and 85% listed design as a critical component of their brand.

Design-driven companies:

  •      Consciously put the customer first
  •      Use tools or systems to test ideas with customers
  •      Involve design teams in shaping digital CX strategy
  •      Facilitate cross-functional collaboration and a culture of creativity
  •      Refine business strategy to invest in solving the most promising opportunities

Forrester also audited IBM’s design thinking practice and concluded that “human-centred design improved product outcomes, reduced the risk of costly failures, and increased portfolio profitability”. They claimed that design thinking could greatly accelerate speed to market too.

But design is not just for commercial benefit, it has a vital emotional value too. By focussing on people in the design process, the experiences we create can be tailored to the needs of people going about their everyday life. Those needs may be both functional and emotional. At VCCP iX we call this process Emotive Design and it represents an opportunity for brands to respond to our very own ‘pivotal moment’.

With so much noise about the negative impacts of digital experiences – on mental health, child development, relationships and even democracy – now is a great time to become more design-driven. Indeed it is becoming an imperative for brands to design experiences that create a more holistic benefit for the end user. More broadly this is part of a design movement that encourages “Time Well Spent”.

No doubt the 2019 Digital Trends report will rank CX as the number one priority as they did for 2018, and rightly so. With 73% of this year’s crop claiming that their companies are investing in design to differentiate their brand, there is reason to believe that next year we will hear more about the benefits of becoming design-driven too. Time well spent indeed.

– by Adrian Gans

Mobile advertising to win third of global budgets by 2020

Mobile advertising is on track to account for 30.5% of global spend by 2020 to total $187bn (£142bn), according to Zenith’s Advertising Expenditure Forecasts, published yesterday (June 19).

That figure is more than double the $88bn spend predicted on desktop advertising and just $5bn shy of television. By 2021, however, mobile advertising is expected to “comfortably” overtake TV.

This cosmic rise is a direct result of consumers switching out the desktop for the anywhere-anytime convenience of mobile, while new users are bypassing desktop altogether. As a result, ad dollars on the smaller screen are expected to shoulder out significant market share from most other mediums, growing an average of 21% per year to 2020.

Despite mobile fast pulling ahead, however, Zenith cautions that other media shouldn’t be cast aside, particularly when it comes to acquiring new customers.

“The mobile device in our pockets is becoming the gateway to our media world, but its brand-building capabilities are still in question – simply applying old practices to new technology may not translate to brand growth,” said Vittorio Bonori, Zenith’s global brand president.

Traditional mass media remains key to driving recall; television ads were 53% more effective at driving recall among new or light buyers, while mobile was actually the least effective at 41%. On the other hand, mobile ads targeted at existing customers can help brands achieve short-term performance targets, so it’s wise for brands to reserve some budget for both for a fully-complementary strategy.

“Having a clear understanding of how the entire ecosystem of paid, owned and earned media works together to drive return on investment is vital,” added Bonori.

APAC to dominate

When it comes to ad growth on the global playing field, Zenith predicts stable growth of 4.5% this year, a 0.3% hike on 2017, continuing its comfortable growth projection of between 4%-5% maintained since 2011.

Looking to the Asia Pacific (APAC) region, however, and things are slightly different. The market is set to contribute 43% of new ad dollars to the $75bn (£57bn) global market between 2017-2020, amounting to $32bn (£24bn).

This growth is largely driven by China which accounts for 22% of global growth alone, followed by India (5%), Indonesia (4%), Japan (3%), the Phillippines (3%), and South Korea (2%), while APAC as a whole will account for 33.8% of global ad spend in 2020, up from 32.6% in 2017.

Boasting a precarious status as the largest advertising region, North America is falling behind in terms of growth, expected to contribute a lesser 27% of new ad dollars by 2020, while its share of global ad spend slips from 37.1% to 36%.

“Dynamic markets in Asia Pacific are leading the way in global ad spend growth, growing at 5-6% a year,” said Jonathan Barnard, Zenith’s head of forecasting and director of global intelligence; “By the middle of the next decade it will be the biggest advertising region in the world.”

– by Mark Jones

The HTTPS deadline and what it means for your website

2018, the year of deadlines. Or, more specifically, the year of internet security deadlines. It turns out that the EU isn’t the only entity setting deadlines for us to up our online security game. Now, Google is throwing its weight around too.

Google has slowly been encouraging stronger security practices over the past few years. Earlier this year, Google announced a deadline for websites to upgrade from HTTP to HTTPS. That deadline is almost upon us: July 2018.

But what’s the difference between HTTP and HTTPS, and what does the deadline mean for websites? Howard Williams, marketing director at Parker Software, investigates.

More than just a letter

First, what does the HTTP or HTTPS terminology mean? Both HTTP and HTTPS are protocols – a set of rules and procedures – for transmitting data between electronic devices. They are most commonly used to tell devices how to transfer data between your website pages and the web server.

The difference between HTTP and HTTPS is more than just sticking an ‘s’ on the end, it’s a question of security. HTTP stands for hypertext transfer protocol and HTTPS stands for hypertext transfer protocol secure.

Unlike HTTP, HTTPS encrypts the data you send and receive when using a website. So, if anyone tries to access the information you’re sending through your browsing session, they won’t be able to read it. HTTP, meanwhile, makes any data being transferred insecure. For ecommerce sites, this can include data such as card information for online payments, and login credentials.

Upgrading to HTTPS, then, means you’re providing a higher level of data protection and security to your website visitors.

Google and the deadline

As of July this year, with the release of Chrome 68, Google will be explicitly warning your website visitors if a site is insecure, based on whether it’s HTTP or not.

Chrome has a 58%+ market shareof worldwide internet browser use. For reference, the second highest used browser worldwide is Safari at around 14%. With such a monopoly on the way we access the web, Google’s deadline has some serious weight behind it. If you don’t make the change from HTTP to HTTPS, you could be facing a significant negative impact on your website’s performance.

After all, data protection and data security are a hot topic at the moment. Consumers are more awareof their data privacy than ever before, and less keen to take risks. This means that you need to go beyond compliance with new legislation like GDPR, and actively reach your visitor’s new security expectations. Google’s deadline might seem like a pain, but it could be helping you stay in the running for customer attention.

Impact of missing Google’s deadline

In our post-GDPR world, people are more in controlof the data they transmit and share with businesses online. So, when Google starts flagging up your website as ‘not secure’, even loyal customers will consider jumping ship.

The lack of security from HTTP sites means that Chrome – and your online visitors – will no longer trust your website. So, failing to meet Google’s deadline could cause a rise in website bounce rates, as the ‘not secure’ that will be predominantly displayed in the address bar scares visitors away. Sites that remain HTTP are also likely to take a hit to conversions, as customers won’t feel confident sharing payment information with your site.

To add salt to the wound, HTTPS is also a known ranking signalfor Google. So, when the deadline hits, it’s likely that any HTTP sites left will also see a drop in their organic search rankings. In other words, if you choose to ignore Google’s deadline, it will prove costly in more ways than one.

Benefits of updating to HTTPS

Complying with Google’s deadline will prevent the costs of staying HTTP. No alarm bells will ring upon site entry, and customers are less likely to feel concern around doing business with you.

Aside from the effect that Google’s influence will have, there are other benefits to having a HTTPS website rather than HTTP. Even if Google hadn’t imposed a July 2018 deadline, increased website security is another way to attract customers and start building a stronger relationship.

Using HTTPS means that you can use your website security to help you competefor customer attention. You can demonstrate that you are actively taking measures to meet their high security expectations. Once you have customer attention on your site, the promise of data security will help you build trust and confidence – two ingredients that are key to conversions.

So, using a HTTPS domain doesn’t just comply with Google’s deadline, but helps you attract and convert customers in a competitive online market.

Security isn’t an option

Putting Google’s deadline aside for moment, the most important reason for updating from HTTP to HTTPS is that you are offering a more secure website to your customers. Google is merely providing more of an incentive by penalising you for not offering it.

So, thanks (in part) to Google, a secure site is a necessity. But, with your new HTTPS label, you add another feather to your cap and are able to demonstrate to customers that you take their data security seriously.

So, if you haven’t already, now is the time to make the change to HTTPS.

– by Howard Williams

Joining the VUI conversation: The challenges and benefits of voice user interfaces for marketers

Voice user interface (VUI) development has been opened up to brands, people and developers vying for a share of voice in this new, noisy marketplace by both Amazon and Google who have created free ‘skill’ or ‘action’ building platforms for their market-leading personal voice assistants. Although this accessible technology is exciting, it is still in the early stages of adoption and presents a steep learning curve – for both brands and customers. In this world, everyone’s a beginner.

VUI as the solution for a genuine customer problem

While it’s tempting to use VUI as a platform for a brand’s personality and tone of voice to run free, marketers need to champion clarity and purpose above all else. There are some important considerations marketers should take on board to overcome the unique challenges posed by delivering a positive brand experience in a voice environment – from development practicalities, voice and language design to the all-important user experience.

First, marketers need to consider the desire of their customers to engage in conversation with a brand via VUI apps. The vast majority of successful and well used voice services are swift, transactional and compliment other channels. Users of VUI devices don’t want long, drawn-out conversations with Alexa or whichever assistant they’re talking to. The interactions they appreciate most are short, clear and direct. They have a goal they wish to achieve – tomorrow’s weather, the latest podcast episode, something to cook tonight – and providing the easiest, most direct route to that piece of content will create the best customer experience.

Marketers entering into this little-known territory will find many aspects of voice interfaces that are quite different to graphical user interfaces (GUI), posing some interesting challenges. Although marketers are used to creating engaging, content-rich websites, this approach doesn’t apply to voice devices. If VUI users want more content, they’ll ask. In fact, pushing lots of related content or allowing your assistant to go on long, conversational monologues will only frustrate your customer.

If you are trying to use VUI for any other reason than helping your customer solve a problem you know they have, then quit while you’re ahead and save your development budget. As with all technology, trying to find the problem for a solution won’t help your customer, but will damage your brand experience.

Collaboration is key

Voice-driven interactions require a seismic shift in approach. The traditional waterfall working model – where each department completes their contribution to a project before the next department starts working – just doesn’t work for VUI currently.

True collaboration is required to work on VUI marketing projects, with the user experience, copy and development people all overcoming the challenges together. Creating user journeys isn’t possible without language input; likewise, creative ideation isn’t possible without understanding the practicalities of development. Working alongside each other from the outset makes the project more efficient, more cost-effective and more enjoyable for the team. Ultimately, this approach will achieve the marketing goal of creating a better brand experience for the customer.

Finding your brand’s voice

In a world entirely driven by language and sound, it’s tempting for marketers to try to create a brand conversation, mimicking real dialogue and allowing both participants to shape the conversation. Whilst it is vital to maintain a consistent brand personality with other customer touchpoints, in a VUI world, common real-life speech patterns, such as open questions, cause a myriad of problems – for the developer, customer journeys become unpredictable and unhelpful, while users become overwhelmed and often stop responding at all. Instead, simple, jargon-free language should guide brand scripts, with pops of personality and creativity saved for occasional utterances where there’s no chance a customer might misinterpret what you’re saying.

As great as the possibilities of VUI are, the limitations are even greater. It’s incredibly difficult to synthesise natural dialogue, for example. The devices have set listening times, affecting the kind of interactions you can create. Moreover, the ability of VUI to mimic the intonation of speech – known as speech synthesis ability – is also relatively limited. Although in theory SSML (Speech Synthesis Mark-up Language) gives VUI developers control over pitch, pace and emphasis, the results are often more miss than hit. Instead, to achieve natural-sounding speech, we have found using an unnatural amount of punctuation works best, experimenting with different symbols to create just the right rhythm.

User-led interactions

The need to convey information by sound alone also dictates a different UX technique. It’s normal to display a list of available options in web design but trying to replicate this on VUI presents a whole new challenge. Unlike in GUI, the VUI user is heavily reliant on their short-term memory, so options have to be limited and delivered in a way doesn’t overwhelm the listener. With wordy options, it’s recommended to reduce list items to no more than three. Content-heavy brands, such as newspapers, need to be particularly careful how they surface lists of content.

And even when you’ve presented a list of options carefully crafted for the listener, the challenges for marketers don’t stop there. With VUI, the user has complete autonomy and freedom, introducing unpredictability that’s hard for brands to deal with. In web design, if you present the user with three choices – click here, here, or here – they’re limited to those options, or can choose to navigate off the page all together. In VUI, even if you present the user with a finite set of options – do you want A or B? – the user can still say whatever they like.

If you present a customer with two options ­- meat or vegetarian – and they say “soup”, how do you deal with that? One way would be to repeat the options, emphasising that there are only two choices; but that could be patronising to the user. Alternatively, you could try interpreting the user’s response as best you can. But be aware, you want to avoid an error spiral.

Instead, marketers need to dedicate time to considering the best way to handle errors. What are your responses when the user says something unexpected? What personality do you want to convey? No matter how thoroughly you map your customer journeys, you need to plan for the unforeseen.

Conclusion

With voice already becoming mainstream and set to be incorporated into many more devices and interfaces it’s an area ripe for experimentation and a great opportunity to extend your brand experience into a new and exciting world. However, it is still new. To embrace it, ensure you understand its intricacies – play with competitor services, research the platform, use a voice specific design stack, and engage a multidisciplinary team. Most importantly experiment and test with real users. It is easy to forget that your brand will be speaking in a customer’s home where tolerance and patience are short, and boredom sets in quickly. Bring an extraordinary brand experience into your customers home. Remember, less is more, so focus on the key benefits you know customers want and say a lot about your brand with as little as possible.

– by Iain Millar

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