How voice is changing consumer behaviour

A keynote from this year's AdTech Canada conference shows how the technology is becoming integrated with daily life.

Voice-controlled personal assistants and AI platforms are still very new to consumers, many of whom are still discovering what the technology has to offer. But during a keynote at this year’s AdTech Canada conference, Tom Webster, SVP at Edison Research, presented findings that show that once people understand the benefits of AI, it can have a big impact on the way they go about their day-to-day lives.

Based on Edison’s research, smart speaker penetration is around 8% in Canada right now, with Google Home having a slight lead over Amazon Alexa – likely due to the latter’s late launch in the Canadian market. But its penetration in Canada today is similar to what it was in the U.S. last year (which was 7% before it nearly tripled to 18% this year). Webster pointed out that nothing has seen that kind of jump in penetration in the 20 years that Edison has been conducting research.

With that in mind, Webster turned his attention to the latest edition of The Smart Audio Report, a survey of U.S. users conducted with NPR, to give Canadians an idea of what to expect from smart speaker users in the near future. One of the most important findings in the survey was that once someone owns a smart speaker, it creates a change in their behaviour, with people doing things they’ve never done before because of the in-home speaker.

“[The smart speakers] become part of your everyday life and the things you have to do,” Webster said. “And if you ask what people are doing with them, it’s the story of a boring day – it’s a typical day, a day we all have… These devices have become ingrained into a typical day in a bunch of little ways that makes them really important. As a result, they’re creating new behaviours and new habits.”

Consumers tend to buy smart speakers for one or two reasons, but they end up using them for an average of eight different tasks on a near-daily basis. While listening to music remains the most common use, people begin to use the devices in different ways (such as for traffic and weather updates or controlling other connected devices in the house) the longer they own them. What’s more, 51% of those surveyed are using their devices more than when they first purchased them, with 33% saying they use them about the same. Only 16% said they use them less.

“These are not fidget spinners that are going to go to the back of the drawer,” Webster said. “They are getting smarter, getting better and constantly learning more about the queries we give them.”

What’s more, those with smart speakers in their home also tend to use assistants on their mobile devices more often, and become more interested in having it in other places, like their vehicle. As a result of this increased smart speaker usage, 39% said they now spend less time using their radio, 34% said they spend less time on their smartphone and 30% said they spend less time watching TV.

“These are actual humans saying they are using their smartphones less, which is pretty remarkable given how anxious we are if we’re not in arms length of it,” Webster said. “And the TV that [smart speakers] are replacing is that background viewing while you’re cooking or getting ready. That passive TV viewing is going to the smart speaker because it’s so frictionless when you’re going through your routine.”

Webster joked that those in the conference room were likely looking for ways to take smart speakers and “ruin them with ads,” but his research showed that there is an appetite for brand interactions, with 43% of respondents saying they would like to interact with brands they already follow on social media.

And while its a common joke to compare platforms like Alexa to malevolent AIs from science fiction, consumers are overcoming legitimate privacy concerns to use their smart devices for commerce. According to the research, 31% used their smart speaker to add an item to their cart for later research, 22% used it to re-order an item they had previously purchased and 20% used it to buy an item they had no experience buying before.

“They want these interactions,” Webster said. “They want help and service and questions answered, and that’s the key to building skills on these devices. They aren’t smart enough to solve those problems yet. The things that are really working in this space are the skills people are building, so it’s about finding ways to build those skills, tell people that they are out there and make sure they are useful.”