Home assistants have radically accelerated how easy it is to buy things the moment we need them. Shout “Alexa, I need more Yorkshire Tea” on the way out the door in the morning, and it’s on its way. It’s one of the most potentially significant evolutions in internet retail since m-commerce took off. However, there’s still a way to go before it threatens established ways of buying.
For less common items, products you haven’t bought before, or generic terms, assistants are a search experience in need of a bit of refinement. If instead of ‘Yorkshire Tea’ you shout ‘tea bags’ and the desktop site offers a voice-search defying 79,135 results.
It’s an area where traditional search, on desktop and mobile, has triumphed and been hard to trump. What, you may ask, could make the search experience faster or more intuitive than it already is?
Natural language processing and access to pretty much all the data in the known universe (and, one suspects, a bit more besides) already makes Google’s desktop search currently the most effective way to find anything at all. Search ‘Holly Willoughby’s Dress’ at any given time after This Morning starts airing and the results, plus links, to at least five stockists pop up immediately.
With a number of voice assistants now available on the market, there is stiff competition between the industry leaders; the Amazon Echo and the Google Home. Both devices have recently launched brand new products with great functionality and have the ability to integrate into our homes. Google feels slightly restricted, with only a relatively small number of apps versus the huge number available for Echo. In general retail, the apps on the Echo already present several opportunities but the revenue potential is particularly strong in the fashion sector.
Early attempts to advertise on similar devices such as Google Home have been questionable, which included a Beauty and the Beast advert randomly being included in morning updates and a Burger King advert that activated Google Home to describe the Whopper burger as containing “rat meat.” Our relationship with these devices is much more intimate than even a mobile, and it feels far too intrusive and forced to deliver advertising in this format. But for some reason our relationship with Amazon as a brand is completely different, and we expect them to sell to us. It’s the foundation of the business.
A few months back Echo Look, the Alexa-driven hands-free camera and style assistant, launched its app which works alongside the device itself, allowing Look owners to view and compare outfits and mark their favourites. In this scenario, advertisers could offer complementary accessories or even alternate looks through overlaying its own range.
Theoretically, after trying on an old dress or jacket, the user could stand in front of Echo and think: “What accessories will take me from day to night?”. Ask Alexa to take a selfie then use the Echo Look app to compare your outfit choices, using AI to rate their success.
Then it could overlay other options from third-party advertisers, merchants or even Amazon’s own vertical, online shopping portal AmazonFashion. Throw in Prime Same-Day or 1-hour delivery in cities and you’re good to go.
Echo Show, the Alexa powered seven-inch screen, takes that idea one step further. Designed as not just a command but a communication hub for the home, it incorporates screen calling technology. But from a search and advertising perspective, the possibilities are so much wider.
Google occasionally experiments with rich content in its ads but usually reverts back to text-based sponsored search results. Show has the potential to turn ad content into a beautiful, shoppable user experience. Certainly, it has applications in the day-to-day life of consumers. For example, if a recipe comes up with an unusual ingredient, you can ask Echo Show to show you what you’re looking for.
The fact is that behind the scenes, Amazon is quietly building an ecosystem that is just waiting to be drawn together. The voice command of Alexa, the camera capabilities of Look, the small screen command hub of Show, the forays into streaming, bespoke entertainment content, audiobooks and more only point to a central hub - possibly the Smart TV where the consumer can conduct their whole life without leaving the sofa and not to mention Amazon’s existing ecommerce superiority.
We already know that consumers spend a great deal of time in front of the TV but also on their mobile or tablet. While some of this time is spent on social media sharing snippets or surfing through programming lulls, a great deal of that time is spent searching based on something only just broadcast.
Echo Look and Show are about to take this second screening behaviour to a whole other level. Watching a film and seeing Julia Roberts in the infamous Pretty Woman dress? A selfie from Look could tell you if the style suits your shape or colouring. Show could provide lookalike versions if you’re a Julia in the making; alternatives in a more flattering cut if you don’t share her statuesque frame. Voice would then let you scroll through the options, call up alternatives and hear options you hadn’t considered, all without reaching for the remote.
As Facebook and Snapchat scout for clues about what you’re doing to serve you ads they consider relevant, Amazon is responding to direct requests, showing the consumer exactly what they want, when they want it - with a few well-chosen added extras mined from its unique source of consumer purchasing data.
As many of Forward3D’s clients operate within the fashion and retail markets, we are curious to see how the Amazon Echo will fare in the battle of voice assistants. With Google specialising in search, Apple being known for its hardware and Amazon a retailer, the companies are clearly tackling it very differently. But from a lifestyle or luxury perspective, Amazon has the potential to turn basic search into curated, aspirational content. The trick with the Echo is that most people won’t realise they are being served an ad because they will already be expecting Amazon to make recommendations and that could be the key in fighting off the competition. While advertisers are trying to work out ways around this to engage audiences. And with voice search still in its infancy, the products that Amazon are now offering may well be a triumph of style and substance.
Tom Manning is head of strategy at Forward3D.