A Game of Virtual Digital Assistants: the complex future of voice search and AI

Marketers talk about AI-powered digital assistants as if one platform will rule them all – in reality, picking a winner is like predicting the next episode of Game of Thrones

August 9, 2018

A Game of Virtual Digital Assistants: the complex future of voice search and AI

When marketers imagine a future filled with virtual digital assistants, we tend to assume that everyone will have one AI assistant of choice – and that sooner or later, one of those assistants will achieve critical mass amongst the audiences we’re interested in. We know that AI-powered gatekeepers could have a huge influence on the visibility of our brands and their content (ComScore predicts that 50% of all search queries will be voice search queries by 2020). However, we envisage that it’s one form of AI that we’ll be dealing with, it’s one type of algorithm that we need to convince that our content is relevant and value-adding, and one platform controlling which buying choices audiences are presented with.

Sometimes simplifying things is the only way to make planning your marketing strategy manageable. Look at any search marketing blog and you’d be forgiven for thinking that Google is the only significant search engine out there. This is despite the fact that Bing has 33% of the market in the US, 24% in the UK and pretty big slices elsewhere. As marketers, we want a technology standard that we can build our plans and strategies around, and we default to the biggest (Google has 90% of the search market worldwide). However, when it comes to virtual digital assistants, that universal standard just isn’t there. We’d be kidding ourselves to pretend otherwise.

What is a virtual digital assistant anyway?

The distinct empires already carved out by Amazon with Alexa, Google with Google Assistant, Apple with Siri and Microsoft with Cortana will make virtual digital assistants a far more fragmented and complex type of channel. We’re not just dealing with a new type of search engine or media platform. We’re dealing with a whole new marketing and technology game. It’s not Lord of the Rings with one device or assistant to “rule them all”. It’s a Game of Thrones for virtual assistants: a market divided between competing heartlands, and further complicated by important alliances and partnerships between key players.

This space is so dynamic and complex, that it’s worth thinking about what we really mean when we talk about these virtual digital assistants and the layers of AI involved in the answers and advice they give. Which AIs are influencing which audiences – and what can we most effectively measure to keep track of that influence?

AI assistants don’t just live in smart speakers

We can look at the market penetration of smart speakers such as Amazon’s Echo, Google Home, Microsoft’s INVOKE and Apple’s HomePod. After all, it’s smart speakers like these that have made AI-powered, voice-controlled assistants part of the popular consciousness. However, focusing on smart speakers in the home ignores the vast amount of engagement that takes place through smartphones and desktop browsers. As virtual digital assistants start to partner with auto manufacturers, electronic goods companies, media businesses and social platforms, their influence will become even wider ranging and diverse. It goes far beyond one type of device.

The further complication, from a marketing point of view, is deciding which of the AIs involved in a virtual digital assistant is the gatekeeper you need to build your strategy around. When you ask Alexa something through your Echo, it will first attempt to answer from its own knowledge base, including information from its partner media brands, sports broadcasters and music streaming services. If it can’t come up with a smart answer that way, it asks Bing to search the web. If you’re asking Siri, the question passes onto Google. Which of these partners do you most need to influence? Are the questions you are most interested in going to be answered by an AI Assistant’s own algorithms – or by the algorithms of its preferred voice search partner?

Mapping the AI influencers

The data we have shows how complex this could become. The competing virtual digital assistants have different roles, different alliances and rivalries, and different reasons for people to choose to use them. This is why marketers have to adapt to a whole ecosystem of alternative assistants rather than a single platform.

It’s the nature of AI to deliver personalised experiences rather than the same experience for everyone. Those personal experiences will start with people’s choice of which is the digital assistant for them. And this could well involve using a range of different assistants depending on the mood and the occasion. The AIs of the assistants themselves could then turn to other AIs to help deliver a relevant answer. We’re dealing with a web of AI-driven influence. As a marketer, it will be important to map out the influencers most relevant to your audience, your brand and your proposition.

Here’s a quick summary of the line-up of most significant virtual digital assistants forming that web of influence – and how they’ll be competing and combining to shape lifestyles and decision-making over the next few years.

Siri

Apple’s Siri was the original voice-activated assistant when it launched in 2010, and its ubiquity on iOS devices had given it a dominant share of personal assistant use by 2016. That’s when the research company Ask Your Target Market found that 45% of those who’d used virtual digital assistant had spoken to Siri.

How many people ask Siri?

Today, Apple reports half a billion active Siri users worldwide, more than for any other AI Assistant. This owes much to the fact that Siri comes as part of every iOS device, including iPhones. It’s likely that most of those half a billion active users speak to Siri through their mobile. The question is: will they always do so? A study of US consumers in May 2017 from Verto Analytics suggested they might not. It found the use of Siri dropping dramatically as use of Alexa and other ‘smart speakers’ in the home grew. Another study the same year found that 70% of iPhone users say they use Siri only sometimes or rarely, mostly because they feel awkward talking to their smartphone in public. Back in 2015, HubSpot reported 37% of people using Siri monthly – but does speaking to an AI assistant once a month really represent regular use?

What’s Apple’s strategy for Siri and voice search?

Apple’s walled garden strategy tends to mean that its operating systems and devices are inseparable. That means that the amount of influence Siri has over your target audience depends on how likely they are to own and use Apple products. If they work on a Mac, sport an Apple watch and race out to get the latest iPhone then the chances are they talk to Siri fairly frequently. If more people buy Apple’s HomePod smart speaker (which launched in February and took 6% of global smart speaker sales in Q1) then Siri’s influence in the home will grow as well. However, people with a PC at work and an Amazon Echo or Google Home device in their living room might edge Siri out of their decision-making in favour of Alexa, Cortana and Google Assistant.

Apple has made big moves recently to expand the range of what Siri can do. Many of its functions involve controlling Apple devices themselves, but new third-party APIs launched in 2016 means that users can increasingly ask Siri to use third-party apps. Siri can now summon rides from Uber or Lyft, make payments or send WhatsApp and WeChat messages.

Answering may of Siri’s requests involves searching the internet – and that introduces new layers of AI to the assistance that it provides. Up until September 2017, Siri used Bing for all internet searches. Today it uses Bing for image search, YouTube for video search, and Google for everything else. That involves a range of different search engine AIs interpreting its queries and those of its users – and it may well be these AIs that marketers need to address when looking to raise their profile within Siri’s answers.

Alexa

Amazon invented the smart speaker market with the Echo and its iconic virtual assistant Alexa – and for many people, that means they effectively invented the concept of having a virtual digital assistant in your life. ‘Ask Alexa’ has become part of the vocabulary in a way that ‘Ask Siri’ and ‘Ask Google’ haven’t quite managed. Amazon’s share of the smart speaker market is declining following the launch of Google Home – but it’s still got a huge share of connected households, and that’s not the only avenue of influence for Alexa.

How many people ask Alexa?

A year ago, the Echo’s dominance of the smart speaker market was almost absolute, with an 81% market share worldwide. With more rivals coming onto the market, that share is dipping – but it’s still pretty impressive, nonetheless. In Q1 2018, Amazon sold 44% of all smart speakers bought worldwide. And that previous dominance means that its share of people actually talking to personal digital assistants is even higher. According to a study by NPR and Edison Research, 11% of Americans now own an Amazon Echo and talk to Alexa, around 70% of the market. YouGov research estimates that 7% of people in the UK do the same, again representing a 70% share. In Europe, the smart speaker market as a whole is much smaller, and the devices are currently selling at less than half the rate of the English-speaking countries, a shortfall that reflects both privacy concerns and the fact that voice recognition is still more advanced in English than other languages. Nevertheless, Amazon and Alexa have 67% of the market in Europe as well.

What’s Amazon’s strategy for Alexa and voice search?

So far, Alexa’s iconic status among AI-powered assistants has owed everything to the dominant market share of the Amazon Echo. Going forward though, audiences could be asking her questions on other platforms as well. The most significant of these will be Microsoft’s Cortana, where Alexa will be available as part of an alliance that makes the two virtual assistants available on one another’s main platforms. It’s an integration that makes sense, given that Alexa’s voice searches are powered by Bing, the same as Cortana’s. Interestingly, when Microsoft and Amazon demonstrated the tie-up, they seemed to anticipate different AI Assistants being given different roles by their users: Cortana handling the calendar and sending emails, while Alexa handling devices in the home and ordering an Uber using Alexa’s third-party skills.

Those third-party skills have been a big part of Amazon’s strategy for Alexa from the start, opening up the platform to developers and tech partners, and building an ecosystem that greatly expands the range of what this AI assistant can do. Amazon has made Alexa’s voice recognition and natural language processing capabilities free for other connected devices via its ‘Lex bot’ technology platform, and this has already led to Alexa’s voice language processing playing a role for Facebook Messenger, Slack and Twilio.

Google Assistant

Google Assistant’s influence stretches across mobile and in-home touchpoints. It may have given up a head start to Amazon and Alexa in the smart speaker market, but Google Home’s growing share means that it’s catching up fast. Google Assistant is available on Android phones and as an app on iOS devices as well. And Google’s influence amongst AI assistants extends further still through its handing of non-image voice searches on Siri.

How many people ask Google Assistant?

In January, Google announced that Google Assistant is now running on 400 million devices worldwide, which puts it in a similar league to Apple’s Siri. Around 18% of the US population interact with Google Assistant at least once a week, although 70% say they’ve never dealt with it at all. Google Home’s share of the smart speaker market is growing fast. It captured 27% of worldwide smart speaker sales in Q1 2018, more than double the share it achieved the previous year. In all, 4% of Americans now own a Google Home device.

What’s Google’s strategy for Google Assistant and voice search?

Like its main smart speaker rival Amazon, Google has been growing the influence of its AI assistant by putting its smart speakers into as many homes as possible. A key role in this is played by the affordable Google Home Mini, which competes directly with Amazon’s Echo Dot. But smart speaker growth is far from the only way for Google Assistant to achieve greater reach. Like Amazon with Alexa, Google has a key role for third-party partnerships in its strategy. An increasingly close alliance with Apple has already put Google Assistant onto iPhones and smart watches and partnerships with Audi and Volvo will embed it in connected cars as well. A Software Development Kit is designed to encourage electronics manufacturers to build Google Assistant compatibility into a range of devices around the home.

In May this year, Google potentially set a new direction for the virtual digital assistant market when it demonstrated the Google Duplex extension to Google Assistant. Google Duplex caused a huge stir (and no little controversy) when it showcased the ability to make bookings for restaurants and hair salons over the phone, while apparently fooling those on the other end of the line into believing they were talking to a human. Duplex-style technology has the potential to dramatically increase the range of tasks that virtual digital assistants perform – and it will be intriguing to see how other platforms follow Google’s lead. However, there are complications ahead as well. Google has already stressed that in future, it will make it much clearer to people that they are, in fact, talking to an algorithm.

Microsoft Cortana

The reach of Microsoft’s virtual digital assistant is growing as it’s increasingly integrated within the Windows operating system and platforms such as Skype. The launch of the INVOKE smart speaker and its alliance with Amazon and Alexa could accelerate that growth considerably.

How many people ask Cortana?

According to Microsoft, more than 150 million people currently use Cortana across 13 countries, which include France, Germany, Spain and the UK in Europe. So far, that reach has been driven largely through desktop PCs and Windows mobiles, but the launch of Microsoft’s INVOKE speaker in October 2017, and impending integration with Amazon’s Alexa, are likely to give Cortana a stronger foothold in the smart speaker market.

What’s Microsoft’s strategy for Cortana and voice search?

What’s particularly interesting about the alliance between Cortana and Alexa is the way it envisages different AI-driven assistants performing complementary roles through the same piece of hardware. Cortana has always had a strong reputation for usefully organising its users’ lives, reminding them when to make calls or flagging up useful connections between contacts. This makes it easy to imagine her handling the professional side of things across a range of different devices – not just those made by Microsoft.

Cortana has a couple of useful selling points within the AI assistant space as well: integration with Skype, which gives it the ability to connect to 300 million people using the platform for calls and messaging, the quality of the INVOKE speaker, which performed well in early reviews, and smooth integration with Spotify, which makes Cortana a tempting choice for serious music fans. There’s an obvious opportunity to extend the reach of Cortana through Xbox gaming consoles as well.

Like Google, Microsoft’s influence on virtual digital assistants goes beyond its own AI-powered helper. Bing not only powers voice searches from Cortana, but also those driven by Alexa and image searches on Siri as well, giving it a very large share of voice search queries. That’s significant, as it’s the voice search queries themselves that represent the best opportunity for many brands to interact with their audiences through virtual digital assistants.

Samsung Bixby

It doesn’t yet have the scale of the big four virtual digital assistants, but Samsung’s Bixby could be a significant player in the market nonetheless. It’s already available in roughly 200 countries, giving it the potential for genuine global reach.

How many people ask Bixby?

In October 2017, Samsung announced that Bixby had accumulated 10 million active usersin its first six months.

What’s Samsung’s strategy for Bixby and voice search?

Bixby represents a different vision for virtual digital assistants in several key respects. It’s genuinely global, not just in terms of the countries where it’s available but also in terms of the languages it effectively supports: Korean and Chinese as well as English. This is an area of voice-activated personal assistants that’s often overlooked. A natural affinity for languages other than English could open up significant new growth opportunities for Samsung. Of course, Bixby won’t be the only virtual digital assistant competing in Asian markets. China’s Alibaba took 8% of smart speaker sales globally in Q1 2018 with its Genie device that connects directly to the Tmall eCommerce platform.

Bixby is also distinctly visual in the way that it approaches the world. Its most ambitious feature is Bixby Vision, which uses a range of third-party apps and Pinterest’s image database to recognise objects using your smartphone’s camera, conduct image searches, and suggest things to buy. Its voice features are more focused on controlling your smartphone more efficiently, although Samsung’s launch of a Software Development Kit could see more voice-activated apps added to Bixby in the future.

The Internet of Things represents another interesting area of opportunity for Samsung, given the range of electronics devices that it produces. Samsung has already announced that Bixby will be rolled out to smart fridges.

Why one assistant won’t own your audience

The term virtual digital assistant conjures up the idea of an exclusive relationship: one AI that understands you intimately and personalises your experiences and interactions at every step. However, that image is misleading. It’s not the way that the AI ecosystem is taking shape.

Different households will choose different smart speakers to suit their personalities and priorities, dividing up markets between Alexa households, Google households and others besides. But that’s just the start. Each individual is likely to use different virtual digital assistants at different moments based on what they want to do and where they happen to be at the time. If you own an iPhone or Apple Watch, it might well be Siri that you ask for restaurant recommendations nearby or local weather reports. However, when you’re at work it’s probably Cortana that you ask to schedule your Skype calls, draft emails, plan your diary and search for the information you need. In the car, it might be Google Assistant that you turn to. Back home, it could be Alexa that sets the lighting, plays music, finds recipes and generally arranges your evening.

We shouldn’t even assume that all members of a household will opt for the same virtual digital assistant. “Google please tell my daughter’s Alexa to turn the music down in her room!” could be the latest form of parental temper tantrum. Completing tasks could soon involve active collaboration between different assistants as well. Who’s to say that Google Duplex won’t soon be calling a similar Cortana system to find space in somebody’s diary?

Some people will feel a strong sense of loyalty to a particular assistant, especially as those assistants’ voice capabilities diverge. Google has partnered with Pixar to make Google Assistant a funnier and more engaging companion, for example. However, many more people will be far less fussy about which AI is actually answering their questions at a given moment – provided they can get the job done.

Why AI assistants are the ultimate hive minds

It’s also worth remembering that despite the hundreds of millions of people using virtual digital assistants today, there remain thousands of millions who don’t use them at all, or do so without even realising it. Even those who do use them regularly aren’t yet using them in the ways that marketers have assumed. Research out this month suggests that only 2% of people using Amazon Alexa have ever asked her to actually buy something for them. Virtual digital assistants aren’t necessarily shopping assistants, unless buying things forms a natural extension of one of their other roles (ordering new Xbox games for example).

Many will continue to use different AIs here and there as those AIs hitch a ride with the different pieces of technology in their lives. That could divide the world of virtual digital assistants between people who willingly share vast amounts of data with a consciously chosen Assistant – and those that share far smaller amounts of incidental data with a few different ones. Reaching these people will involve first identifying the most relevant moments for engaging – and then working with the most relevant assistant for those moments.

Virtual digital assistants can seem more powerful than they are because they tend to blur the distinction between Narrow AIs and General AI. Alexa, Google Assistant and Cortana seem as though they can apply their logic and vast store of data to thinking about anything and coming up with a solution. But this form of General AI doesn’t yet exist. In reality, they farm out different problems to different AIs and partner apps each focused on a specific type of task. All the time, their own language processing AI focuses on interacting as naturally as possible with the people asking them questions. Every virtual digital assistant is really a collection of collaborating forms of intelligence and the AI algorithm pulling strings and putting forward recommendations will vary depending on the task at hand.

Bringing insight and AI together to navigate the game

So how on earth are marketers to navigate the game of virtual digital assistants that will shape how audiences access information? With such a complex ecosystem, it’s vital to be clear about the audience that you’re trying to engage, your objectives for engaging them, and the moments when that engagement will be most relevant. You can then start to build a strategy around the most relevant AI algorithms for those moments.

In doing so, it will be worth paying attention to technology platforms that have the greatest breadth of data available for answering voice-driven requests. These may well be the assistant platforms that offer the greatest reach across different types of audiences. That’s why the significance of Google and Microsoft in the game of virtual digital assistants goes beyond Google Assistant and Cortana. It’s their expertise in different areas of voice search that will make them particularly valuable partners.

AI is creating the era of virtual digital assistants – and AI will play a big role in marketers navigating it effectively. We’ll need the ability to generate insights from huge data sets, identifying the moments that our businesses and brands need to be a part of – and then presenting ideas and information in a way that signals relevance to the AIs influencing those moments. We will need to speak the algorithmic language of virtual digital assistants and we’ll need both AIs and technology partners to help with that. However, we will also need human intuition and old-fashioned forms of research. Which assistants do our audiences have most affinity with? Which do they use for different tasks? What are their priorities when using each of them? And how open are they to content delivered through these channels? These questions will require an understanding that goes deeper than behavioural data and usage patterns. The complex ecosystem that AI is creating can’t be understood through AI alone.  

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