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Given how much of a success Amazon’s voice-based AI assistant Alexa has been for the company, it was almost inevitable that the next step would be finding some way to develop some form of paid voice-based search. And, indeed, it now looks like Amazon has been having private discussions with a number of top advertising agencies about the best way to integrate paid advertising options.
The customer experience problem
The problem, quite simply, is that paid voice ads would create a downright terrible user experience. In many ways, consumers would begin to view Alexa as a Trojan horse designed to get inside their home. Imagine the following experience: you ask Alexa a question about how to cook a meal, and the only answer that Alexa gives you is one that has been bought and paid for by a company looking to sell you food. Or, you ask Alexa a question about the weather, and she casually mentions that “a nice winter coat from [Company X]” would make things seem so much warmer.
You’d start to resent Alexa, right? You might even begin to think that Alexa is eavesdropping on you, listening to conversations within your household, with the clear intention of relaying all that information to very interested advertisers. Wouldn’t a company like P&G absolutely love to know what time or day of the week you do your laundry? Wouldn’t a pizza chain love to know what your favorite foods are? Who knows – with enough eavesdropping and enough AI, Alexa might begin to know you better than you know yourself!
No voice ads … for now
The good news is that Amazon recognizes that this is a potential problem. According to reports that have leaked out of Amazon HQ, Amazon simply won’t release any advertising for the Alexa voice platform until it’s “perfect.” For now, at least, the consumer experience comes first.
However, the only problem is that advertisers appear to be lining up at the door, just waiting to throw their money at Amazon. Right now, there are more than 10,000 Alexa skills waiting to go, but many consumers have absolutely no idea that they exist or how to use them. So the most obvious use case for advertising is coming up with a natural way to surface some of the best skills for consumers without it being an intrusive or cumbersome experience.
A paid model for skills promotion
For example, one option that has been floated is presenting a list of several possible answers to any query posed by a user – maybe one paid answer, and two non-paid answers. That way, it would not be as obvious that Alexa was simply surfacing all the companies and products that are paying for the top spot with ad dollars. Another option is to integrate an Alexa app experience into the way people interact with their home device. Presumably, the voice interface option would remain uncluttered by ads, but the app might have tiny paid ads all over the place.
So what’s next for the brave new world of paid voice-based search?
Amazon has to decide whether it has created the next great AI platform or whether it has created the next great advertising platform. For now, the answer is clear: Alexa is a useful, friendly AI assistant with some serious skills. But the more money that advertisers are willing to throw at Amazon, the more that the company might decide that, hey, ads wouldn’t be such a bad customer experience after all.