Amazon wants Alexa owners to buy more things. That’s the clear impetus behind the new Alexa feature announced today at Amazon’s Accelerate conference, called Customers Ask Alexa, which lets brands submit answers to common questions like “How can I remove pet hair from my carpet?” and “How to eliminate odor from soil stains?” Previously, Alexa supplied generic tips from the web and other sources in response to such queries. But Customers Ask Alexa basically turns answers into sponsored product spots.
“Brands registered with Amazon Brand Registry will see the new Customers Ask Alexa feature in Seller Central, where they can easily discover and answer frequently asked customer questions using self-service tools,” Amazon explains in a blog post. “Customers Ask Alexa will be available to shoppers via the Amazon search bar in late 2022, and via Echo devices in mid-2023.”
Is that desirable? For sellers, maybe. For Alexa users, probably not. I, for one, don’t wish to be bombarded with ads every time a question about household chores arises. Amazon says that all answers will be subject to content moderation steps and quality checks and that the program will be invite-only to start (in October 2022) ahead of a broader rollout sometime in 2023 in the U.S. But I can’t say I have much faith brands won’t try to hijack questions with common keywords, angling for prime placement in Alexa users’ households.
Customers Ask Alexa dovetails with another capability unveiled today at Accelerate, Tailored Audiences, which will allow sellers and brands on Amazon to send marketing emails directly to customers. Bloomberg rightly notes that could backfire — particularly if those same brands aggressively push their products on Customers Ask Alexa.
It also seems unlikely that potentially unwanted product placement will do much to bolster Alexa-driven sales on Amazon’s sprawling marketplace. Historically, the estimated tens of millions of Alexa users around the world have been loathe to make purchases with their voices, with stats from one eMarketer survey showing that just 10.8% of customers used Alexa for online shopping in 2020.
The low uptake — and fading interest in Alexa — hasn’t stopped Amazon from increasingly leveraging Alexa-powered products as advertising mediums. In 2021, the company launched interactive audio ads on Amazon Music’s ad-supported tier, which is enabled by default on supported Echo devices, allowing listeners to add items featured in an ad to their Amazon carts by saying “Alexa, add to cart.” Amazon also recently began partnering with brands to run promotions as static images on Echo devices, which display during “ambient use” and in rotation with content such as weather, recipes, sports and news.
To attract higher ad bids from advertisers, Amazon uses Alexa voice data — a fact with which not all users might be comfortable. According to a report published in April — key details of which were confirmed by a spokesperson to The Verge — Amazon and third parties including advertising and tracking services collect data from owners’ interactions with Alexa through smart speakers, TVs and other devices and share it with as many as 41 advertising partners.
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