Speak Up: How Voice Search is Changing Shopping Behavior

Posted on by Margo Kahnrose

Voice search is becoming a convenience many consumers rely on, but the results served up aren’t really impartial. All the leading smart speakers serve up biased search results and pre-filtered shopping recommendations. Artificial intelligence isn’t independently intelligent, it’s programmed, with a vested interest. We know this; there’s nothing backhanded about it.

For example, for my mother-in-law’s birthday, we got her an Echo Spot. My in-laws tend to be intimidated by new tech, but they readily saw the appeal in bossing around a bot. I connected the Echo to their Prime account, Ring doorbell and Nest thermostat systems, and we were off to the races. For the next week, we used Alexa for lots of things—checking traffic, playing music, recommending gifts, finding recipe substitutions, creating shopping lists. It was a fun toy, and surprisingly useful. But we couldn’t ignore the obvious: Nearly every recommended action or purchase pointed exclusively to Amazon.

Of course, this isn’t unique to the Echo suite of products, and most of the time consumers don’t mind, because the speed and convenience of voice search outweighs just about any of the usual decision-making criteria, including brand preference, ratings and even price. Because we leverage voice search most when we’re multitasking—driving, cooking, grocery shopping, bathing our toddlers—we don’t have time to read, think, sift through options and click filters until we get the perfect result. In the multitask mindset we don’t care about perfect. We have no patience for a customer journey. We just want the destination.

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Voice search is undoubtedly altering the way we shop. Traditional, desktop-based search empowered consumer spending habits with transparency and choice; mobile (which officially overtook desktop search ad spend in Q3 of last year) layered on locational relevance. Suddenly it was a buyer’s market. Voice search represents something of an adolescent rebellion against the values of its parents. The voice generation wants, counter-intuitively to prior generations, less choice and that concept is catching on. Our criteria have changed. We willingly trade relevancy for immediacy, and price for convenience, because time is our most lacking commodity. We’re loyal foremost to efficiency. This means, in maybe the ultimate demonstration of power, we’re handing the power back to brands. “Make it stupid-simple for us to find you when we need to,” we seem to be saying with voice search, “and you’ve got a deal.”

Although we’ve yet to see how voice search will really monetize through advertising, this behavioral shift should have marketers excited. For them, the convenience mindset presents massive opportunity to make customer connections less vulnerable than those based on features, price or even brand. But it’s far from simple. The gatekeepers, standing between brands and customers in this brave new world, are the giants of the tech world, the AI creators and device manufacturers. Successfully navigating these complex partner ecosystems will make or break the lasting brands of the future.

Once upon a time, consumers trusted merchants. Next, with the proliferation of customer reviews, they put their faith in each other. Tomorrow, in the hundreds of micro-decisions they make each day, it’s looking like consumers may prefer to just outsource the effort entirely. Voice search is propelling this motivational and behavioral shift in the way we buy. When we buy a device, we “hire” a bot, and in so doing, we choose an alliance with a walled garden, an operating system, a family of apps, a store. We do it eyes wide open, aware, if a little wary. Because when the experience of voice search works so well, it’s just, well … worth it. Though the ad dollars will follow, the winner of the race to build the best VR bot stands to gain something much bigger than marketing revenue—they’ll win the whole customer. And even my in-laws are comfortable with it.

Margo Kahnrose is SVP, marketing for Kenshoo.


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