Nearly four years after the Echo first went on sale in the United States, Amazon’s voice platform Alexa has grown into a sprawling ecosystem that connects thousands of different products and media formats, including audio and video.
But Alexa’s flash briefings, one of the first plots of land that Amazon allowed third parties onto, remains under-developed, without the data or insights that might allow publishers to evolve the products they’ve built there.
After years of asks, publishers still only know how many users have installed their flash briefings and how many times the content of their briefings is played, leaving many frustrated by their inability to iterate their briefings: Without any sense of who is listening, or how, or with what frequency, many publishers feel like they are flying blind.
“It’s very hard to understand who you’re reaching,” said Bret Kinsella, the editor of Voicebot, a publication focused on the voice space that also publishes a flash briefing as well as a standalone Alexa skill. “We need to be able to understand repeat usage. We also need age and gender.”
“And there doesn’t seem to be any movement to provide it,” Kinsella added.
Ever since Amazon featured an Echo in a 2016 Super Bowl commercial, publishers, sensing a chance to get in early on an emerging platform, built small teams to figure out how to connect and engage Alexa users with briefings and skills.
Publishers found a growing audience — an estimated 66 million smart speakers have been installed in U.S. households, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, most of them Amazon devices – but limited data and limited functionality.
The latter has begun to expand a bit. In late April, Amazon broadened flash briefings by launching a long-form news experience, which allows users to consume longer streams of audio and video content from publishers including CNN, Bloomberg and Fox News. In early June, Amazon also announced the launch of a new product, called Alexa Conversations, designed to allow users to hop between Alexa skills more seamlessly, opening up the possibility that publisher skills could be used alongside other developers’ skills in Alexa.
Those changes, particularly Conversations, could set the stage for new user behaviors, which could change the way publishers’ content is used, said Kelly Franznick, the co-founder of user experience consultancy Blink.
But that expansion did not deliver more data for publishers providing flash briefings, and instead, some publishers have honed in on what they can measure. For example, releasing flash briefings more frequently allowed one publisher to figure out when people were listening to them. “We have a pretty good sense of when people are listening or not,” said a source at one publisher that releases a flash briefing daily.
That extra information helps with programming and distribution strategy, but not with ad sales. Though advertising hasn’t yet arrived on Alexa, publishers are allowed to sell sponsorships to their flash briefings. But the sponsorships are typically sold or included as part of larger advertising packages, rather than as standalone investments, a dynamic that is unlikely to change until more data arrives, said Giles Martin, evp of client strategy and media operations at the media agency Oxford Road.
Ultimately, many publishers expect that they should get used to doing more with less. “I’d love to know exactly who is listening,” said that first source. “I also get that it is 2019, and user data, in particular, is a touchy issue for a lot of these companies, and we’re sympathetic to that.”