Content marketing got its start at least as early as 1732, when Benjamin Franklin launched Poor Richard’s Almanack to share stories, advice and helpful tips — and to promote his own printing business.

In the 18th Century, Franklin could hardly have predicted the rise of the Internet. But he may have foreseen that content marketing provides a powerful way for businesses to connect with customers. He might also have guessed that every technological change in our communication tools would lead to new ways to reach customers via content marketing.

Content marketing has undergone a major change in 20 years. In 1998, such marketing was still primarily paper-based. By 2008, digital tools like blogs, podcasts, video and webinars made up a significant portion of ongoing content marketing efforts.

Now, there’s Alexa.

Voice-activated tools like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa are quickly becoming ever more present in our lives. That presence is still a very recent change, however. Notice how the Content Marketing Institute’s Five Content Marketing Trends to Watch in 2017 makes no mention of voice-based content marketing.

Yet Alexa in particular has become a content marketing channel to be reckoned with.

Why Alexa?

Amazon’s Alexa isn’t the only voice-interactive device available, but it offers two of the most exciting opportunities for content marketing:

  • The creation and use of Alexa Skills
  • The ability to integrate into the user’s home life in unprecedented ways

An Alexa Skill is, essentially, an app users can download to customize their Alexa’s capabilities. Commonly used Skills include those that allow Alexa to pair with a home’s security system or lighting. Amazon currently estimates that “tens of thousands” of Skills are available for the device, and an increasing number of them are developed by specific brands.

For instance, Sahail Ashraf at Business 2 Community recently praised Ask Stubb, a Skill designed to connect users to the Stubb’s barbecue sauce brand. Users reach Ask Stubb by simply saying “ask Stubb,” followed by their question. Ask Stubb responds with expert advice on a wide range of cooking topics — and it does so in the voice of Stubb’s particular character, creating the impression of talking directly to the brand as one would to a friend or a trusted colleague.

Similarly, the Ask Purina skill offers up advice in its own sphere of expertise, which it defines broadly. When users “ask Purina” a question, they don’t have to limit their queries to pet food. The brand’s Skill can answer a wide range of questions about various dog breeds, helping users determine which pet is the right choice for their family and how best to meet their pet’s needs, according to VentureBeat’s Cosette Jarrett.

A brand’s Alexa Skill allows it to shape its brand message and personality, build connections and reach customers in a highly personalized manner. And Alexa makes it possible to integrate this approach directly into customers’ home lives in ever more intimate ways.

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A Pathway to More Personal Marketing

Content marketing has entered the home for decades. Periodicals created by specific businesspeople (Poor Richard’s Almanack) or brands (like the Michelin restaurant guides or LEGO’s fan magazine) have long lived on kitchen tables.

By acting as a voice-responsive part of the home environment, Alexa takes this intimacy one step further, speaking and responding almost like a member of the family.

The “family” feeling isn’t merely sentiment. It’s fact. According to Daniel Terdiman at Fast Company, a recent Google study of 1,600 Google Home and Amazon Alexa users found that 41 percent of voice assistant users say “it feels like talking to a friend, or at least another person.” Many even respond accordingly, saying “please” and “thank you” as part of their interactions.

The study also found that users tend to put their devices wherever the family congregates: 52 percent of voice assistant owners kept the device in the living room or family room. Perhaps most surprisingly, according to Terdiman, the bedroom outscored the kitchen: 25 percent of users keep Alexa or Home where they sleep, while just 22 percent use the device where they cook or eat.

And these users don’t merely accept engagement with brands; they approve of it. More than half of the study’s participants said they wanted to hear about deals or sales from Alexa or Home. Forty-eight percent liked receiving personalized tips, and 38 percent already used their devices to seek customer service or support from various companies.

The result? “Personalization at scale,” a marketing approach that creates a one-on-one feel for each of the thousands or millions of customers that access it, according to Chitra Iyer, editor-in-chief of MarTech Advisor.

The Challenge of Scaling Voice-Based Content Marketing

Past attempts at personalization at scale haven’t always resulted in useful information for customers. In some cases, Rupa Ganatra notes at Forbes, it’s actually pushed people away, as in the common situation where browser ads recommend products that the use has already purchased.

Sometimes, too, marketing efforts will use their best guess as to customer desires based on demographic data, with occasionally off-putting results. “Traditionally, audience segmentation was done by categories such as age, gender and disposable incomes,” Dr. Janet Bastiman, chief science officer at StoryStream, tells Ganatra. “Today, retailers need to be looking at how their customers actually want to engage with them and look at what they’re interested in.”

For Bastiman, this means more ads about smart devices and computer hardware. For users engaging with Alexa or other voice assistant devices, it means focusing their attention on the Skills that are most useful or interesting to them.

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Using Alexa For Content Marketing: 4 Tips for Success

Fortunately, Amazon has made it relatively easy for companies of any size to engage with customers through the company’s various voice devices. The Alexa Skills Kit, or ASK, provides the tools necessary to build customized Skills, which can be provided easily to customers through Amazon’s website.

As with any form of content marketing, Alexa can help companies get mediocre results, or it can help companies get outstanding results.

Here are a few key points to consider when launching into the Alexa content marketing sphere. These should nudge your results toward the “outstanding” side of the ledger.

1. Rethink Your Keywords

Humans use language differently when conducting text searches versus voice searches, according to Ashraf, this time writing for Locowise. For instance, a text search often boils down to basic focus words: “best burgers in Seattle” or “how much to feed 8 pound dog.”

When the same query is presented to Alexa, however, it gets longer. The user has to get the device’s attention, then phrase the query in a way that tells Alexa what is needed. Alexa has no response to “best burgers in Seattle.” To get the answer they seek, users need to be more verbose: “Alexa, tell me where to find the best burger restaurants in Seattle.”

Brands and marketers have been calibrating content to fit the short, punchy form of text keywords for some time, but the results from voice systems using these keyword algorithms can come up short. Think about how users might ask the device to access your Skill, and then how they might ask that Skill specific questions.

2. Use Your Subject-Matter Expertise

Whisky maker Johnnie Walker has developed a deep understanding not only of the processes required to make consistently enjoyable spirits, but also of how their own products fit into the wider world of whisky.

The company’s Skill, named “Johnnie Walker,” provides Alexa users with their own personal guide to whisky. Users can find bottles that fit their personal preferences or even participate in a guided tasting session.

While Johnnie Walker could have limited the Skill to a voice-based FAQ, the company instead decided to use its years of accumulated knowledge to become the kind of trusted guide that both novice and experienced whisky drinkers can trust — sharing and thus building its reputation as an expert in the field.

3. Make Existing Information Easier to Access

Many weather apps include pollen measurements, air quality indicators and other tools that allergy sufferers can use to determine how (un)comfortable they’re likely to be on any given day.

However, these tools are often buried within broader apps or websites, which can make them a pain to access. Enter Johnson & Johnson, makers of allergy medicine brand Zyrtec, which created “Your Daily AllergyCast.”

This Skill offers information about weather, pollen counts and specific allergens in response to a single question, saving users time and making them more likely to access its information. The Skill can even build a personal Allergy Impact Score, which allows users to make more informed decisions about their daily needs.

4. Above All, Be Useful

“When you can just speak to your voice device to order your shopping, renew your car insurance, or offer holiday inspiration, the balance of power for brands hangs in the balance,” Content Marketing Association consultant editor Dominic Mills notes. “This places a premium, first on brand presence, and second on utility or helpfulness.”

After all, the power of Alexa Skills as content marketing assets lies in their use. Customers who download your company’s Skill but never use it aren’t engaging with your company or brand. The more helpful a Skill is, the more likely that users will return to it again and again — and place your brand top of mind every time they do.

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Casey Meehan