There is no shortage of skills for users to choose from when talking to their voice assistants. Amazon ended 2018 with around 60 thousand skills available for its voice assistant Alexa, but by early October that number had already passed the hundred-thousand mark and is growing by the minute. Google Assistant’s skill set is a matter of debate — some estimates say it has roughly half the number of skills (or actions, the Google equivalent of skills) as Alexa has, while Google claims its voice assistant can complete over 1 million actions and an early 2019 estimate by a third party came in with around 4,200.
But as it turns out, that exact figure may not matter all that much — though it would be interesting to determine how exactly the Google Assistant Actions count came to vary so widely. Because although the number of voice assistant skills has been climbing for the last few years, the way consumers use the devices is not expanding quite as quickly. With thousands of skills or activities potentially open to their use, consumers mostly seem to keep coming back to the same few use cases. Listening to music, answering simple questions and checking weather reports remain popular favorites, as they have been since the products first started hitting the market a decade ago.
Those uses are beginning to expand and become more commerce-connected — and able to be monetized — but progress has been limited. Consumers are slow to use voice assistants to shop directly — though the devices are becoming a more integrated tool for commerce, among smart speaker owners a little under half (47 percent) use the device to conduct general product searches, 43 percent use it for making shopping lists and 32 percent for price comparisons. Among more direct commerce experiences, food delivery and travel bookings (flights, ridesharing) are also up-and-coming uses, with roughly 32 percent of smart speaker owners reporting having used their device to book one or the other.
But an increasing chorus of experts say the reason smart speaker owners aren’t doing all they can with their devices isn’t lack of interest, but lack of awareness. Having a smart speaker with tens of thousands or even millions of skills is only useful if users know what they are, or have an easy central arena in which to go find them.
“The biggest hurdle right now is discoverability which in turn leads to engagement and retention issues. This was the same for mobile before the App Store allowed us to discover new apps. We need the same for voice,” Nicole Quinn, partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners, said in a recent report.
It is a concern that pops up over and over again, particularly as new arenas emerge where programmers and skill developers start finding a foothold in motivating new consumer behaviors. When Alexa launched Flash Briefings a little over a year ago, it was popular with new organizations, content producers and podcasters looking to boost their signal through the Alexa-supported news briefs. And it worked well — at first, when there were only a few of them.
But now there are over 10,000 Flash Briefings available on the platform and no easy way to sift through them.
“There was the novelty effect of Flash Briefings that was there at the beginning, and now it’s table stakes,” said Ahmed Bouzid, CEO of Witlingo, a company that helps businesses publish and manage their voice content across multiple platforms. “The value of Flash Briefings for big publishers isn’t as big as it is for someone trying to break in and increase their audience.”
That’s not to say it doesn’t work for some players. Content creator Daniel Hill of Daniel Hill Media managed to stand out in the system, mostly by using a clever content hack. He put the word Instagram (with Facebook’s permission) in the name of his briefing.
“If I called it the ‘Daniel Hill Morning Minute,’ no one would ever find me,” he said. “That’s why I included Instagram in the title. I positioned myself initially that way to take advantage of that traction.”
And even Hill, who has seen a big bump in traffic, said he has not been able to directly monetize his exposure through the app — though he has been approached by several DTC brands with some interest in advertising.
But not everyone can simply add Instagram to their name, and even if they could, advertising revenue is far from a certainty as it seems the voice platforms have an issue to solve before they can live up to their full potential.
It’s not enough to have the skills — if customers cannot sort through them well enough to know they are there.