Is Voice the Next Big Thing in Mobile?

Any marketer worth their salt is paying attention to trends in mobile right now. The ubiquity of mobile means it can no longer be forgotten or treated as a separate part of marketing. In fact, as I argued in my latest SearchLove presentation, we are now increasingly facing a situation where online marketing is mobile marketing.

And so I was intrigued by a post from Benedict Evans last month. Here, he argues that we are on the cusp of big changes in the use of voice for mobile. By ‘voice’, he means speaking into your mobile phone to send messages, make calls and perform a range of tasks like web searches. While speech recognition has been around in some form for years, recent improvements in the processing power of phones, the sophistication of speech recognition algorithms and the increasing network speeds of LTE / 4G have combined to start some interesting trends.

As Evans argues, these trends have little to do with pricing – there is not enough of a gap between the price charged and the basic cost structure for regular voice calls. Instead, innovations centre on the actual voice experience, which I’ll address further into this post.

First, let’s look at the current problems associated with voice technology. Evans does not touch on these in his post yet it’s important to acknowledge the significant drawbacks to the status quo.

The bad

There are difficulties for both the creator and receiver of voice messages.

Problems for the creator

To make a voice message, you need to be somewhere quiet – background noise can ruin a message without you realising and the only way to review quality is to listen to the whole thing once you’re done. Chances are you’ll want to be somewhere private, too, particularly in the case of one-to-one conversations. If circumstances don’t allow this, you may end up being less open and direct than you would in a written text message. Of course, this may be a generational thing, similar to the debate between colleagues at Quartz on a bluetooth-based payment app (some were flabbergasted by the idea of being so open about payment details, while others – read ‘younger’ – welcomed the tool).

Problems for the receiver

Receivers experience similar problems with background noise and even headphones don’t necessarily help to hear every word of a message. Scanning a message is no longer an option; you have to listen to the whole thing which can be a drag when short on time.  Finally, there’s no way of copying or extracting pieces of information like phone numbers and URLs, meaning you have to remember them or write them out yourself.

In addition, there is less functionality around sending and receiving messages. For example, computers may struggle to send/accept calendar invites that you’d otherwise deal with over email. Plus, it’ll be more difficult for them to detect and filter out spam.

However, what if Evans is right and, despite these flaws, voice is the next big thing on the horizon? What might the innovations look like? Will there be opportunities for marketers? In many emerging channels, we see that the brands that embrace them early take the lion’s share of benefits.

The good

So far there has been a surprising lack of innovation in the voice space compared to text, picture and video messaging. However, this could all be set to change. Here are some of the key things we might expect:

No more phone numbers

The prospect of saying goodbye to phone numbers in favour of usernames is exciting; you’d be able to switch between multiple paths – for example, WhatsApp, Facebook, Line, etc. – however you pleased. Having a username would also mean you could direct incoming calls to all your phones or else none of them, depending on your schedule.

Filtering and other functions

Despite the difficulties mentioned above, the technology is improving. Google Voice has a reasonable ability to filter and sort through your messages, along with a transcription function and an availability on multiple devices. (Surprisingly, these features are still not available on all platforms.)

Broadcasts

There are also innovations taking place in other messaging platforms (typically image and text messaging) that haven’t made their way to voice. While we have a form of 1-1 voice messaging in the form of voicemail, it’s actually hampered by the fact that the recipient might answer! We have not yet seen a simple and engaging interface to broadcast voice messages like the way that we broadcast the written word on Twitter or images on Instagram.

Groups

Set up groups of contacts to send messages to – a bit like Whatsapp crossed with voicemail.

Self-destructing

Messages will disappear after a set amount of time, as we have seen in platforms like Snapchat. This can be good for personal conversations you don’t need to keep a record of. Their ephemeral nature is part of the fun.

Meta-information

You can attach verbal comments to web pages as a way of documenting thoughts and actions for later.

The future for voice?

Perhaps the most significant challenge for voice technology is the social one – our reluctance to speak private messages aloud in public. Phone conversations have always faced a similar problem, of course, but a one-sided message feels worse in its use of less natural modes of speech. Yet, voice promises a lot, too. It’s exciting to think we can get information across much more quickly and efficiently, forgetting the clumsiness of the keyboard in favour of our own voice. Whatever happens with innovations, it seems likely that this fundamental appeal will hold true for people of all ages.

I do expect, therefore, that we will see significant innovation in this space in the coming months. While it’s difficult to predict exact outcomes, brands certainly need to keep abreast of these emerging trends. We need to go where our customers go to engage with them in the most brand-appropriate ways. Many exciting opportunities lie ahead here. The use of music with recorded audio messages? The potential to communicate faster? Better? To more people? I’ll certainly be listening out.

What do you think? Feel free to share your thoughts on voice as a comment below.

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About the author
Will Critchlow

Will Critchlow

Will founded Distilled with Duncan in 2005. Since then, he has consulted with some of the world’s largest organisations and most famous websites, spoken at most major industry events and regularly appeared in local and national press. For the...   read more