For this Innovation in Focus, we spoke with Remy Becher, the Vice President for Product at the Economist, about the newsroom’s journey integrating Voice-Activated Assistants (VAA) like Google Assistants, Amazon’s Alexa and Siri into its news platforms. Prior to entering his new role, he led the cross-platform development of VAA as the Head of Digital Innovation.
Greenway: Could you begin by talking a bit about your decision to develop on voice activated platforms?
Becher: A couple of years ago we developed an initiative focused on audience development called, “Reach, Watch, Listen.” We started looking at the new ways that consumers would be consuming digital content that was relevant for publishers and realized quite quickly that voice assistants would be one of those ways that people would be engaging with our journalism. At the time, these voice assistants were fairly new without as many consumers as today. We wanted to really explore what was coming over the horizon prior to it becoming mainstream.
Greenway: Now, looking ahead, how do you see this medium growing for news and journalism?
Becher: Publishers’ use of VAA has diversified quite a bit. At this particular moment in time, we’ve got a really good format and uses for voice-activated tools. I can listen to my 5 to 7-minute morning briefing while making breakfast without ever having to touch a single button. But I also think that there are other ways that we can explore voice assistants, and that is how we interact with our customers. There’s the more transactional, traditional customer service that can be replaced by voice assistants and voice-powered bots. There’s also a real opportunity to get better customer sentiment analysis from those leaving a review or commenting on a piece of journalism by voice rather than writing.
Greenway: How might smaller newsrooms integrate voice activated assistants into their platforms? Are there any tools helpful for those without a major budget?
Becher: I think smaller publishers shouldn’t be discouraged by the cost. The cost of entry and production with simple business models really make this work well. It’s a good way to build a loyal audience, and there’s a real opportunity to build. You see some premium podcast experiences be quite successful. One of our partners is ACast, and we work very closely with them to ensure that all of our podcasts are adequately monetized. I always joke that anyone with an Instagram account and a Shopify account can start a direct-to-consumer business. These days, it’s the same for podcasts and voice-assistants.
Regarding tools, the templates predated our Amazon Alexa app. When we started with our very first Alexa skill, it took us almost a year because we had to throw away two initial attempts that were just too awful to use. The second iteration of our Google Assistant skills was built on a template. Early on, we could see that building spoken skills and apps is quite costly to content producers and publishers. Templates just made that whole process a lot easier.
One of our other partners, Spokenlayer, actually does this all for you. You send them the content, and they integrate it onto the platforms. At a very low cost, smaller newsrooms can develop skills for basic content consumption.
Greenway: What’s next for the Economist on voice platforms?
Becher: Some of that will depend on capabilities. Folks at podcast platforms and audio distribution platforms are looking at how Spotify and NetFlix are making content recommendations and asking, “What does that look like in a voice-activated experience?” We participated in one experiment on Google Assistant based in the U.S. that varied content based on how long you typically listened. It started off with snappy news updates and as you continued listening, it moved into more traditional, human-narrated print articles and long-form content. That’s one sort of personalization. There are also vastly different uses of voice-assistant uses for helping customers interact with our products and gather feedback on product experiences.
Editors note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity