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The future of ads on digital assistants

Companies are developing ads for digital assistants, but what form will these ads take?

24 April 2017 ( words)
Emma Russell Emma Russell

On Thursday 16 March 2017, Google Home played an ad.

When users of the Google Home asked for a summary of their day ahead on 16 March 2017, their digital assistant told them all the particulars, but also added in some ‘timely content’. This 'timely content' let users know that the new Beauty and the Beast film would be released in cinemas that same day, along with a short synopsis.

When asked for a statement, Google sent through the following cryptic explanation:

“This isn't an ad; the beauty in the Assistant is that it invites our partners to be our guest and share their tales.”

Then later on Thursday, they sent a different statement to clear up the last one:

“This wasn’t intended to be an ad. What’s circulating online was a part of our My Day feature, where after providing helpful information about your day, we sometimes call out timely content. We’re continuing to experiment with new ways to surface unique content for users and we could have done better in this case.”

Why was this test unsuccessful?

For a number of reasons, including the fact that it was untargeted, unwanted and most importantly, it was unexpected. If you've bought a product, be it hardware or software, under the impression that ads will not be played or displayed, the last thing you expect is for that company to change their minds and start advertising. It's not the Home that you paid for. But Google haven't been deterred from the irritation these ads inspired, we can glean from their statement that this wasn’t so unsuccessful that they’ll never try again, in fact they say they’ll do just that when they note that it is part of a ‘continuing’ endeavour.

A premium service?

One way they could take this is to roll out a premium subscription service akin to Spotify for Google Home. Spotify makes money by hosting advertisers and also by selling a subscription service to avoid these ads. They even push people towards subscribing to their premium service by having their own ads on Spotify asking listeners if they’re “fed up of the ads?”. This presents a potential business structure for Google Home, users can buy their hardware product and then subscribe to a premium service, that doesn’t play ads.

However, I doubt this is the case; Google’s stance on user experience should be enough to guide them away from this plan. Google regards pop-ups, perhaps the most intrusive ad format, with disdain. Furthermore, they wanted to provide users with 'helpful information', suggesting that ads which obstruct user experience won’t be a high priority for paid content on Google Home.

Instead, I suggest that the reason this 'timely content' was not successful in the eyes of Google is that it was obvious that it was an ad. If the recent changes in the way they present paid ads on the search network is anything to go by, they will want their timely content to be as inconspicuous as possible.

Timely content vs voice search paid ads

Google are not alone in experimenting with ads on their hardware. In January 2017, Seth Dellaire, VP of Amazon Media Group intimated at Industry Preview in New York that they were going to launch a paid search product. With an estimated 5 million Amazon Echo devices sold since the product launched in 2014, this could prove to be a profitable avenue for marketers, especially as Amazon Echo users tend to fit a specific demographic, as evidenced from this Netpop survey.

Amazon Echo User Study


This makes Google's choice of adding 'timely content' even more interesting. With Amazon developing a paid ad platform for voice search, it's interesting to see that Google went down a completely different avenue. As explored by Brian Smith in his article, 'The future of paid voice search and monetizing the maps', there are many problems and obstacles to overcome with paid ads for voice search. For one, he notes that user experience would be sacrificed if after having conducted a search, users have to sit through an ad before an answer is given. He goes on to note that a way around this is to provide a screen through virtual or augmented reality so that users can see the answer as well as an ad and they don't have to wait for content. However, this relies on the user having both augmented or virtual reality tech as well as an  Amazon Echo, and they may not necessarily want both. Therefore, 'timely content' make a lot more sense in comparison to paid ads on voice search.

What does the future hold?

Within Lois Wentworth's article entitled 'How brands of the future need to utilise voice search and integrate chatbots', she discusses how chatbots and voice assistants will become fully integrated. This would allow all of the functionality of a chatbot within voice assistants, for example, you'll be able to ask your voice assistant to order your morning coffee so you can pick it up on the way to work. The ideal user experience would be for this device to learn your preferences and routine, making use of machine learning to make user's lives easier. For example, Google Home would know when you last did a food shop, what you bought and would prompt you to order your regular items. It might even be able to order these items automatically from your regular shop, let's say Tesco. But what's to stop providers from having an ad that says something like 'did you know that Sainsbury's is cheaper for these items?'.  

This would enable Google and Amazon to gain revenue from advertising, companies can market their products to those that are most interested and users benefit from highly targeted and useful content.

'Timely content' still has a long way to go and the online reactions to their first public experiment demonstrate the importance of quality content and ad targeting more than ever.  Furthermore, there needs to be an understanding that ads will be played before a user purchases the device, to ensure that they aren't decieving their customers.

Emma Russell

Author: Emma Russell