AI-enabled voice assistants such as Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant are posited to radically change the way consumers search and purchase products. However, the behavior of these shopping-related machines represents a “black box” difficult, if not impossible, to decode for managers. Managers’ perceptions of the evolution of voice assistants and their potential effects on the shopping process are likely to affect their future marketing choices.

An expert survey with Swiss and European managers (N=62) revealed that managers consider voice assistants a disruptive technology assuming a central relational role in the consumer market. Nearly three-fourths of the respondents (74%) believe that voice commerce represents a “great opportunity for their brand.” At the same time, 77% consider it a significant challenge. Through this dual mindset, managers look at voice commerce as a revolution in marketing and brand management, but also a phenomenon with potentially detrimental consequences.

The disruptive potential of voice assistants for marketing

Remarkably, 87% of managers agree that voice assistants will become “powerful marketing, sales, and distribution channel,” and “a technology increasingly able to influence consumer’s choices,” for 80% of them. In the managers’ view, in-home voice assistants are progressively mediating market interactions. Three-fourths of managers believe that voice assistants will become new middlemen between brands and consumers. While functioning as a “salesperson,” voice assistants are redefining relationships among consumers and brands. As such, two-thirds of the study participants expect a severe impact on consumer brands.

Anticipated challenges of voice commerce for consumer brands

A key threat for companies connected to the diffusion of voice commerce is represented by the potential bargaining power shift in favor of voice assistants’ manufacturers, especially Amazon. A total of 71% of respondents agree that Alexa will disproportionally place its private labels while penalizing other consumer brands, and nearly two-thirds (65%) of managers believe that brands will have reduced visibility on voice assistants compared to other touchpoints. In a context in which brands are required to continually justify their positions, competition might increase. Surprisingly, three-fourths of respondents believe that voice assistants will “ongoingly re-evaluate the consumer’s product choice and suggest better alternatives.”

Managerial implications

To successfully face the potential market disruption coming from the diffusion of voice assistants, managers may employ a series of sequential actions.

First, managers need to gain direct experience with the voice shopping process as this may significantly alter their view of the voice technology. We found that not only voice commerce users have a more optimistic view of voice assistants, in terms of beliefs, attitudes, and intentions, but they also have a higher sense of urgency. Since a short-term focus might help companies to react faster to the market changes, companies might want to foster the usage of voice shopping across the organization. Such a direct experience might help the organization to acquire maturity and examine how to leverage voice marketing and voice commerce to grow its brand(s) sustainably.

Second, managers are called to understand the unique elements of voice assistants, together with their agency and market mediation role. As such, they need to explore how the voice assistant’s choice architecture can influence the path to purchase process. In particular, they need to anticipate their consumer’s reaction to the machine behavior when searching for products according to a broad, exact, and automated match. Understanding the potential effects of “default” and “lock-in mechanisms” on the customer base is deemed fundamental.

Third, managers should explore the divergent views across the organization about the evolution of voice assistants for marketing. Our findings show that often managers diverge in their opinions on the basis of their industry, function, seniority level, and familiarity with voice commerce. Creating a voice-first strategy that includes a mix of strategic, tactical, and organizational actions urges managers to reach an internal alignment on the relevance of voice assistants.

Fourth, managers need to examine how to gain (or protect) a “top of mind” brand position while building strong relationships with consumers. When consumers are able to express their brand preferences and have a strong attachment to the brand, they become less conditioned by the machine behavior. This brand building (or strengthening) process does not happen on the voice touchpoint in isolation but requires a brand activation across channels. Paradoxically, companies are called to further invest in traditional branding activities that drive brand awareness and recall before they can benefit from the fast growth of voice commerce.

In light of these firm’s radical exogenous changes, researchers and marketers are called to study further the interplay between consumers and brands in response to “machine behaviors.”

Further readings:

Alex Mari, Andreina Mandelli, and René Algesheimer (2020) The Evolution of Marketing in the Context of Voice Commerce: A Managerial Perspective. Proceeding of the 22nd International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction.

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Further information about the author: Alex Mari

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