An Introduction to Smart Speakers and Voice Search for Brand Advertisers

This is the first post in our new series detailing how brand advertisers can connect with smart speaker users. In this post, we’ll cover the software and hardware behind smart speakers, the major players in the market and how consumers are using these devices. 

Voice-enabled search has been a growing force in digital media over the past couple of years. By 2020, estimates from comScore put the percentage of voice searches as high as 50 percent. Like the transition to a mobile-first search landscape before it, voice search seems like the next big thing for advertisers. One of the major ways users conduct voice searches is with voice-enabled smart speakers, which have also been skyrocketing in popularity over the past few years. 

Smart speakers present a viable opportunity to connect with consumers that brands can’t afford to pass up. But, before brands can start implementing strategies to connect with smart speaker users, it’s important to have a basic understanding of how these devices work and how people use them. To open this series on smart speakers, we wanted to provide some background on:

  • How smart speakers and voice-enabled digital assistants work and who the major players in the market are.
  • The pace of smart speaker adoption.
  • How consumers are using smart speakers.

Smart speakers and voice-enabled digital assistants

Smart speakers are stand-alone hardware devices that provide voice-enabled digital guidance. They’re powered by digital assistants – AI-powered software that responds to voice commands. Examples of this software include Alexa (Amazon), Assistant (Google), Siri (Apple) and Cortana (Microsoft). You can find these digital assistants on a variety of devices other than smart speakers like phones, PCs, TVs, household appliances, wearables, etc. 

There are a variety of smart speakers available today but the market is dominated by two major players – the Amazon Echo and the Google Home. Each company has a variety of options stemming from their main device.

Smart speaker market share (percentages may not add up due to rounding)

Smart speaker market share


Smart speaker adoption rates

Smart speakers are far from reaching market saturation, but people are jumping on the bandwagon quickly. In 2018, more than 45 million people will use a smart speaker in the United States which is triple the number of users from 2016, according to eMarketer. 

Voice-enabled speaker users in the United States (in millions)

Voice-enabled speaker users in the United States (in millions)

Source: eMarketer

To illustrate just how quickly consumers are adopting smart speakers, here are a couple more stats from eMarketer:

  • As of April 2017, 60 percent of smart speaker purchases in the United States were made within the previous six months.
  • In 2015, there were 1.2 million households in the United States with a smart speaker. This year, that number will reach 12.7 million and continue increasing to 21.4 million households in 2020.

Households with smart speakers in the United States (in millions)

Households with smart speakers in the United States (in millions)

So, yes, smart speakers seem to be more than just a passing fad. For advertisers, ignoring the power of smart speakers now would be akin to shrugging off the opportunity presented by smartphones audiences in 2011. To get prepared to reach smart speaker audiences, it’s important that brands understand how people are using these devices.

5 ways consumers interact with their smart speakers

In the same way that people use their phones differently, smart speaker owners use the devices in a variety of ways. Since smart speakers remain a burgeoning product, users are still learning all the things they can do with them. Simultaneously, the makers of these devices regularly push out updates so new functionality is available almost every day.

Let’s look at five common ways consumers are interacting with their smart speakers today.

No. 1: Consumers use smart speakers to facilitate daily tasks

Many smart speaker users have integrated the devices into their daily routines, relying on their Echo or Home to facilitate a number of daily tasks. Last year, Amazon demonstrated how a new API would allow developers to build multi-step Routines using Alexa commands. By saying “Alexa, good morning” users would be able to trigger a sequence of events in a model home that Amazon set up. In that demonstration, the command prompted the room lights to turn on, the window shades to roll up, Alexa to start reading the news and a teakettle to begin boiling water.

This ability to set up Routines has a variety of other uses like turning the TV on and off, locking the door and controlling a variety of smart home functionalities. Outside of the home, smart speakers can also be used to make other daily tasks easier – like grocery shopping. Echo users can put together their shopping lists using their voice without having to stop and write everything out. When they get to the store, they can just pull out their phones, open the app and the list is right there for them.

How consumers are using smart speakers

Source: Google

No. 2: Consumers interact with smart speakers more naturally than other devices

Voice search in general and voice-enabled speakers specifically illicit more natural communication from users than other digital devices. People treat their smart speakers less like a device and more like a companion. This relationship has even inspired the term “e-lative” (electronic relative). 

According to Google:

Fifty-three percent of people who own a voice-activated speaker said it feels natural speaking to it, with many saying it feels like talking to a friend. Several respondents told us they’re saying “please” and “thank you” to their devices—something we’ve also seen in Google Home queries.

Understanding this more natural method of communication can help brands develop content that aligns with how users interact with their smart speakers and conduct voice searches. Developing content to reach these users will require a more conversational tone than the keyword-focused content brands have historically created for search engine optimization (SEO) purposes. 

Related – How Multi-Location Brands Can Optimize Websites for Voice Search Results

No. 3: Consumers rely on voice-enabled speakers for entertainment

While smart speakers can help users complete a variety of tasks, one of their main functions is as an entertainment source. Three-fifths of smart speaker owners play music on their devices and two-thirds use their speakers to entertain friends and family. Not surprisingly, a lot of users are also listening to more digital audio since getting a smart speaker. 

The audio smart speakers are listening to

Source: NPR and Edison Research

No. 4: Consumers turn to voice-enabled speakers to find information quickly

Finding information without having to pull out a phone or open a laptop is a major selling point for smart speaker owners. According to Adobe Analytics, 53 percent of voice-enabled speaker owners use the device for general research. Many users consider searching with their voice to be more efficient and natural than traditional search, according to research from Google.

While a significant percentage of this research is looking for general information that doesn’t contain a lot of buying intent (e.g., “how many cups are in a quart,” “what’s the weather going to be like today,” etc.), consumers do turn to smart speakers to research and make purchase decisions. 

What voice-activated speaker owners would like to receive from brands

What smart speaker owners would like to receive from brands

Smart speakers’ growing role in purchase decisions means brands will need to refine their SEO strategies to compete in a landscape that no longer offers the luxury of ten search results. 

Related – 6 Important Factors for Ranking in Voice Search Results on Google Home

No. 5: Consumers are increasingly using smart speakers to make purchases

Beyond just researching purchases, consumers are becoming more comfortable using their devices to actually buy products and services. According to Google, 62 percent of those who regularly use a smart speaker say they are likely to buy something through the device in the next month and 44 percent say they order products they need (e.g., groceries, household items, etc.) at least once a week.

Shopping actions users have conducted with their smart speaker (across all smart speaker users)

Shopping actions users have conducted with their smart speaker

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