After a burst of interest and excited speculation beginning in 2018, interactive voice (IV) news applications seem to have hit a plateau. This in spite of the fact that consumers typically cannot get enough of audio content and they continue to use voice assistants for other purposes.
News publishing is one of the areas in which interactive voice was poised to take off in a big way, but recent analysis has shown that hasn’t happened. What has prevented interactive audio news from being as successful as predicted, and what can publishers do to increase audio journalism’s success rate? Let’s explore.
What is interactive voice technology?
Pioneered as we know it by Apple in 2011, IV technology uses “voice assistants” to facilitate the connection between technological devices and consumers. These assistants — like Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri — perform tasks designed to make users’ lives easier. They can tell users the weather, turn on music, set reminders, send a text message, or even dim the lights. Essentially, IV assists with daily tasks.
Audio journalism and IV use in the publishing industry
According to the “Digital News Report 2022” from Reuters 2022 Reuter’s Institute Digital News Report, smart speakers now reach almost a quarter of the UK adult population (24%), 17% in Canada and Korea, 15% in Germany, and 13% in the U.S. But news adoption use remains disappointing; only a minority use these devices for any kind of news (6% in the UK and 4% in the U.S.).
Though IV was projected to thrive in the publishing industry with anticipation of interactive search results, video integration, and engaging audio responses to popular event questions, it has shown little growth aside from a few audio journalism formats. Additionally, only major players like the New York Times and the Washington Post have stepped up to the IV plate:
- The Washington Post — The Post approaches voice assistant technology by offering access to its daily podcast, “Post Reports” and its D.C.-area, one-minute weather update service, “Capital Weather Gang.” Smart speaker users can also set up Flash Briefings on their devices.
- The New York Times — Similar to the Post, the New York Times publishes episodes every weekday on its podcast “The Daily.” “The Daily” is one of the top-listened podcasts in the United States. Monday through Friday, Times journalists take a deep dive into a relevant story or event. If consumers prefer a condensed overview of the day’s news, they can listen to a three-minute rundown simply by asking Alexa or Google to “play the New York Times Briefing.”
Challenges of interactive technology
So, why has IV technology failed to take off in the news sector despite its predicted success? The 2018 Reuters report foresaw some of the challenges publishers have experienced integrating IV technology. The report boiled it down to four key barriers. Let’s break them down.
Lack of resources for innovation
Let’s be honest, keeping up with ever-changing technology trends isn’t cheap. It’s easy enough for publishers to brainstorm audio news offerings, but it’s not as easy to actually produce those offerings. A daily podcast demands a staff dedicated to solely producing that podcast, from fact-checkers to audio engineers to the hosts themselves. And that doesn’t even include the cost of equipment.
Lack of a clear path to monetization
With traditional reporting, publishers can require a subscription to access articles or watch videos. They can embed ads into said media. But with IV, monetization isn’t as obvious. If users turn to their voice assistants to ask a quick question, they likely won’t enjoy a 10 to 30-second ad before hearing their answer. It’s also unlikely that they’ll want to subscribe if they only access the news for a morning briefing or rundown.
Problems of discovery and awareness
Many smart speakers set a popular news outlet as their default offering — such as the BBC in the UK, —
Additionally, verbal questions and requests are sometimes longer and less precise than written searches. Therefore, SEO doesn’t work the same way via IV technology as it does via a typical Google search. Platforms are having to explore Answer Engine Optimization, further challenging their potential for brand exposure and discoverability.
Lack of usage data to guide development
Demographic usage data is the foundation of successful marketing and content strategy. However, the 2018 Reuters report noted that publishers are not receiving demographic data for smart speaker/smart device users, giving them little to no guidance for outreach efforts.
In addition to these four key barriers, consumers have also noted the length and lack of variety of news briefs (the most used feature for accessing news according to Reuters 2022 report) and incompatibility of podcasts with smart speaker usage as reasons for avoiding audio news.
But the opportunities remain
But hope is not lost for audio journalism. Several innovations over the past years and current trends, show opportunities for IV technology to shine in publishing.
The storytelling approach
First, publishers should consider their efforts to enhance multimedia storytelling. Publications like the NYT have been experimenting with dynamic storytelling to decrease news avoidance, and it’s an approach that could benefit from greater interactivity.
Voice tech startup Novel Effect paired with The Jim Henson Company in 2020 to create an immersive storytelling experience. As reported by voicebot.ai, “Novel Effect’s mobile app uses speech recognition technology to bring music, sound effects, voices, and other audio flourishes to a story, following along with the reader to play the sounds at the appropriate moment.” Although this approach obviously involves significant resources, it could be used to present occasional features on engaging topics that lend themselves to an interactive treatment.
Combine with video
Publishers would also be wise to focus on a video-first approach, as opposed to a voice-only one. Instead of simply reading off daily headlines when asked for the news, voice assistants can be programmed to pull up a cloud or timeline of stories, adding a visual component to the interaction when appropriate. However, publishers should be wary when creating these interactive experiences, as there is a fine line between engaging the senses to enhance a story and sensationalizing the news.
Towards the Metaverse
Finally, publishers can explore AI avatars — like this AI anchor in South Korea modeled after a real-life woman. As the metaverse grows and consumers demand more human-facing interactions, AI avatars present an interesting approach to lowering production costs and increasing customer satisfaction.
The ‘personal news informant’
All of these developments point forward to an ideal friction-free news experience mediated by a ‘personal news informant’. This intelligent assistant would already be familiar with our interests and also what we already know about a topic. They would be capable of handling requests like: “Any new developments in the China real-estate market today?” or even interruptions like: “Stop. Who is Joe Rogan? OK, thanks – continue with the story.”
Not long ago this would have been pure science fiction. But recent, often astonishing, developments in AI and ML have made this sort of deep, intelligent interaction entirely feasible. It might arrive sooner than we think!