The preliminary results of a new study (with Prof. Pinar Ozcan, Säid Business School) show a high emotional component in managers’ decisions to adopt AI-based voice assistants. This article seeks to unveil the tensions leading managers to focus on emotions when discussing voice marketing initiatives.

The rapid adoption of AI-based voice assistants such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home introduces consumer heuristics likely to affect marketing practices. Voice-based technologies open up a full set of communication possibilities for managers, from custom voice apps to actionable audio ads. At the same time, the simultaneous growth of several voice platforms, the explosion of provider-specific business services, and the fast-changing supplier ecosystem produce mixed feelings in incumbent firms.

Individual and collective sense-making guide the managerial decision on ‘if’ and ‘how’ to implement voice-based marketing initiatives. Early evidence shows two parallel mechanisms affecting the decision process of adopting voice assistants.

1. Adopting voice assistants implies the entrance into a platform ecosystem that connects multiple sides of markets. This is of strategic importance as platforms are typically owned by a focal organization that assumes a position of power. Thus, managers view voice ecosystems under both competition and cooperation lenses. Tech companies such as Amazon, Google, or Apple already hold a dominant market position in e-commerce, search, and device, respectively. When these platform owners introduce novel direct-to-consumer communication and distribution channels like voice assistants, managers in incumbent firms face inherent tensions as new competitive dynamics may swiftly emerge. Concurrently, marketing managers are required to cooperate with platform owners to reach consumers in innovative and cost-efficient ways. 

2. Early adoption of voice assistants implies high uncertainty coupled with potential first-mover marketing advantages (high risk/high reward scenario). Uncertainty about technology is directly linked to the inherent operational difficulty in estimating a realistic campaign ROI. Especially managers in traditional performance-oriented and data-driven organizations report struggles in developing business cases with positive cost-benefit output. Technology immaturity, service discoverability issues and low consumer relevance are often cited by interviewees as the main barriers to adoption. Besides, the relatively low device penetration (in specific countries/languages) and low penetration of brand-related services make the technology particularly unattractive for a global organization requiring communication scales (i.e., “mass products need mass media”). However, firms are increasingly willing to take risks associated with the adoption of unproven technologies for marketing. Such a ‘fail fast’ approach is required to prove external (and internal) stakeholders the ability to master transformative consumer technologies and build strategic partnerships with innovation-driven companies. 

Nearly half of the top 100 CPG firms have already launched voice marketing campaigns. Why? In connection to the two mechanisms discussed above, the decision to adopt voice assistants for marketing purposes seems to be, at least partly, ecosystem-oriented (vs. technology-) and emotional-focused (vs. rational-).

Preliminary evidence shows that the emotions towards a platform ecosystem, ranging from indifference to anxiety, influence the evaluation, adoption and expectation towards the new platform services, which generates a bias in the manager’s decision making.

We noticed an increasing number of adoption decisions linked to some sort of ‘platform pressure’ or ‘platform FoMO’ (Fear of Missing Out). These (often) hidden and (often) mixed emotions assume a different meaning depending on the perspective focal point of analysis (industry competition vs. platform owner competition). In relation to its broader competitive environment, a company might suffer from social (platform) pressure, “you don’t want to be the only company among your competitors not investing into Alexa or Google Home”, while another might suffer from competitive (platform) pressure, “everyone in our company likes platform owners like Amazon; but we like them to stay small”, as executives stated.   

Competitive platform pressure is triggered by several levels of concern connected to the power unbalance managers experience with a platform owner, oftentimes referred to as ‘monopolistic’ power. Managers get emotional when discussing the (i) perceived low transparency of how AI-powered algorithms are affecting brands’ visibility in voice search rankings. They are concerned about the (ii) potentially unfair product placement practices in favor of the growing number of high-quality private labels. Moreover, managers see (iii) an increasing number of user-related data being collected by the platform not shared back with their company, hence, not producing novel insights. Lastly, managers of premium brands regard the (iv) low-end price disruption (see as a dangerous practice for their business, possibly expanding in parallel to the service ecosystem growth (i.e., diffusion of shopping-related voice assistants).

Managers in any given organization observe the evolution of global platforms in connection to their business context. Existing research on the platform ecosystem ignoring the effect of emotions towards platform owners on the adoption decision is likely to suffer from biased results. Understanding managers’ individual and collective emotional state (e.g., anxiety, fear, excitement, joy) towards dominant platform players can help decision-makers to isolate subjective perceptions of the ecosystem from the objective level of maturity and opportunity of the technology.

Extreme views leaning towards rational vs. emotional decision-making adopting a technology vs. ecosystem perspective can be particularly dangerous for companies. For instance, managers that look at voice assistants purely as a technology/medium (often comparing media results against TV or online ads) fail to see the strategic importance of entering a complex platform ecosystem. At the same time, managers entering a platform to strengthen the relationship with the focal company (e.g., Amazon or Google) may build a myopic view of the technology. Furthermore, managers making a purely rational evaluation of current voice marketing opportunities (“too early to obtain good marketing results”) may overlook the potential long-term gains for the business. Differently, managers that follow intuition in the decision to adopt voice marketing may suffer from over-positive (threat/opportunity) or over-negative (irrelevance) feelings. As such, they may see voice as a ‘revolution’, i.e., forming unrealistic expectations while failing to recognize the limits of the technological platforms early enough; Or, they can just ignore the topic and miss future opportunities.  

Overall, firms should seek a well-balanced approach in technology-adoption decisions that holistically assesses both the platform ecosystems evolution and managers’ emotions towards platform owners. To enable managers to make unbiased strategic decisions in the context of consumer-oriented AI technologies, academic research needs to provide deeper insights into how platform-related emotions affect platform ecosystem participation.

Author: Alex Mari, UZH,