Why Every Airline Must Leverage Voice Technology Now

By now, everyone – probably even your grandmother – has heard about the likes of Google, Siri and Alexa voice technology. As a matter of fact, smart speaker adoption is even outpacing that of smartphones from a decade ago.

According to Adobe Analytics, as of August 2018, 32% of consumers own a smart speaker. This is up from 28% in January, marking a 14% increase. This doesn’t even take into account the holiday season, where 79% of smart speaker sales occur. Adobe predicts that 48% of U.S. consumers will own a smart speaker after the 2018 holidays.

But even with the rapid rise of voice technology, most brands have been slow to jump on the wave – including airlines – as they wait for the space to develop. However, there’s something to be said about getting out ahead and gaining a competitive advantage. Entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk puts it like this:

"I think Alexa is an incredible opportunity to win... Alexa is the beachfront property vacation, yet to be discovered and booked up by the masses."

As they say, the early bird gets the worm. In this case, the early adopting airline could get the passenger.

Current Consumer Habits

Before we dive into what airlines can do with voice, let’s first take a look at how consumers are using and interacting with the tech.

When it comes to travel marketing, one of the first words uttered is search. Already in 2016, one in five searches were performed via voice. Comscore projects that nearly 50% of all searches will be done via voice by 2020.

This, of course, is an important touchpoint during the consumer journey, but how does voice stack up during later stages such as purchasing?

According to the same Adobe Analytics report mentioned earlier, 30% of smart speaker owners used their device for shopping or ordering items. Adobe expanded on its findings around voice shopping by referencing that typically people don’t buy directly through their smart speakers, but use them in the earlier stages of the customer journey. Specifically, 47% reported using their device for product research or search, 43% used them for creating shopping lists, and 32% for price comparison.

Another study by comScore adds some more context. Thirty-three percent of survey respondents said they wouldn’t make a purchase on a voice assistant device because they couldn’t compare products before buying, while 20% said transacting is too difficult and 11% said it takes too long. As many as 42% of users referred to their needs in generic terms (such as "airline") instead of specifying a brand such as KLM.

If we circle back to the Adobe study (see chart above), we can also conclude that smart speaker owners are predominantly active users, with 71% daily users.

As far as travel-specific voice behavior, we can refer to a study carried out by Microsoft-owned Bing Ads. They found that flight searches using voice increased 277% year-on-year. Additionally, 95% of the top 20 flights and accommodation searches with Microsoft’s assistant Cortana were for brands.

What Could a Voice Strategy Look Like?

While all these facts and figures may be enlightening, you’re probably asking – what can I actually do? Let’s dive into some possible strategies.

Adweek profiled three categories of brands that need to prepare for voice. One of them includes travel. Adweek believes that "travel brands must begin experimenting with voice AI to create programs that delight the modern traveler." They back this claim with data of their own, citing that 48% of their respondents used voice to buy a plane ticket, while 48% also used voice to check the status of a flight.

Essentially, what it boils down to is offering context during each stage of the user journey. Travel decisions typically take time. As Adweek puts it, "Voice assistants can seamlessly connect travel consumers to a live person on the phone at smart/logical points in their interaction, and the rep can pick up the conversation with more data about the customer than ever before."

Aside from customer service, Harvard Business Review believes smart speakers are poised to reinvent the travel industry as the new front door to the customer.

HBR offers up three strategies that travel brands can deploy. Again, there is a focus on search. They suggest encouraging branded voice search and making it a priority. Furthermore, travel brands should adapt content to conversational search, including making current apps voice-enabled or adding branded skills that can be loaded onto the likes of Alexa and Google Assistant.

This brings us to HBR’s second proposed strategy - partnering with Google and Amazon. The biggest purpose would be to maintain control of valuable customer data and the overall customer experience. HBR gives the following example:

"When using Alexa or Google Assistant to execute a booking, hotels and airlines should negotiate agreements that, for a referral fee, let them complete transactions through their in-house channels."

Lastly, HBR looks to leveraging loyalty programs to drive the adoption of voice technology. The idea would be to offer special rewards and offers through smart-speaker channels. According to HBR, "The stronger the loyalty program and the more trust customers have in the brand, the more sway travel companies have with their members and the more leverage in negotiations to maintain control over customer data and access."

Current Voice Technology Use Cases

While many airlines are sitting in the hangar when it comes to voice, that hasn’t stopped a few others from joining the fray. KLM’s smart assistant BB, known as Blue Bot, helps customers to find suitable KLM flights. Once the desired flight has been found, BB sends the customer a link which takes them straight to KLM.com, where they can book the flight directly.

Senior Vice President Digital at Air France-KLM, Pieter Groeneveld said: "Voice control will rapidly change the world. Consumers are discovering and using voice applications more and more in their everyday lives. KLM wants to be present on the platforms where its customers are and that automatically means a platform like the Google Assistant."

KLM’s low-cost cousin Transavia has also got in on the act. Users tell Google Home or Alexa what kind of holiday they are looking for and for how long, then the results are shown.

A conversation could look something like this:

User: Hey Google, ask Transavia for flights to beach destinations under €200.
Google Assistant: I found the following beach destinations under €200.

Once a customer has found their desired flight, there is a seamless handover to their smartphone to complete the payment process.

"While we have built a great service that talks with our customers, the focus is on listening. Being relevant and offering an effortless customer journey is what counts,” says Vanja Mlaco, Coach Digital Team Transavia.

Overall, although voice is a new channel, the same approaches and tropes come through. It’s a matter of engaging consumers with relevant content in the right context. Voice technology is still in the infancy of its development – so now is the perfect time for airlines to forge a competitive advantage by becoming early adopters.

Joseph Vito DeLuca

Joseph Vito DeLuca

Chief Marketing Officer at Yieldr