The Race is on For Media Brands to Own Voice-Assistant “Skills”
In January, we took a journey to understand the opportunity for media brands with voice-enabled devices like Amazon’s Echo Dot (aka Alexa) and the Google Home device. But there’s a big learning curve and a new language that you have to learn when you make the decision to target these platforms and actually have your content appear. Here’s a breakdown of some of the key elements you’ll need to learn when making the leap into voice-assistant devices.
You Need Skills (and Actions)
When making the leap into voice-assistant devices, a “skill” is one of the terms you’ll hear referenced quite a bit. So, what is a skill? A skill is, in essence, your web domain in the voice world.
Think about it this way: When you’re launching a website, one of the first things you do is buy your domain name in order to secure a spot on the web for users to find you, often with a domain name related to your subject matter, product, or service. In the case of voice, skills are the equivalent to the web domain. An example of a skill may be: “Give me the latest headlines from The New York Times” or “Give me the Latest Retail Market Research”. Just like a user types companyxyz.com into a browser address bar or searches out topic X in a search engine, skills are the way that a user initially engages with a voice device to find the content they’re looking for.
The term “skill” come out of the Amazon world. According to Amazon, skills are a way to create a more personalized experience on the Alexa platform. On the Google front, skills are called “actions” and, as Google says, actions are a way for users to interact with your content.
Google’s definition really says it best. The skill is a way of accessing the content. The navigation and engagement with the content happens after the skill is invoked. So similar to using a domain, users search out or directly call out the skill first, then use the navigation behind the skill to find the content they are looking for.
The Skills Race
When dealing with voice-assistant skills, there are two types you need to understand. The first are branded skills. These are skills that are centered around your brand and only you can own. A good example here is The Wall Street Journal, which has created a branded skill called “The Wall Street Journal What’s News”.
The second type of skill, and more challenging to own, are the generic ones. For example, a skill could be: “Alexa, give me the latest banking headlines” or “Alexa give me the latest tech headlines”. These generic skills allow media brands to own a category.
The reason generic skills are more challenging is because of the single-owner model. Once a skill is taken, at least for now, the person who captures the skill is the sole owner. This model has created a race in the market to capture skills before they are gone, thus creating a first-mover advantage in the market.
Fortunately, there is still plenty of opportunity right now for media companies to own market specific skills. For example, if you ask Alexa to provide you with the latest news, you’ll be provided with Alexa’s Flash briefing skill, which is a syndication of content from around the media industry. But try and find an industry-specific feed, such as retail market research, and a skill is not available. So, the opportunity is still there to own both brand and generic skills in your markets.
Take A Crawl-Walk-Run Approach to Voice-Assistant Skills
What’s the right approach for developing a voice-assistant skill? Clearly, one easy option for media brands is to leverage skills already in place. For example, if you want to get your headlines on Alexa, you can syndicate your content through Alexa’s Flash Briefing skill. But keep in mind that this is a syndication skill. You will not receive any information on the users engaging with your content through Flash Briefing.
A better option is implement a crawl and walk approach to skill development. In the crawl stage, you build out a brand-specific skill for your latest content. By doing this, you’ll have control of the skill and its interaction with the audience. If created properly, you’ll also have the chance to capture data from the skill, such as usage, user location, and more.
In the walk phase, you’ll add generic skills to complement your brand-specific skill. These general skills could include skills that deliver content for a specific industry segment. The win here is that you can both own your brand as well as use the general skill to position yourself as the definitive content source for an industry sector or set of industry sectors.
Once you walk, the next logical step is to run. In this phase, you’ll look to bring content optimized specifically for the voice channel. You’ll also look for avenues to drive subscriptions, create new branded content, and more. But the run phase is still undefined. So, for right now, the better approach is to aim for the walk phase so that you can learn and adapt for growth.
Tools for Building Skills
One of the questions I’ve heard from several friends in the sector is, “How do I build a skill?” Amazon has built a toolkit to help develop skills for Alexa. You can find this kit at: https://developer.amazon.com/docs/ask-overviews/build-skills-with-the-alexa-skills-kit.html.
Google also has a nice set of resources for your development team to review. You can find them at: https://developers.google.com/actions/content-actions/.
One suggestion, however, is to look at third-party solutions. There are a number of war stories in the market about the time required to build a voice-assistant skill for one platform. By working with a third-party source, you may find you have the opportunity to build your skill once and submit it to multiple devices.
Personally, I’ve been in several scenarios in the last six months where publishers have been looking at the best way to bring a skill to market. In those cases, using a third-party solution has definitely accelerated the launch process, especially for brands just starting to venture into the voice arena.
No matter what path you choose, it’s vital that you understand what a skill/action is, and that your development team is fully versed in these concepts as you make the leap into the voice-enabled world. What’s also important is that you define your general skills and own them before you lose them to a competitor in the space.
Rob Keenan is the President of Keenan Media, LLC, a consultancy firm providing digital, content, marketing, and audience support to the media sector. Rob has worked in the BtoB media sector for 20 years, most recently at the VP of Online Media for Edgell Communications. You can contact Rob at firstname.lastname@example.org.You can also follow him on twitter @robkeenan11 or connect with him on LinkedIn.