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The Smart Audio Report, Spring 2018 Edition

The smart speaker user base appears to have rapidly evolved beyond its “first adopter” set.

Smart speaker ownership continues to grow quarter-to-quarter — you know, as expected, because that was always going to be the case based on the way things were going. But what was particularly interesting from the Spring 2018 edition of Edison Research and NPR’s Smart Audio report, which was presented in full webinar form yesterday, is how the smart speaker user base appears to have rapidly evolved beyond its “first adopter” set. The question, of course, is what this means and what this tells us about the way we think about the users that audio publishers should be designer for when it comes to smart speaker experiences.

In Tuesday’s newsletter, I ran some of the eye-catching key takeaways that Edison Research and NPR fed me for a preview on yesterday’s full report. All of them remain pretty interesting and important, so I’m going to publish them again here for reference in case you missed it:

  • “For first adopters, the smart speaker is now the number one way they listen to audio, and 38% of newer, early mainstream users say they purchased the device hoping to reduce screen time.”
  • “While first adopters demonstrate more advanced smart speaker use – controlling home security and other household devices – early mainstream users are quickly relying on the technology for a wider range of daily activities – ordering food, making calls, getting traffic reports, researching products and shopping.”
  • “News is one of the most in-demand genres of content among all smart speaker owners, and 3-in-5 who plan to buy another smart speaker, want to buy it in order to listen to news in more rooms of their home.”
  • “Among all smart speaker owners, the most preferred formats for audio advertisements are skills/features created by a brand, host-read ads on podcasts, product endorsements and sponsor or underwriter announcements during public radio.”

You should also probably know about the money quote listed in the report’s official blog post, which is basically the nut graf for the whole hullabaloo:

“In homes that have had smart speakers for at least a year, they are now the number one device for consuming audio. This has profound ramifications for anyone in media and advertising. For millions of Americans, smart speakers are truly the new radio,” says Tom Webster, Senior VP of Edison Research.

Again, these are all super interesting things, but I find myself particularly fixated on the whole smart speakers “quickly expanding beyond first adopters” thing — and how, as noted in yesterday’s webinar, the fact that “early mainstream” users have already outpaced “first adopters” at this point in the product cycle was described to be “a little unusual.”

Knowing definitions here would probably be helpful. For reference, the “early mainstream” category refers to those surveyed who have owned a smart speaker for less than a year, while “first adopters” are those who have owned smart speakers for over a year plus.

What is the significance of this shift, deemed to be unusual? What does it tell us about where smart speakers, and the nature of the way we think about its user behaviors, going? I’m still mulling over those things, but the specific knot I keep bumping into is whether or not these findings tell us more about the nature of the smart speaker as a product or the nature of the first adopter as a consumer type. Obviously, it’s a little bit of both, much in the same way that everything is a little bit of everything.

But I’m nonetheless curious if there’s more material here to unpack, falling from those questions. Two things in particular that I’m mulling over:

  • The validity of this theory: Amazon Echo and the Google Home are products that are designed to fit into the lives of everyday people especially well in a way that most other technology products simply do not… and perhaps as a result of this, “first adopters” are less enthused about or effectively served by smart speakers;
  • The tangible ramifications for strategy: What this means for the way publishers — and advertisers, I suppose — should think about building experiences for smart speakers, projecting what their main addressable audience pools on the platform will be, and discerning what prior studies on first adopters-vs-mainstream consumers should be adapted to inform pursuits in this arena.

Whatever, maybe it’s just all purely academic. Frivolous stuff.

Anyway, of particular interest is the seemingly pronounced strength of the relationship between “early mainstream” folks and the speaking device they’ve let into their homes. According to the report, “early mainstream” smart speaker owners are more likely to use the device more often over time compared to first adopters (54% vs. 48%), listen to more audio (70% vs. 63%), and serve as advocates for the technology (61% vs 52% encouraged their friends to get smart speakers). Something I’m wondering: is this a structural expression of this new user category slice, or of a more general honeymoon state?

When asked “will early mainstream users become more like first adopters over time?” during yesterday’s webinar, Edison Research’s Tom Webster posited that the two user category slices simply represent very different types of people — it’s notable that “early mainstream” users are more likely to have children in the household compared to “first adopters” — and therefore, no, it’s probably not safe to assume that would be the case. Which makes me think of this follow-up: to what extent can publishers bet on the continuity of the behaviors exhibited by the “early mainstream”?

On a separate but related note, podcast consumption appears to fit into the lives of “early mainstream” smart speaker owners pretty well. Here are the relevant slides to scan:

Though, it’s worth noting that the webinar also posited the theory that the split between “first adopters” and “early mainstream” here might have something to do with changes in how difficult it was to consume podcasts via smart speakers over time. In other words, because better podcast experiences have been built for smart speakers over the past 12 months, those who acquired the device most recently — i.e. early mainstream — simply have a better relationship with the top of the podcast publisher-smart speaker funnel. Just something to consider.

Other things of note:

(1) Intentionally phasing out your eyeballs. More “early mainstream” users purchased smart speakers with the explicit hope of reducing screen time, compared to “first adopters” (38% vs. 22%). Another directly-related expression of this: more “early mainstream” owners now report spending less time with other technologies since getting a smart speaker, compared to “first adopters” (33% vs. 23%).

(2) Lean towards advertising products more native/organic to the platform. Et voila:

Relatedly: “81% of smart speaker owners are open to skills and features created by brands on smart speakers.”

Webster made a really good point when asked for examples of successful branded skill executions, noting that the goal should always be centered on being actually useful or helpful to people. And mad props to him shouting out the “SitOrSquat” restroom finder app, now owned by Charmin, as a model — though it isn’t an Alexa skill per se, but you get the point.

(3) The Smart Speaker is merely a vessel. Not unlike, perhaps, the way our body is merely a vessel for our consciousness. To quote the criminally underrated Halt and Catch Fire — and pardon because I think this line was one of the dumbest lines from that show but it’s still totally apt here — smart speakers aren’t the thing, it’s the thing that gets you to the thing, and the second thing in this context is basically a world where you interact with computers through speech. It’s a gateway drug, the starter pack before the upsell. So whatever you’re building for that funny looking tube in your apartment, you’re also building for your apartment talking back to you. Which is, you know, equal parts cool, creepy, and boy I’d like to run into the woods away from the Panopticon please.

Anyway, this is merely a small and specific romp through the report. Do read the whole thing yourself, which you can find here. Also: I’d love to hear what you think about all this smart speaker business. Do let me know.