Voice emerged as one of the most important trends of 2018. Driven by the growing use of voice-enabled devices, such as Amazon and Google’s smart speakers, many companies have started exploring the ways voice will impact everything from search to online retail.

But despite the possibility that voice could soon be near-ubiquitous, many questions remain about the shape of its impacts.

For example, while some analysts have predicted that voice commerce will eventually be responsible for tens of billions of dollars of retail sales, last August, leaked internal documents from Amazon indicated that just 2% of the people who own Amazon Alexa-powered devices have made purchases
using voice. What’s more, 90% of that tiny minority failed to make a second voice-based purchase.

Amazon’s leaked documents begged the question: has the potential for voice-based commerce been dramatically overestimated, or is adoption just taking longer than some observers anticipate?

When Amazon publicized the details of its record-breaking 2018 holiday shopping season, it produced more questions than answers. The retail giant stated that “customers use of Alexa for shopping more than tripled this year compared to last year” and also revealed that customers set eight times as many reminders. Ostensibly some of these might have related to shopping plans.

But Amazon stopped short of providing hard numbers. For instance, we don’t know how many orders were actually placed through Alexa, how much revenue was generated, what the average size was, or how many reminders were commercial in nature and how many were tied in some way to later sales.
Skeptics might point to the lack of specifics as evidence that the figures for Alexa-based shopping are still far from meaningful.

So what do we actually know about the state of voice?

Beyond the fact that usage of voice-based devices is increasing in percentage terms, one of the best ways to assess the market is to look at how consumers are interacting with voice the most. Here, an interesting trend is emerging.

According to Amazon, many of the top Alexa skills are games and those that aren’t are “focused on daily habits, wellness, and…family fun.” As TechCrunch’s Sarah Perez noted, across all of these categories, many of the top Skills “are known app names from the mobile app ecosystem, rather than breakout hits that are unique to Alexa or smart speakers.”

For example, top game Skills include Heads Up!, the Alexa version of a top paid iOS app associated with television personality Ellen DeGeneres, and Geo Quiz, which is published by National Geographic.

“That begs the question as to how much the voice app ecosystem will end up being just a voice-enabled clone of the App Store, versus becoming a home to a new kind of app that truly leverages voice-first design and smart speakers’ capabilities,” TechCrunch’s Perez wrote.

In other words, there’s still no evidence that some of the most aggressive predictions – like “50% voice search by 2020” — are anywhere near being realized.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that voice isn’t going to be important, or that it’s not worthwhile for companies to think about, say, how optimised their content is for voice search. But it does mean that, at least for the time being, most companies will still be hard-pressed to find a compelling ROI case for voice-related investments that aren’t experimental in nature.

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