Smart Speakers: A new way to listen to old radio

With smart speaker sales projected to total 44 million units this year, per the Consumer Technology Association, radio companies are moving fast and furious to create an optimum user experience for their brands on the platforms – and devise creative promotional strategies and tactics to drive consumption. While launching skills that provide access to station streams has been job number one, some broadcasters are now going far beyond the basics—exploiting the interactive and on-demand functionality that smart speakers provide to make the listening experience inherently different from traditional AM/FM radio.

Earlier this year, iHeartRadio added Samsung’s virtual assistant Bixby to its platform lineup, making the streaming audio service available on all major voice-activated virtual assistants. Consistent with its iHeartRadio master brand strategy, the company has launched umbrella iHeartRadio skills through which each of its stations can be accessed. In addition, the audio service added to its offerings with the launch of a lineup of nearly a dozen high-profile Flash Briefings for Alexa-equipped devices, featuring such popular shows and personalities as “On Air With Ryan Seacrest,” “The Brokaw Report,” “The Rush Minute” and several NBC News Radio category briefings. The radio giant says it plans to develop more original skills that let listeners engage with iHeartRadio via voice, while also providing advertisers opportunities to integrate with its content in new and innovative ways. Far more than just a speaker, voice-activated devices, of course, enable new ways to interact with content and brands. Six in 10 smart speaker owners agree that “having your smart speaker is like having someone to talk to,” according to “The Smart Audio Report” from Edison Research and NPR. Capitalizing on this interactivity, iHeart launched a skill for Google Home that let device owners use their voice—and in a new and quite successful experiment, employ more free-form language/word options—to engage Google Assistant to vote in one of the categories for the 2017 iHeartRadio Awards. During South By Southwest, music fans on iHeartRadio could play Austin music trivia by talking to their Google Assistant. And last December iHeart launched a seasonal skill that let Amazon Alexa users “talk to Santa Claus.”

Federated Media, one of the first companies joining the smart speaker party, is already rolling out second-generation skills. The top takeaway from its early mover experience, says chief strategy officer and director of programming James Derby, is that simple is better. “What we’re starting to realize is the more options delivered on a skill, the more likely retention will be lost as those options are presented,” he says. So Federated is now working with tech provider Xappmedia to build individual skills for each of its top content offerings, supplanting its existing all-in-one station skills that provide access to the live stream, podcasts and custom on-demand music channels. “We’re taking our top custom music stations and top podcasts, based on data usage, and offering them as individual skills,” Derby explains. Cumulus Media, too, has kept its local station skills simple, primarily using them as a means to access the live stream. Podcasts and on-demand listening options will be added later. Sister network Westwood One, meanwhile, is pushing the technology envelope with its on-demand – and interactive – user experience, which is at the core of the sports skill it recently launched. To increase listening and interactivity for its March Madness play-by-play coverage, the network allowed Amazon Alexa users to access a live stream of Division I Men’s Basketball Championship and other NCAA games. Users that enabled the network’s sports skill could also access play-by-play highlights and request the day’s schedule, ask for a specific game or score or play a broadcast recap of the game. The network plans to launch similar on-demand offerings throughout the year for tent pole sports events for which it holds the rights. Since the sports skill launched in February to coincide with the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, WWO says it has had 115,000 play events. “Once again it proves the power of radio to educate about the Westwood One skill and the power of great content to drive usage,” says Suzanne Grimes, executive of VP Marketing, Cumulus Media and president, Westwood One. The network plans to use the Alexa platform to drive incremental listening to other sports and entertainment programing throughout 2018. But while much of the industry’s smart speaker attention has focused on returning radio to a more prominent position in the home, the voice opportunity transcends a specific location. “AI and voice assistant technology will be at the core of the car cockpit experience in the not too distant future,” Tim Clarke, VP of Audience & Content for Radio at Cox Media Group, says. “This will be how listeners tune to our radio stations. The speakers are a great warm-up for us to be ready for that reality.” Creative Promotional Strategies Radio is using the bullhorn power of its own airwaves and digital assets to grow awareness and adoption. Broadcasters that have launched smart speaker skills say heavy promotion triggers a sizable jump in usage, which isn’t surprising given the newness of the technology. “Every time that we have a station that does a major promotion around Alexa, we can see significant increases in listenership on those platforms,” says Beasley Media Group executive VP of Digital Steve Myers. “What’s more, it tends to be pretty sticky. In other words, once people get onto the platform and get used to using it as their home or office radio we tend to see the numbers stay there. They don’t go down very far.” After launching Alexa skills for 300 local brands late last year, Cumulus Media stations began airing promos for them in hourly 10-second sweepers around the Christmas holiday season and immediately afterwards. Since then it has pulled back to about eight promos per day. The result: 300,000 people activated one of its skills in the first two months of the promotion, the company says. While Cumulus corporate provided basic directions, the language of the promos was left to local stations. “Each station has the opportunity and responsibility to create local messages so it’s in the voice that they think will speak directly to their listeners,” Grimes says. Stations are using every tool in their arsenal to promote their skills, from instructional online videos and social media, to on-air promos and jock chatter to leveraging text and email club databases. For some broadcasters, bringing Alexa into the studio and having the jocks enable the app right on the air has been the most effective promotion. “That lets listeners hear how it’s done and how the skill is presented,” Derby says. Federated stations also air sweepers voiced by Alexa herself and have an Alexa tab or icon on their websites that links to a dedicated Alexa page with instructions on how to enable the app. But even before the promotion begins, digital experts say it’s important that the invocation name – the actual voice command that will launch the station’s content on the device – actually works. “This is tricky. We have all been through the experience of requesting a station on Echo and getting the wrong one,” says Clarke. And all across the industry, broadcasters are having an ongoing dialog about the most effective language to use in promoting the skills. “We’re trying to grow the audience in aggregate and deliver the content wherever people would like to consume it,” says Larry Linietsky, VP of Operations and Business Development at Cumulus Media and Westwood One. “How we help listeners discover what we’re doing it is a big part of that.”