New Voice Apps Are Declining as a Breakout Hit Remains Elusive

The number of Alexa Skills introduced in 2019 was lowest since 2016

Illustration of a person trying to move a large thought bubble up a hill
The format has yet to produce a big breakout hit analogous to viral early iPhone games that drew people into the App Store. Getty Images
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More than a glorified home speaker, the simple plastic cylinder that is Amazon’s Echo device has been billed as a portal into a new way of interacting with technology. It can serve up everything from muse-like creative inspiration to recipes with a few spoken words of command.

But despite a saturation of such devices in American households—fueled by heavy discounts and giveaways—and a proliferation of tens of thousands Amazon Skill voice apps—also fueled by heavy discounts and giveaways for developers—around half of Amazon Echo users simply don’t bother to seek out new apps, according to the most recent consumer adoption report last year from voice-focused research firm Voicebot.ai.

Perhaps that’s part of the reason why the rate of new Amazon Skills hitting the store dropped to its lowest level since 2016 in January after declining for months, per Voicebot.ai’s research.

The format has yet to produce a big breakout hit analogous to viral early iPhone games that drew people into the App Store. “We haven’t really seen an Angry Birds,” said Bret Kinsella, Voicebot.ai’s CEO and research director. “There’s no Tap Tap Revenge.”

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While Amazon has had plenty of success disseminating its smart speakers, maintaining a 70% share of the U.S. market as of last month and trailed by chief rival Google and some niche competitors, the true value of the hardware was always supposed to lie in the behavioral data that could be collected through a range of usage rather than slash-rate device sales. The app marketplace took it from a simple gadget to a full-fledged digital ecosystem that prompts brands to draft entire voice-focused media plans and agencies to build dedicated divisions.

Yet there are few, if any, examples of marketers that have created successful, sustained branded experiences on the platform, said Forrester research analyst Jennifer Wise.

“I’ll be honest, there are not stellar examples of companies that have done this. There have been some who promoted them through an ad, like we saw with [a 2016 Super Bowl stunt in which Domino’s pushed an Alexa-based ordering tool] and those get a flash-in-the-pan-like adoption,” Wise said. “But for companies that are seeking long-term repeatable usage, very few have seen that.”

Lori Pantel, CMO at Fandango, said the ticketing company was able to get some traction for a relatively small investment by being an early adopter on voice platforms, but the technology still has a ways to go before it becomes a substantial driver of value.

Kinsella said there have been a handful of third-party branded experiences that have found modest buzz this way, entering the space when competitors were few enough that they enjoyed outsize earned media and Amazon-backed promotion. But such success stories are becoming fewer and farther between, he said.

“So then the question is if other third parties or voice apps aren’t doing well, what’s the reason for that?” Kinsella said. “Is it not that useful? Is it that there’s no discovery? Is it that people just haven’t changed their behavior yet? And the answer is, yes. All the above.”

Amazon has also been scaling back the contests and monetary rewards it had offered developers to incentivize new Alexa Skills as the number available has exceeded 70,000 in the U.S. and 100,000 worldwide.

Kinsella remains optimistic about the future of voice apps regardless, arguing that Apple’s third-party App Store experienced similar growing pains when the iPhone first rolled out. Selling consumers on changing their daily habits can take time, and the adoption of smart speakers as a whole has happened much more quickly than initial forecasts expected, he said.

But it may take some fundamental changes in how developers approach such projects to overcome the hurdle, according to Wise.

“Overall, from a user perspective, these experiences are just too complicated, and the technology isn’t intelligent enough to make this something worthwhile for the customers,” she said. “So the most important thing these companies need to do is begin to deliver some sort of a true value to users and make the interaction incredibly easy for these interactions to become a preference and to see broad adoption today.”

This story first appeared in the March 16, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@patrickkulp patrick.kulp@adweek.com Patrick Kulp is an emerging tech reporter at Adweek.
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