Platform proliferation presents publishers with both an opportunity and a challenge.
The opportunity comes with the chance to distribute your content more widely and increase your audience, especially on a platform like Facebook Instant Articles, where the platform owner has a huge user base. The challenge comes in trying to second guess which platforms will stick around and thrive and which you can choose to ignore.
One that seems to be here for the long run is Amazon’s Echo, if the hype and excitement around it at the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas is anything to go by.
As one publication put it, Alexa — the name for the personal assistant interface with the Echo and Dot devices — was everywhere at CES, even though Amazon itself was not exhibiting at the show. That’s because Amazon has licensed other companies to incorporate the platform in their products. At the show, there were TV remote controls incorporating Alexa, while LG had a refrigerator and Ford had a car.
So, what are newspaper publishers doing with the platform?
In the United Kingdom, they seem a little slow on the uptake. Using the Alexa app to search for Alexa skills — the name for apps used on the device — I could only find three publishing companies: The Guardian, The Telegraph, and Daily Mail.
Of these, only the Mail appeared in results when I searched for “newspaper,” which suggests that brands on the Echo platform have yet to hone their app discoverability skills in the way they have in the mobile app stores.
All three work in a similar way. Alexa tells you what sections she can read — News, Sport, etc. You say the name of the one you want, and she gives you the top headlines in that section. Then she asks either which story you want to hear from these headlines (one, two, or three), or, at the end of each headline, asks, “Would you like to hear more about this story?”
The intonation of this phrase, however, is slightly odd, with the emphasis placed on the second half of the word and the end of the word extended. Phonetically, the word “story” becomes “stor-ree,” with the emphasis on “ree.”
The poor intonation is reinforced by the fact Alexa repeats the question at the end of every headline. If you ask her to read the entire story, she tells you how long it will take before beginning.
When it comes to the reading of the story, it’s reasonably easy to follow, although she does come over as slightly robotic at times and words do occasionally run into each other. Intonation is, once again, also an issue. With the emphasis routinely put in the wrong place, it just sounds slightly odd.
As a user, you can combine the output of the newspaper skills you have downloaded to your device through what Alexa calls a Flash Briefing. This gives you the headlines from the publications you have selected in the settings for the Alexa app.
If you include the BBC, you get the news headlines as they would have been read by a BBC newsreader on the radio, as opposed to Alexa’s reading of them.
Of the three publications, The Guardian seems to have put the most thought into its Alexa offering. It was the only one to invite feedback about its skill, offering a dedicated e-mail address to which people can send comments. It was also the only one of the three newspapers to offer the option of listening to its podcasts.
This is a very logical idea and works much better than the news headlines. What you hear is the original podcast, read by the original reader, rather than a version voiced by Alexa with her intonation issues.
All in all, news content on Echo right now seems, if you’ll excuse the pun, like not quite the finished article. Nonetheless, I applaud the Guardian, Telegraph, and Mail for getting on the platform early to see what works and what doesn’t, and no doubt to start thinking about how they can improve their offerings and possibly even monetise from it.
One publisher I spoke to about Alexa told me his company was thinking along these lines, saying it would consider adding podcasts and other audio content to its offering. Then it would increase scale and monetise, perhaps through sponsorship and audio advertising.
I also spoke to another Echo user about the device, to see what he made of it. Simon Wheatcroft is a blind ultra-marathon runner and something of an evangelist for good tech. I wondered how he felt about Alexa’s ability to read him the news.
He told me: “I use it relentlessly. I actually sat in the train station the other day and had to stop myself from asking Alexa a question. I enjoy using the Flash Briefing feature; I use this a few times throughout the day. However, the way I consume news is obviously always through audio, as I use a screen reader to read the articles.”
He continued: “It is definitely a simple way to access short-form articles. I think if you are not used to audio, it can be easier to become distracted and lose the trail of a piece. There are also a few issues with switching from written to audio. Skimming back a sentence quickly or skimming the entire article is not possible.
“But these are human/computer interactions that do remain a challenge and something I would expect to be explored in user experience design as we move toward audio-driven consumption. Overall, though, I love it. Natural language is a great way to access information.”
It’s worth mentioning, too, that there’s much more to Alexa than the Echo. There’s a lot of cool stuff it can do out of the box, like playing your favourite music on Spotify — “Alexa, play The Beatles” — but with a bit of configuration, it can also be programmed to voice control other smart home kits such as your Nest thermometer or Hue lighting from Philips. This is one of the reasons why there is so much interest in the Echo and similar devices.
If you’re a publisher who is not yet on Echo, I suggest you start by buying one for the home or office to see what your competitors are doing on it. When you do, it might also make sense to invest in a Google Home, which is the search giant’s answer to Echo.
Yes, Echo has a two-year head start, selling somewhere around 18 million devices, according to industry estimates. But given the importance of this particular battleground — Amazon could put a serious dent in Google’s paid search revenues if people start getting answers to more of their search queries via Alexa — I would expect Google to take it very seriously, and be in it for the long haul.
And let’s not forget Apple. It already has its HomeKit platform to control smart home equipment, from locks and window blinds to lights and power points, and this can be voice-controlled via Siri from the Home app. There have also been persistent rumours the company is working on its own Echo-like device, possibly also incorporating facial recognition, though Apple has never confirmed this.
Even so, voice seems destined to be a big battleground going forward. Publishers will no doubt look to monetise it in time. For the moment, however, the first job is to understand it.