For years, ads have screamed in our direction in an effort to get our attention. Nuance Communications hopes its latest offerings will get us to stop plugging our ears -- and even to talk back.
Nuance, a provider of speech recognition and language technology, on Monday announced a new ad format, Nuance Voice Ads, that allows consumers to carry on spoken conversations with mobile advertisements.
Nuance’s push for more interactive ads underscores the challenge marketers face in delivering their messages on small smartphone screens that give them only a few inches of space (if that) to make an impression. Facebook and Twitter, for example, have redesigned their applications and websites to help brands bring their sponsored photos and videos to the fore.
Yet unlike images and videos, Nuance’s Voice Ads won’t settle for being seen and heard. They also demand to be spoken to.
“It’s sort of like a little slice of a virtual assistant application,” said Nuance chief marketing officer Peter Mahoney. “It’s designed to engage you so you can literally have a direct conversation with a brand.”
In a demonstration of the technology, Nuance showed how a fictional deodorant company, dubbed "Alpha," could use Voice Ads to create an spot featuring a chatty Magic 8 Ball that answers questions and dispenses advice, all while working in the company’s tagline and staying loyal to the brand’s image.
Ask the Magic 8 Ball, "Should I go to work today?" and a male voice answers, "Do you want to?"
"Um, duh, don't go," the ad answers. "But on the off chance that you run into someone in person, use Alpha. Smells like money in the bank."
Though the deodorant example is more fun than functional, the Voice Ads could be designed to offer coupons or dispense practical information about a product. Nuance’s speech recognition technology can also distinguish the speaker’s gender, so it could tailor the ad copy to either women or men, in real time, depending on who’s speaking.
Mahoney said that since the ads can ask questions in a conversational and friendly way, Voice Ads would not only be able to get a user's attention, but collect personal information as well.
“There are some really interesting applications for ads that have a data gathering or survey application,” he said. “You could imagine seeing an ad for a coffee shop that says, ‘Hey I can give you free drink coupon. What’s your favorite coffee?’ And you could say, ‘I would like a double mocha chai.’ And it would understand what that was and say, ‘Let me give you a coupon for one of those that you like.’”
“The data is really valuable, of course, for the brand, because they want to know what people like,” Mahoney added. “And that creates loyalty for people because they feel like it’s great customer service.”
Voice Ads are currently designed to appear within advertising on mobile apps, such as the banner ads that appear at the top of free games. According to Mahoney, the company could eventually expand the technology to other devices, including televisions or even cars, where radio commercials might one day be able to carry on a conversation. He estimates that Voice Ads are two to three months away from appearing on consumers' phones.
Marketing experts agree that the first brands to incorporate Nuance’s Voice Ads will benefit from the sheer novelty of the approach. But Nuance's more interactive audio advertising could also be more intrusive. Rebecca Lieb, an analyst with the Altimeter Group, a research and advisory firm, argues that people are often on their smartphones in settings where it would be inappropriate to talk out loud.
“Smartphones are largely meant for browsing and for time-wasting, and people use smartphones in many, many situations that are not appropriate for talking,” said Lieb. “When you think about serving the right ad to the right person at the right time, this is not always going to be [it], because voice interaction is not always going to be desirable or possible for smartphone users.”
And do people really want to talk to the ads they so often try to ignore?
The appeal of Voice Ads -- and whether the technology can become an indispensable offering -- will ultimately depend on how advertisers incorporate them. Nuance is partnering with several ad agencies, such as Leo Burnett, Digitas and OMD, and a handful of mobile advertising firms, including Millennial Media, Jumptap and Opera Mediaworks, to persuade companies to adopt the new form of chatty marketing.
“To some this will be annoying and gimmicky no matter how it’s deployed,” said Chuck Martin, chief executive of the Mobile Future Institute, a research firm. “But it can evolve to be useful because now that the capability exists, marketers will figure out how to best use it."