Data & Tech

Can brands talk to you via voice assistant while respecting data privacy?

“Voice is probably the second-most-informative data source short of the human genome,” said one nonprofit executive who works in the voice tech space.
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Gif: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Source: BestForBest/Getty Images

· 5 min read

They live in your house, in your car, in your phone. They know your deepest desires. And they often speak unprompted.

They’re voice assistants, and these days, they’re owned by more than half of US adults, according to Edison Research and NPR’s 2022 Smart Audio Report.

Brands are catching on. They’re investing in everything from sonic logos to voice-enabled ads that talk back, and presumably, advertisers want these ads to be relevant.

The voice medium certainly presents plenty of opportunities for personalization.

“Voice is probably the second-most informative data source short of the human genome,” said Jon Stine, executive director of the Open Voice Network, a nonprofit that operates as part of the Linux Foundation to build trust in voice tech.

Analysis conducted by the Open Voice Network found that just about 30 seconds’ worth of voice data can indicate everything from age to weight to ethnicity to education level, according to Oita Coleman, the nonprofit’s senior advisor leading its privacy, security, and ethical-use portfolio.

Third-party voice apps on platforms like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant are one of the most popular ways for brands to engage with consumers via voice, but for those looking to assuage potential concerns about tracking and privacy while still gathering data, there’s more legwork involved.

Big (voice) tech

Amazon and Google dominate the voice-assistant space as far as advertising opportunities go.

Google, however, is currently in the process of sunsetting Google Actions, which enable developers “to create custom experiences or conversations for Google Assistant users.”

On Alexa, developers and brands still have a way to create those experiences, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they own the resulting data. At times, it has been “the issue of data ownership and acquisition that are preventing enterprises from reaching out to [their] customers via voice,” Stine said.

Amazon could choose to sell this data to brands, but the company asserts that “we never sell individual customer data” and enables users to opt out of interest-based ads.

But a recent report found evidence that Amazon and third parties collected “smart-speaker interaction data” from Echo devices and processed that data for ad-targeting purposes.

Amazon spokesperson Lauren Raemhild said in an email to Marketing Brew that the “specific research is…not accurate,” adding that “we do not sell customers’ personal information and we do not share Alexa requests with advertising networks.”

Though Amazon says it doesn’t sell individual customer data, it does share aggregated, anonymized data with advertisers, and Alexa interactions may “inform relevant ads shown on Amazon or other sites where Amazon places ads,” according to Raemhild.

A voice app of their own

Companies testing out voice experiences are conscious of data privacy issues, voice marketers told us.

Still, clients are “always looking to get more and more granular” as they analyze campaigns, said Charles Cadbury, CEO of actional audio ad-tech company Say It Now, which works with brands including Disney, Subaru, and Pizza Hut. Even so, some are working within Amazon’s parameters, knowing how widespread adoption of Alexa is.

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Cadbury said one major retailer had expressed interest in increasing its first-party data, so Say It Now pitched a campaign driving customers to a branded Alexa Skill. After someone interacts with the Skill, they’d have the option to receive 20% off at the retailer via a coupon sent to their phone. The link sends them to a site that prompts them to share some information directly with the retailer in exchange for the discount.

“That’s a lot of our campaigns at the moment,” Cadbury explained.

Other brands want to come up with their own voice assistants, according to Scot Westwater, insights director at voice agency Vixen Labs, which has built voice experiences for companies including HBO, Sony Music, and WikiHow. It’s a more laborious process, but it’s another potential path to first-party data.

“There’s definitely a lot of appetite on the brand side to keep all of the data in house as much as they can,” Westwater said. That’s especially true for companies in sectors like banking and healthcare, he said, which deal with particularly sensitive user data and tend to be more heavily regulated.

Stas Tushinskiy, co-founder and CEO of AI voice marketing company Instreamatic, also said he’s had clients tell him that they “don’t want to depend on third-party platforms like Alexa and others because we want to own the data.”

So Instreamatic created Speaky, a platform that leverages its voice AI to let consumers leave spoken feedback for brands directly on their websites.

“When people speak, they reveal a lot more, especially the emotional part of the story that they want to share,” Tushinskiy explained, which can lead to richer first-party insights.

Edge of Texas Steakhouse used Speaky to measure customer sentiment and saw higher engagement with Speaky than with any of its prior customer research efforts; 45% of those who scanned the code to access the page with the Speaky tool used it to send a voice message, according to data shared by Instreamatic.

Despite obstacles, mistrust in voice technology decreased last year, according to the Voice Consumer Index, an annual study conducted by Vixen Labs in partnership with the Open Voice Network.

“That stat went down this year for the first time, which is really interesting because we’ve seen usage go up at a similar rate,” said Vixen Labs co-founder and CEO James Poulter. “The history of the internet is trading privacy for utility. That’s what we’ve always done.”

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