Make no mistake, voice-activated technology is not just today’s shiny new toy. “Every 10 years a major shift takes place in computing technology, from mainframe computers to desktops, the internet, mobile and now it’s voice platforms,” said Tamar Charney, Managing Editor, NPR One, during the session “Smart Speaker Strategy” at the RAIN Summit in Dallas on Tuesday. “This is where we see audio going to in the next decade. Smart speakers aren’t going to be sitting in the basement in five years.”
Added Will Mayo, CEO, Spoken Layer, “It’s going to get to the point where voice is ambient. Look at how you used to have your internet router in one room; now everywhere in this hotel is connected. Voice will be in any room, your car, your fridge. It won’t be about devices… they’ll just serve as a distribution point that links us everywhere.”
In the here and now, however, there do remain challenges for smart speakers for those industries, including radio, trying to develop skills. But keep them simple enough to not confuse users, amp discovery among listeners and continue to find ways to develop new content for the platform, noted the session moderator, Steve Goldstein, CEO of Amplifi Media.
Panelist James Derby, Chief Strategy Officer, Federated Media, said that his family-owned private company made a serious push to implement a digital strategy a decade ago—and that now includes voice tech. “Smart speakers are critically important,” he said. “We are focusing on voice and on-demand along with terrestrial radio. The industry is moving toward an on-demand environment, so we realize it’s important that we produce content that’s on-demand, as well,” including smart speaker content.
Charney added that NPR continues to work “very aggressively in the voice space. We saw how fast the adoption curve was in the number of these devices in the home. Our first goal was to put our existing content on smart speakers, but now we are working to take advantage of the interactive capabilities of smart speakers. How do we get content to be accessible more easily? We’re looking to personalization and localization so that user can get what they want, can skip, share and if they choose, leave, all from their voice platform.”
Federated is also evolving in its mission with smart speakers. Originally, its skills offered “about eight different paths and options, and we quickly discovered no one was going past two. Skills need to be very simple and straight to the point,” Derby stressed. Now, the stations have added new content with multiple skills for each of its stations that include custom, curated music channels. “Not everyone can program music; we have very talented PDs, and they program these curated music programs. Alexa users can stream the stations… or listen to Legends Country, just Garth, our morning show or original podcasts.”
He adds that a primary challenge is still discovery. “It’s easy when you ask for the temperature or weather, but you have to use exact language with a radio station.” Federated is now conducting research to see how listeners colloquially identify its stations—with an eye on developing specific new skills that address those various monikers. In addition, to help listeners, the stations’ websites created 30-second videos that show listeners exactly how to use the skills: “We’re hoping it would help.”
Charney stressed that smart speakers continue to be a “process” for NPR. “You have to really think long and hard about who are you what you mean to your audience. What do you stand for to your audience? Start small with experiments in the smart speaker space. It’s a slow, iterative process until you see what’s going to fly.”—by Chuck Taylor