Media insiders divulge their Alexa expertise

By Steve Dorsey

Austin American-Statesman (Cox Media Group)

Austin, Texas, USA


By now you have at least one Amazon Alexa in your home or office, right?

Maybe you’re as cool as Jeff Bezos, who recently admitted he installed an Echo Dot in his toilet. Or maybe we’ve just given you a great idea for your home tech project.

Joey Marburger, director of product at The Washington Post admits, “I have done the same thing. Changing songs on Spotify from the shower is pretty awesome.”

Whatever the case, Amazon Alexas, Echo Dots, Google Homes, and other voice-activated audio devices are exploding across the landscape. As audiences move to new platforms, we need to figure out how to be there to serve them news and entertainment.

To get ramped up, we reached out to industry thought leaders and asked how they use the Alexa, and their advice on media strategies for serving readers — and listeners — in the near term.

Amy Webb, Tarun Nimmagadda, Mark Medici, and Matt Mansfield.
Amy Webb, Tarun Nimmagadda, Mark Medici, and Matt Mansfield.

How do you typically use your Alexa/Echo/Dot? And how has it surprised you at all?

Amy Webb (@amywebb), professional futurist and founder of the Future Today Institute, author of The Signals are Talking, and upcoming speaker at INMA’s World Congress: I’ve been using Alexa primarily for experimentation. If the Internet is the foundation of modern communications, I see voice, which also incorporates Artificial Intelligence, as the next foundational layer.

This moment in time is analogous to 1992, around the time the public Internet was being built. Amazon’s platform isn’t the only one, but it is certainly the platform the overwhelming majority of companies will be using in the near future. This informs my thinking about the future of voice, AI, and how we will talk to machines.

I wouldn’t say that Alexa has surprised me at all, though I do find it surprising that I can’t speak to it in Japanese or Spanish yet.”

Tarun Nimmagadda (@ntarun), founder and co-chief executive officer of Mutual Mobile: Alexa is a game changer. The flash briefing in particular should be a simple thing to add for publishers, which I think is a quick win with clear ROI.

Mark Medici (@medici1), multi-market vice president of audience at Cox Media Group: I bought Alexa for one primary reason — connected home use. I utilise Alexa for various music, cooking, and connected home chores.

What has surprised me the most is how much my children, Eva (14) and Blake (8), interact with Alexa, particularly Blake. He participates in a lot of voice-activated gaming on Xbox, so he is very comfortable asking Alexa for help with his homework or asking a Alexa a question to ‘verify Dad is right.’ Eva uses Alexa solely for math and Spanish homework. The reverse language function is very surprising. My wife, Annalee, has just started to interact with Alexa from a shopping perspective (we are an Amazon Prime household).

Matt Mansfield (@mattmansfield), chief innovation officer and senior vice president at CQ Roll Call, and upcoming speaker at SND Charlotte: Making the leap to speech feels like a natural next step for consuming and interacting with content. I use my Amazon Echo all the time at home.

Who needs a keyboard, right? Well, some of us do sometimes. My teams in a data-heavy subscription service often build interfaces meant for going down the rabbit hole. Spreadsheets. Data visualisations. Bill comparisons. Those are tricky to imagine happening with speech.

But what’s cool is imagining what it can help clients do while they are doing something else

That’s where our efforts are right now. Looking ahead, that’s where we are making voice-enabled tools and prototypes, built as a complement to Big Data and as a way to help the many multi-taskers who use CQ. And we’re doing that invention with our customers so we understand what helps and what doesn’t. We don’t want to be just another news reader.

Trei Brundrett (@clockwerks), chief operating officer of Vox Media: We bought an Echo early as a fun gift for our older kids (11 and 14). We put it on the island in the kitchen where everyone gathers for breakfast, homework, colouring books, etc.

What surprised me is how much more our younger kids (4 and 7) used the Echo. They loved that this machine would listen to them, that they could control what music we listened to. They made it tell jokes, of course. And they just explored. It took awhile for the Echo to recognise their younger, still developing language, but it was magic when it finally responded to their command.

Now we ask it questions frequently. And we set timers. We bought an Echo Tap later so that the kids could carry it around, push the button, and ask it for their favourite songs.

Trei Brundrett and Joe Zeff.
Trei Brundrett and Joe Zeff.

Joe Zeff (@joezeffdesign), president of Joe Zeff Design: So far I’m using it to play ‪Snoop Dogg‬ whenever I enter the office. Pretty addictive.”

Tyson Evans (@tysone), senior editor for strategy and product The New York Times and NYT Opinion, and vice president for the Society for News Design: I finally bought an Echo a few months ago — how can you resist a taste of the future for US$39.99? I primarily use it for controlling Spotify in our kitchen, so not quite the Jetson’s future. Though my wife laughs at Alexa’s jokes more often than at my own jokes.

It’s a great product, but I think the real issue is the discovery problem (which plenty of people have written about). It’s great that Alexa is connected to my lights, calendar, and shopping list, but I don’t always remember that so it’s difficult to form a habit around using voice to interact with those services.

Robert Hernandez (@webjournalist), associate professor of professional practice at University of Southern California Annenberg: We stream NPR nearly daily via Alexa. Also play music and podcasts. My kid likes to ask it questions, but often mixes up his words and confuses Alexa. I ask it about the weather nearly daily. I also notice that I ask it the time more than before.

Yesterday was the first time I added something to my shopping list via Alexa. I am also trying to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to role model manners for my kid. (Also, in case Skynet happens, I hope they remember that I was nice.)

Joey Marburger (@josephjames), director of product for The Washington Post and upcoming speaker at SND Charlotte: I’m probably not the normal use case. My entire home is wired for Alexa. Well, by wired I mean we have devices in all major areas. We have two Echo Dots in our kitchen and our bathroom, then an Echo next to our bed, and a Tap in our main area. The Tap serves mainly as a speaker that the kitchen Dot connects to so it sounds like Alexa is surround sound. After sharing that very geeky detail I think it’s an endorsement of how much my wife and I use it.

Mainly I use it in the morning for my flash news briefing followed by simply listening to NPR or music via Spotify. I also add a lot of things to my to-do list while I’m getting ready.

One surprising thing is how it has basically become a distributed speaker system kind of like Sonos in our house. We can play music from anywhere but also have information on-demand throughout our home.

But, the skills still have a lot of friction. There are tons of skills, but installing them and then remembering how to invoke them is hard to remember. ‘Alexa, open [insert skill name]’ isn’t the most natural thing to say. It needs more default skills or predictive skills to really grow like an app ecosystem. We’ve learned a lot about the user experience as we’ve built different skills for The Washington Post.

Tyson Evans, Robert Hernandez, and Joey Marburger.
Tyson Evans, Robert Hernandez, and Joey Marburger.

What is your best advice for media leaders in terms of forming a strategy or approach to new devices like Amazon Echo (or Alexa or Dot) and evolving platforms like audio on-demand?

Webb: We are in a pivotal moment, and right now I see media organisations focused primarily on audio on-demand, which means getting content into audible formats. I think this is a mistake. To the extent possible, media organisations must have a seat at the table and must participate in building the foundation. Or else they will wind up where they were in the early years of digital distribution, without a sustainable business plan to transition news from analog to digital platforms.

Medici: In my opinion, voice is an important part of any text or video comparable brand extension platform and should be treated at the same level of any other brand extension tools like social and search. The barriers to entry are minimal and the amount of time Google and Amazon are spending on voice recognition and voice-based Augmented Intelligence is equal to their text-based solutions.

Brundrett: My advice to media leaders is to live with an Echo and learn how natural it feels to use this new interface to computing and information. More importantly, understand that this isn’t just a cool gadget; it’s a very easy-to-understand prototype of how we’ll use voice for behaviour we already do today, specifically search. Think about how the content and information, the service you provide to your audience, can be easily searchable via voice queries and easily delivered via audio.

Finally, I would recommend thinking about the total experience your audience has with your content and what role the Echo plays in that ecosystem, not just what the Echo does by itself.

Evans: I’m really curious about the future of audio delivery for news. NPR One is still a cherished part of my morning commute, and I’m waiting for those kinds of smarts to migrate to a connected device like Alexa or Google Home. Voice as a channel for news updates, short- and long-form storytelling, alerts, and more is rich with possibility, given the right feedback loops so that I, as the listener, can shape the experience.

Hernandez: My advice is to look at simple ways to experiment with Alexa. Be proactive and try things out. Alexa can handle simple call-and-response type tasks. Every news organisation has a slightly different product (and brand) so there is no one blanket answer besides trying it with purpose.

Marburger: Skip the text-to-speech route. Invest in audio with human-read information as best you can. Engagement is vastly higher for that audio versus text-to-speech read by Alexa. We experimented at first when the platform was young, but once we saw the audience grow significantly we knew we needed to invest more. Of course, some skills can’t be all human read but a mix like our news quiz skill is pretty solid.

For new platforms like this, overall, it’s best to experiment. Don’t try to build complex skills. Don’t do a generic news podcast either. On-demand audio platforms are very similar to native mobile apps. We did a daily politics flash briefing because we are The Post. We will be doing more niche-style audio and skills this year as well.

Think back to apps and ask yourself, ‘Do we really need another flashlight app?’” 

About Steve Dorsey

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