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Technology adoption is speeding up at an incredible pace and it’s likely you’ve seen a tech adoption chart like this before. The takeaway is apparent in revealing our insatiable hunger for new technologies. What starts as gradual sloping lines is very abruptly replaced by near-vertical adoption “curves” for technology introduced in the internet age. While there is a confluence of reasons for recent penetration acceleration, for brands, the promise of new technologies and the rate at which we adopt them is a tantalizing prospect. New mediums, new experiences and new value exchanges all theoretically add up to relationships with consumers that are deeper, more personal and ultimately (fingers crossed) more profitable. But in the pursuit of the “next big thing,” how do you know it’s the right time to start investing? How do you measure the benefit of being an early adopter when immediate ROI isn’t clear?

Historically, brands have been prone to pounce on a technology trend as a tactic looking for a strategy, when it should be the other way around. We’re seeing it again now with the rise of hype around Web3, NFTs and the metaverse. As a company centered around conversational AI, we witnessed a similar flurry of brand interest when voice assistants made the jump to the mainstream. Five years ago, we were being asked to build dozens of Alexa Skills and Google Actions for brands, often in the absence of a clear strategy or sufficient funding needed to promote sustained success.

While Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri were largely responsible initially for the rise in public awareness of voice, it wasn’t until integration with other touchpoints — into cars, mobile apps, custom hardware products, to name a few — that we are seeing the more meaningful effects of voice adoption. As this maturation has set in, the herd of early experimenters has thinned and the companies that have invested in voice are doing so for the long term by investing in more comprehensive applications, acquiring companies with voice capabilities and hiring dedicated in-house assistant product teams. The result is fewer, but more powerful and valuable, branded voice applications.

We see parallels in this latest wave of digital technology experimentation among brands, as we saw with voice. Although the addressable audience in all of the “web3.0 virtual worlds” is currently only at 50,000 monthly users, brands are spending millions on virtual real estate, minting NFTs and establishing partnerships to create the “metaverse for kids” (who said they even needed one?). And for what? FOMO? PR headlines for the brand? Long-term investments? From brand to brand, all of these may be worthwhile reasons, but in the spirit of parallels between this wave and what we’ve learned from having led consumer and enterprise organizations through the adoption of voice technologies, there are few judgments to make when evaluating when, how and why a brand should participate in what purports to be the next big thing.

Pilot new technologies through your core business and brand with voice

This might not be groundbreaking advice, but it’s a surprising misstep when new tech comes along. Even as the market of voice experiences has matured, the earliest successful voice experiences were those that were core to the customer experience brands already offered. In creating Alexa skills and Google actions for brands like Starbucks & Nike, it was the reordering of a go-to order at Starbucks to manage in-store foot traffic, or a surprise sneaker drop through media partnership that moved the needle and supported their day-to-day businesses. As a parallel, fashion brands creating digital styles for avatars are an extension of the value exchange currently in place in the physical world and represent a strong first-mover advantage and brand-building opportunity, but can we say the same for toilet paper NFTs

While the early skills and actions built by Starbucks and Nike are not necessarily core business channels now, these early efforts allowed the organizations to get familiar with underlying capabilities and requirements of voice — like mastering custom NLU models, or establishing devops and partnerships — to support long-term initiatives. By starting small in support of their core business, they were able to build from their early pilots rather than just generate ephemeral buzz, without real KPIs or strategic value. Instead, they delivered stronger connections between their brand and audiences without the missteps; it’s with this aim that metaverse and web3 should be explored for brands starting out.

Experiment & invest: Building depth over breadth

Five years ago, for a brand to go ‘all-in’ on voice might have meant something like achieving widespread reach by having a voice experience with your customers across as many smart speaker/voice assistant platforms as you could, leveraging some underlying consistent interaction model around a core service.  

But as the market has matured even further these last few years, going “voice all-in” for brands and enterprises has evolved from achieving cross-platform reach to forming a rigorous technological strategy. The depth of valuable strategies spans building proficiencies in domain-specific language models, low-latency speech recognition, speech sentiment analysis and previously mentioned, developing brand-owned custom assistants. By going deep with the available technologies incrementally over time, brands can deliver more valuable experiences in physical and digital relationship environments. This strategy has been deployed effectively in Financial Services with brands like Bank of America, who have iteratively improved their voice assistant Erica year-over-year to incredible gains and through the technology acquisition plays at brands like Peloton, Sonos and Microsoft who have made highly specialized acquisition plays for robust technology capabilities that shape their customer experience, hardware and vertical technology strategies, respectively. 

Since 2018, job creation and demand for web3-related roles have consistently grown hundreds of percent annually, due to the relative nascency of the tech and promise of what these proficiencies will usher in; and the forecasted demand in years to come is expected to be higher still. The opportunity to explore these technologies – either in-house or through partnerships – should help those brands looking to go “all-in” bide their time while ensuring the virtual and physically-augmented experiences they aim to support can truly match their ambitions without stumbling over a near-sighted objective.

Voice’s rise to mainstream prominence provides lessons for brands when considering their relationships with web3 and tactics to tackle the augmented worlds of the future. And it’s clear that voice’s story relative to these technologies is one of convergence, evidenced by next-gen projects like Meta’s own announced ambitions to build a voice assistant for the metaverse that “blows Alexa and Siri away,” among others. Still, as the crypto wallet becomes as ubiquitous as the mobile app, we know what we’ll see: big tech and major brands leading and inspiring FOMO, some early “innovators” hitting reset and the inevitable leapfrogging and success by patient observers & savvy early adopters with a long-term view.

Dale is a senior director at RAIN


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