Voice interfaces are steadily gaining popularity among consumers, so many brands have been quick to start trials with Amazon Alexa and Google Home devices.

At the Festival of Marketing this morning Paddy Power’s product innovation manager, Stephen McMeel, gave an insight into the betting firm’s own experiments with Alexa skills.

Stephen has a rather enviable job at Paddy Power – he’s tasked with investigating new and emerging tech to evaluate its impact on the business. At the moment this includes things like AR, VR, voice assistants and blockchain.

And because it’s all very cutting edge, ROI is less important than experimentation and the ability to make informed recommendations on future tech opportunities.

Horses for courses

Stephen explained that historically the company had always ‘designed for the transaction’, meaning the aim was to make it as easy as possible for people to place a bet by whichever method they chose, be it in a shop or on a screen.

However after a failed attempt to create a transactional experience on the Apple Watch, Paddy Power realised that it needed to re-evaluate its approach to new tech and create experiences that were suitable for each different platform.

Stephen said that when it comes to voice interfaces, brands need to consider use cases that take into account context around time, location, and who might also be around. Gambling is an inherently personal experience, and customers might not want Alexa to announce to their whole family that they just won £1,000.

Furthermore, Amazon doesn’t currently allow skills that enable people to win real money.

Different skills

Stephen explained that there are two different types of Alexa skills – custom skills and flash briefing skills.

Flash briefing skills are simple to create and just require some content for Alexa to read out to the user. For example, Paddy Power’s flash briefing is a 90-second news clip spoken by an Irishman.

Custom skills require brands to jump through a few more sign off hoops with Amazon, but can include more complex functionality.

Paddy Power’s custom skill trialled four different functions (including the flash briefing element):

  • A daily 10-second gambling tip.
  • The aforementioned 90-second news bulletin.
  • Gambling results feed.
  • Football and horse racing podcast.

The launch

To create some buzz around the launch and encourage people to start using the skill, Paddy Power ran a PR campaign called ‘Future Fifty’. The company sent Alexa Dot devices and Paddy Power goodies to 50 prominent customers and journalists, prompting them to take part in a month-long trial of the custom skill.

The idea was to track usage of the four functions and see which ones proved to be most popular. The Future Fifty participants were invited to join a WhatsApp group in case they had any questions about how to use the skill.

User feedback included:

  • Paddy’s Story was the most used feature.
  • The Football Podcast was rated as the best feature.
  • Alexa struggled to understand the names of different racetracks.

And recommended improvements included:

  • Add content for different sports.
  • Live commentary for matches.
  • Ability to check odds.

Paddy Power was also able to identify clear differences in usage patterns between the custom skill and the flash briefing. The latter is clearly used as part of people’s morning routines.

Key lessons

As is traditional, Stephen finished with some key takeaways:

1. Voice is hard. 

People ask for things in different ways, there are literally thousands of variations for the same command. Working out how to understand all these commands and get users from A to B without causing delays or frustration is still a huge challenge.

2. Start with a flash briefing.

Brands can easily get started on Alexa by creating a flash briefing. It’s a great place to begin testing and learning with Alexa, all you need is content.

3. People wanted content over transactions.

The screen is still a vital part of any online transaction. People want to see what they are buying before making a purchase or placing a bet.

It will be many years before people are willing to place all their trust in AI and voice interfaces.

4. Command & control.

Most successful voice apps are functional. For example, Ikea wouldn’t have much success with an elaborate app that tried to recreate the whole catalogue, but it could quickly give updates on a customer’s order status.

5. Find your ‘raw chicken on your hands’ functionality. 

Stephen explained that to be successful on Alexa, brands need to be useful. He cited an example of setting a timer while chopping raw chicken in the kitchen. “It’s 10x easier to do that by speaking to Alexa rather than washing your hands and setting a timer on your phone. Brands need to find their own ‘raw chicken’ moments where they make a task 10x easier via Alexa.”

What’s next?

Paddy Power is currently taking stock of user feedback and plans to roll out a new and improved Alexa skill in the new year.

According to Stephen: “Voice is a huge opportunity and will be massive in the future. At the moment nobody has got close to what voice can be and will be, there’s lots of potential there and it’s absolutely a journey worth taking.”

Ultimately he sees AI and voice interfaces being present in all of Paddy Power’s customer touchpoints, both online and offline, but that journey begins with trials on platforms like Alexa.

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