A quick refresher

First things first, what is voice search exactly? Voice search entails the spoken interactions by people with speaking supported technology, so-called smart speakers. These devices can recognize and respond to voice commands by retrieving information or performing a task.
For example playing a movie on Netflix, playing your favorite music on Spotify, weather updates, or informational questions like “What is online marketing?” or “Where is the closest McDonald's?”. Multiple companies have developed their own voice ecosystem. Voice assistant technology has mostly been developed in the past ten years. Some examples are Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, and Microsoft Cortana. These companies are in the race to acquire the biggest piece of the pie of users for their voice solutions.

Featured snippets

Voice Search has overlap with the current search field. In what way do they overlap? Mostly due to the fact that more and more searches are now being applied via smart speakers and voice apps instead of typing them in Google. These voice answers are retrieved from local results (such as Google Maps), structured data markup, and featured snippets. These so-called ‘featured snippets’ are enriched results on Google results pages. The most common type of featured snippet is the ‘direct answer’ in de search engine results page (SERPs).

Featured snippets are scraped sections of web pages, usually involving a ‘Q&A’ type of format. Receiving the infamous featured snippet on the SERP has the benefit of being placed at position zero at the top. Generating higher visibility, improved click-through rates on screen-enabled devices, and now they're also being served as voice answers. As a result, these benefits are increasing the competition for companies to acquire featured snippets.

Local SEO

Additional parts of voice marketing are location-related search queries. Where featured snippets focus on the ‘information’, local SEO is focused on ‘navigation’ as underlying search need: “Where is the closest gas station?”, “Phone repair stores near me” or “Freelance accountant London” are types of queries where 'location' is highly important.
Local intent queries don’t necessarily always contain these hints of navigation. Consider for instance the keyword ‘tax lawyer’ which also has local results listed, but doesn’t contain ‘near me’ or any specified location.
In most of these cases, Google Maps is displayed in the SERPs with local-oriented websites, which is based on your identified location. And more importantly: These results are triggered when using voice-enabled devices with these queries. This is particularly relevant for people on their way while driving the car, for instance. 

Structured data and schema.org

Thirdly, 'Structured data is markup added to the HTML code to provide more information to search engines about your pages and their relations. These markup types follow the schema.org guidelines and make it easier for search engines to crawl and organize your content. Implementing these types of markups has the benefit of enriched results in the search engine, similar to featured snippets. For instance the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) markup. Not only is the regular snippet with a page title, URL and description displayed. It is also expanded with several FAQ questions improving its visibility and CTR. Multiple of these markup types are also triggered as speakable schema for voice search. All the more reason to investigate the possibilities.

Voice actions and skills

Voice Search not only overlaps with SEO, it also extends the online marketing and SEO domain with new touchpoints: Actions on Google and Alexa skills. Somewhat a ‘mix of a chatbot and an application with voice technology’, Actions on Google is a platform where third parties are able to build their own ‘Action’, which can be triggered via smart speakers and Voice apps. These Actions or Skills provide a way to control other connected devices in one’s home or get more specific information about company related questions, and even interact with company products. These Voice apps generally can do two things: Provide information spoken via voice or execute a command. Is your company active in the financial sector? With voice Actions, you can provide information about financial products, such as loan criteria, pricing, frequently asked questions, and even financial news completely activated by voice. Are you deciding what to make for dinner? Google Actions can help you with recipes and preparation instructions, again all spoken via voice. The elegance is that it's hands-free, so in the meantime, you can focus on making breakfast, checking your e-mail, or browsing between TV channels and even while driving in the car.
Why could this be important for my business?
Market data shows that the adoption of Voice Search is rising and accelerating. Because the technology is still in its infancy, there are still a lot of ways it can develop. One thing is certain, Voice will play a big role in smart homes and the full IoT integration among consumers, providing many new opportunities for consumers and companies to connect within the home environment.
 
Early adopters will benefit the most by bringing the technology into the business as it will offer you several first-mover advantages. For instance, when new updates and features are rolled out, you are among the first to try and optimize current voice marketing activities. And more importantly, you are among the first to reach new and interested audiences in a unique way.
 
Secondly, voice presence will make sure new data collection and insights are available for your target groups. Early adopters are already collecting the first insights into how users interact with their Action or Skill. These insights are useful to prioritize future changes, making the user experience smoother, serving your users’ needs better, and, ultimately, creating more impact. This gives you a competitive advantage over other companies as they are lagging behind in adopting the technology.

Shaping your voice marketing strategy

To further develop a sound voice marketing strategy several steps can be followed to arrive at the right focus for your company and team. These steps will be explained in this section and include:
1: The overall (online) marketing strategy.
2: Current situation assessment.
3: Choose the activities and set up the KPIs.
4: Apply and put data collection and monitoring into place.
5: Evaluate and accelerate.

1. The overall (online) marketing strategy

Every year the marketing strategy is revisited to further refine future planning based on internal and external changes for the organisation. As a result, the annual plan for next period is formed and put into practice. The marketing strategy contains the objectives and goals. These objectives provide the guidelines in which the marketing activities should be applied.
 
Part of the marketing plan are the activities applied at the tactical marketing level. For instance: Applying marketing channel strategies for paid search and email marketing. Voice Marketing is also one of those elements. The chosen decisions in the marketing plan set the boundaries and give substance to the Voice activities. For instance: Are there specific products that will be pushed more than others? What consumer segments will be pursued? What tactics are presented to differentiate from competitors? Which branding tactics will applied? What budget is available? Answers to such questions help to shape the right focus for Voice activities and its feasibility.
 
If certain products are being promoted more than others it could highlight the preference to use that as a focus area for voice too. Budgeting is obviously an important component of marketing planning. Hence, setting a budget for voice will define the scope and resources capacity, such as development, outsourcing of activities, promotion and PR. Notably, in this phase, it is also worth outlining the benefits this Voice presence could enjoy, such as more brand awareness, solving customer issues, new customers, or even new revenue streams

2. Situation assessment: The opportunities of voice search

After taking the overall marketing strategy into account, the current situation should be evaluated to derive potential opportunities for Voice. Five aspects play a role in this section:
●      Focus markets and their voice usage
●      Product offering and consumption
●      Voice application possibilities
●      Competitor analysis
●      SEO maturity
 
The first three focus more on deriving Voice app ideas, such as Google Actions and Alexa Skills, whereas the last two sections zoom in more on the current SEO performance and landscape of your business.
 

Markets and voice usage

Depending on the size of the business an important starting point is to look at the operational market(s). What does the trend data say in terms of usage and adoption of Voice? Voicebot provides quarterly research with regards to voice usage and adoption in different regions. Such data gives a basis to verify which market(s) are suitable to start with voice.
Other characteristics to look at is market size and maturity of the market. These aspects tell something about the Voice potential for that market. If the market is very mature, it could be all the more reason to come up with an innovative concept to acquire new customers for your business. At the same time, if the size of the market is rather small, for instance, a B2B company with a limited pool of potential customers, it might not be profitable to pursue a really advanced Voice app and rather stick to something simpler. When more than one market seems suitable, it is wise to compare each market's advantages and disadvantages.
 

Product offerings and consumption

The market helps to get a sense of value potential. Investigating the product portfolio and consumption setting helps to establish interesting use cases. What products or services are being sold and to which segments? What needs do they satisfy, how and where are they consumed? Some products are more suitable or relevant for Voice than others. The same holds for the target audience. Voice is used for different activities and in different contexts. In which situations is Voice used among your target group? What does the customer journey look like for your products? Do your customers experience any issues or bottlenecks when deciding or using your products? Mapping out these underlying needs, bottlenecks and potential solutions helps to come up with new Voice opportunities and prioritize the best ones. An understanding of the (potential) touchpoints can also leverage new ways to expand current content at your website and new featured snippets to pursue.
 

Competitor research

Competitor analysis is nothing new in online marketing. In the case of Voice search it can provide a way to shed some light on what others in the market are doing. A place to start is to select the five biggest competitors and take a note of their websites and SEO presence. How much featured snippets do they have and for which keywords? Are any of these snippets interesting for your website? The same investigation can be done for structured data markup among competitors. What schema.org markups did they implement and how is it formatted? Do they have a working Action on Google or an Alexa Skill? A place to look is the Actions on Google database or Alexa Skills overview and investigate what Actions or Skills other competitors might have. This is a great place to gather more information and come up with new ideas to develop a distinctive voice app.
 

Actions on Google and Alexa Skills - Tapping in on consumers’ needs

When previous steps have been completed, you should have a basic sense of what is already out there for Voice apps. This will help to come up with creative solutions. Hence, it is necessary to take a look at Actions on Google or Alexa Skill possibilities based on the collected information thus far.
 
Voice apps provide a great way to act on needs that can be satisfied through smart speakers and smart displays. When developing an Action or Skill, focus on solving a problem that fulfills a returning consumer need. Many companies have experimented with building an Action but failed to design something that remains useful. As a result, many of the Actions are mostly a nice gimmick that will be used once or twice and never again.
 
Take something as straightforward as an Action for weather forecasts. It has just one function, and at the same time, it’s something one would potentially use on a daily basis when integrated into one’s daily routines. Now it doesn’t matter whether we talk about household expenses, stock prices, TV guides or business podcasts, there are probably situations where an Action or Skill could be beneficial to your business’ situations. It might be worth looking into the current IoT landscape and understand what smart home solutions are already out there as a brainstorm.
 
An important feature is the fact that Actions and Skills can be used after login. For example, to order a pizza via a Voice app, one’s personal information is authenticated after given approval. This is something to consider when building a voice application and provides opportunities for B2B markets as well.
Additionally, it is also important to consider the ‘visual component’ of Voice apps. Although smart speakers don’t have a screen, smart displays do. Smart displays are also voice triggered, with the only difference that they have a screen with given information based on user input. Not all voice apps need visual support, yet for some, it might be useful to improve the experience.
 
Finally, another thing to keep in mind is that a lot of development is being invested by Google, Apple and Amazon to improve voice experiences. For instance, as a recent new feature added to Google Actions, it is now possible to schedule Actions or reminders of voice generated updates. Another example is the option as a company to use a unique brand voice for the Action or Skill, which is a great way to give a more branded touch to the interactions.
 

Current SEO maturity

Until this point, mostly external sources of information have been consulted to acquire data. In this stage, the company’s situation is more closely assessed. It is important to review where one stands with current SEO performance. An overall assessment gives a great sense of the current SEO maturity and provides input for setting targets and resources in step 3. In particular, structured data markup, featured snippet presence, and local SEO presence are important since these play a more central role in Voice than the other SEO elements.
 
As mentioned before, featured snippets are direct answers to user queries on the search engine results page. Tooling is of the essence and several tools, like Ahrefs or STAT could provide insights for which keywords these snippets are being displayed and how many are actually in your company’s possession versus competitors. Finally, when featured snippets are dropped or suddenly added to new other keywords, they can be identified.
Featured snippets depend highly on your keyword rankings and content (structure). It is therefore important to revisit the content you supply within the website. Does the website comprise answers to all questions or informational needs regarding your products? Are there any content gaps in relation to competitors? Does the website provide enough content for all phases of the customer journey See, Think, Do, Care? Featured snippets are shown mostly for informational keywords and less so for commercial intent keywords. A thorough follow-up keyword research can assist in finding new content opportunities.
 
Structured data markup gives search engines more information about content and relations within a website. At this stage it is useful to revisit the collected information from the competitor analysis and assess how already implemented structured data at your website is performing. Are all relevant pages supplied with the necessary structured data without errors?
 
It is also worth looking into the Google Voice supported markups at Google’s structured data overview to implement within your website. Don’t forget the markups for local elements like company contact information. Even unsupported markups for Voice are worth looking into. If they aren’t applied in Voice today, they might be tomorrow. And secondly, although they might not directly generate presence on speaking supported devices, they do help clarify relations within and between web pages and make it Google easier to use that content for Voice in the future. 
 
A strong local SEO presence can result in a lot of relevant traffic to the website and physical locations. For instance, if you are a retailer with local stores spread over the country it is important people know where you are located. Search engines are a much-used starting point for navigation to local businesses. And let's not forget Apple maps for users of Siri.
Thorough keyword research and the right keyword insights tooling helps to identify these local keywords to pursue. Additionally, Google My Business (GMB) is useful to add stores’ locations and their local relevant information. Benefiting more presence in local intent queries and hence on voice devices.

3. Select voice marketing activities and setup KPIs

At this point, a lot of information about featured snippets, structured data, local intent keywords have been analyzed and multiple ideas have emerged to apply for voice. When all of the above is completed, it's time to select, prioritize, and decide on the most relevant opportunities.
 
For featured snippets and local keywords, it is useful to take the rankings and search volume of the keywords into account for prioritization. The higher you rank for a keyword, where featured snippets are shown, the more likely it is to acquire it. Therefore, focusing on keywords with rankings between positions 5 and 10 might be easier to acquire compared to keyword rankings of 20 and up.
 
When deciding on the best voice app idea things to take into account are: Is the Google Action being developed in-house or outsourced? What is realistic in terms of sprint cycles and delivery of MVP? How are you going to promote it? Answers to these questions further refine the roadmap and targets. Take the time to set up realistic targets to keep track of performance and further refinements later in the process.
For instance:
●      Have a working Google Action with at least 20 percent of customer base having interacted with the Action within 12 months.
●      At least 25 percent of the possible featured snippets in our possession.
●      Top 5 rankings for 50 percent of local intent keywords.
●      Increase featured snippets by 30 percent by the end of the year.
●      All voice-triggered structured data markups implemented by the end of the year.
●      +200 active clients using the developed Google Action.
 
How to come to the right targets? It is good to revisit budgeting and capacity limits lined out in step one to set realistic targets. After establishing the targets, it is time to include sprints, deadlines, and resources in the marketing roadmap and outline the responsible people involved.

4. Implement data collection, monitoring and Voice activities

When the planning of activities is finished, it’s time to start doing and implementing. An essential component is setting up the right data tracking and measurements, which is necessary before getting to work.
 
At this point it is not yet possible to monitor how many people came to the site via voice. The SEO community has emphasized their need for this data to be available one way or the other. So far, Google has not released any concrete updates on making this available in the short future. For featured snippets this means we can track our presence and the ones of our competitors, but not yet which have led to voice interactions. The same holds for structured data and local intent queries.
 
Does your current analytics solution contain Voice modules? Adobe launched a Voice add-on for their analytics capabilities to keep track of consumer usage with Google Actions. Google itself also has a Voice Analytics Console, similar to Search Console for SEO, to keep track of usage and engagement. These capabilities provide insights about errors in the Action, what device is used, usage per region, average conversation lengths, abandon rates and number of conversations.

5. Evaluate and accelerate

At this stage, when everything is being put into practice and rolled out, it is time to monitor and shift where necessary. Are rankings going up? Are we receiving more featured snippets? Is the Action or Skill used often? How do people interact with it?
These insights should be monitored, reported on, and evaluated to further track performance. The learnings can be used for new optimizations. For instance, when data suggests users struggle with certain steps or answers given by the Voice app, your team could look for solutions to make dialogue flows and voice navigation through the Actions or Skills more pleasant.
At the same time keep an eye out for new Voice features and updates by companies like Google, Apple, and Amazon. The voice industry is still in its infancy and will improve throughout upcoming periods. Finally, keep track of Voice research to better understand target audiences and be the first to tap into new opportunities.
In this article, we gave a simple framework and practical guidelines to help you put the right focus on voice marketing. Next to that, some food for thought on your current voice presence and future considerations. We encourage you to further investigate the dynamics of voice marketing and come up with a flexible future-proof voice approach for your business.
 
Interested to know more? Let your voice be heard. We are always happy to connect!

Paul Meijer

Marketing Operation Senior Analyst

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