An "Echo" device, center, stands on display in a set of shelves during the U.K. launch event for the Inc. Echo voice-controlled home assistant speaker in London, U.K., on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016. The Seattle-based company today announced that its Echo product line will be available in the U.K. and Germany starting in the fall, the first time the gadget will be available outside the U.S. Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg
Amazon's Echo device, which connects to the Amazon Alexa voice service © Bloomberg

Users of Google’s voice-powered digital assistant heard something unexpected last month from their smart speakers and Android phones.

Amid the daily briefing of time, weather and commuting conditions, there was a new item. “By the way, Disney’s live action Beauty and The Beast opens today,” the Assistant software said, giving a quick precis of the film before moving on to the day’s news headlines.

Some people who heard this flocked to Reddit and Twitter to puzzle it over. “I’m not a fan of ads on this device,” wrote one Reddit user. The confusion was soon noted by the tech blog The Verge.

Google said it had been misunderstood. “This wasn’t intended to be an ad,” it said of the audio clip. “What’s circulating online was a part of our My Day feature, where after providing helpful information about your day, we sometimes call out timely content.” The company, which eventually removed the clip from Assistant, added: “We could have done better in this case.”

Google’s misfire comes as voice-powered devices are surging in popularity with consumers, and with brands that see a new opportunity to interact with customers in their homes and cars.

While advertising in its more overt forms has not yet arrived on the speakers, televisions and other devices that incorporate voice platforms such as Google’s Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa, marketers are already hitching a ride.

Corporations including the Campbell Soup Company, Domino’s Pizza, Uber and Capital One are building apps (“skills” for Alexa, “actions” for Google) that allow people to look up recipes, order food or a ride, and check their bank balances simply by speaking to a voice-enabled device.

“It’s like the early days of the iPhone store. There was a rush to build apps. Now there’s a rush to build skills,” says Jeff Malmad, managing director at Mindshare, the WPP-owned media agency.

Gartner, the research group, estimates there will be more than 20bn appliances, TVs and other devices connected to the internet by 2020. Marketers expect that many will eschew keyboards or text input.

“Many places where we interact by screens today will ultimately become more voice or gesture-based,” says Yin Rani, vice-president of integrated marketing at Campbell.

The food company is among the many brands vying to become part of consumers’ daily routines through voice-powered devices that increasingly incorporate artificial intelligence. Campbell has built a voice app that suggests what to make for dinner, including its own brands among the ingredients, such as its namesake soup, Pace salsa and Pepperidge Farm bread.

Ms Rani says the company is taking a page from Netflix in offering the “unique, personalised solutions” that consumers are coming to expect.

Campbell is also using voice interactions in online advertising that appears on the Weather Channel’s mobile app and website. The ads, powered by Watson, IBM’s artificial intelligence system, ask customers to suggest an ingredient and then build a new recipe around it.

The goal is to get information — and Campbell’s brands — in front of consumers wherever they are, Ms Rani says. “Cookbooks have been replaced by tablets. What will tablets be replaced by?”

The apps also give marketers a peek into customers’ behaviour and preferences inside their homes. A brand can learn what information a customer searches for when using a skill, how much time people spend interacting with a skill, and users’ email addresses, if they choose to submit them, says Norm Johnston, global chief strategy officer at Mindshare.

“It’s a learning opportunity for brands to see, how do their customers react in this environment,” he says.

Amazon says all skills developed for Alexa “must adhere to content guidelines, including privacy”. Developers must inform customers if they are collecting personal information in a skill.

Marketers recognise that developing voice apps takes a light touch, particularly when it comes to promotional material that could come across as intrusive.

“You don’t want to be overtly ‘selling’ within a skill,” Mr Johnston says.

Cary Tilds, chief innovation officer at WPP’s GroupM, likens the “immersive” nature of voice interactions to the challenges facing advertisers in virtual reality, another technology tipped as the next way to reach customers.

“We’re no longer telling a brand story. It’s about creating and interacting in a story where each consumer is your star. It’s a very different way to work,” she says.

As voice search grows in popularity, advertising agencies and marketers expect Google and Amazon will open their platforms to additional forms of paid messages from brands. But the introduction of voice ads is likely to raise more questions about transparency, privacy and intrusiveness in this new medium.

“Sponsored opportunities will be a lot more limited and you’ll have to fight to make sure it’s useful,” Mindshare’s Mr Johnston adds.

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