Digital Innovation
4 mins read

Publishers race to own voice-assistant ‘skills’ and ‘actions’

The first thing publishers need to do to dip into the world of voice is to learn what ‘skills’ (Amazon) or ‘actions’ (Google) are and how they relate to user navigation.

For everyone who uses it, Amazon’s Echo Dot is quite a revelation. As Rob Keenan wrote in Publishing Executive last month, “all I hear my kids say is: “Alexa, tell me the score of this game…” “Alexa, let me know this…” “Alexa, play this song…” “Alexa, add this item to my shopping list…” The list of commands goes on and on and on.

As Keenan explains, the Echo Dot’s strength is not just that it can respond to nearly all of these demands, it’s more that it understands what you’re saying and delivers an accurate response.

For publishers there are two concerns about this technology.

Firstly, is this just a niche market with limited potential? Secondly, how can publishers harness the tech and, just as crucially, monetise it?

On the first point, fears can be allayed. Gartner predicts that 75% of US households will have smart speakers by 2020 –  representing 95 million households (and an annual compound growth of 81 percent). Gazing into its crystal ball, Gartner also predicts that by 2020, 30% of web browsing sessions will be done using voice technology. If anything, that figure might be over-cautious.

The bottom line is that the usage of voice-activated content is set to soar and for publishers represents a ‘new frontier’. Speaking at last autumn’s FIPP World Congress, Alice Zimmermann, Global Product Partnerships, Google, said simply that we are entering a ‘new world of conversational computing’.

The second concern – how publishers can leverage the technology – is not so easily answered. But a few definitions will help set the scene, not least in the area of ‘skills’. What exactly are ‘skills’?

In this instance, ‘skills’ is the term used when a user initially engages with a voice device to find the content they’re looking for. Skills – also termed ‘actions’ by Google – can be divided into two areas:

  1. Branded skills: that are centered around a publisher’s brand and only they can own. For example, personal finance website The Motley Fool provides a ‘skill/action’ that lets you get check specific stock prices via Google Assistant. You can view it in action here.
  2. Generic skills: The second type of skills are the generic ones which clearly are far harder to own. For example, a skill could be: “Alexa, give me the latest Syria headlines”. These generic skills allow media brands to own a category but once a skill is taken, the publisher who captures the skill is the sole owner. Like the Dotcom gold-rush in the late 90’s, this has created a race in the market to capture skills before anyone else and, in essence, gain first-mover advantage.

Have all the skills gone? Far from it. Amazon has built a toolkit to help develop skills for Alexa. You can find this kit at: Google also has its own set of resources:

But the model certainly favours larger publishers with deep resources. Even then, as Keenan points out, “There are a number of war stories in the market about the time required to build a voice-assistant skill for one platform.”

What next?

For smaller, independent publishers looking to tackle this market, a quicker route to market is to join up with a third party specialist who can roll out the voice activated content via a multi-platform strategy. Even then, the supplier market providing services for voice-activated content is nascent, fragmented and haphazard.

The Content Marketing Association in London is a good place to start, with many of its supplier members providing help with voice-activated content both in terms of tech and the content itself – agencies like iProspectMEC Wavemaker and The Moment. In the US, trade organisation Digital Content Next is a good source of advice and assistance.

However, caution is needed. As Digital Content Next stated last month, “the risk for publishers is that building for one company specifically — or even multiple companies — places their eggs in the basket of a third-party tech giant. That means that as bullish as publishers ought to be in featuring content where their audiences are, they also need to insist on sharing the wealth these tech companies are gathering — revenues, customer data, advertising insights and more — to beat any potential exploitation.

DCN concluded, “The current trend is still on the we-must-get-on-the-voice-AI-bandwagon-before-it’s-too-late hurried strategy, without thinking about the data and revenue deals that need to happen in tandem. With all the opportunities publishers can leverage with voice — news flash briefings, news quizzes, podcast streaming, recipes and the like — they should also emphasize their own loyalty programs, subscriptions and original content back on their own sites.”

We will continue to cover developments, as and when they happen.

Further reading:

Publishing Executive “The race is on to own voice assistant skills”

Digital Content Next “Hey, Google, Alexa and Siri, publishers want a fair shot at voice activated devices”

New York Times “Why we may soon be living in Alexa’s world”