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15 - Voice-First

This may be my favorite chapter. Chances are good that most people reading have at least heard of, if not experimented with, all the platforms we have discussed so far in this book. But few of you at the time of this writing are probably sitting around thinking, What’s my Alexa Skill gonna be? And yet you should, because we’re about to talk about a tech innovation that I am absolutely sure will transform how the world consumes content. It’s called Voice-First, and anyone currently building a personal brand needs to learn about it fast and early. Its platforms are the equivalent of yet-to-be-discovered Malibu beachfront property, much like Twitter in 2006, Instagram in 2010, and Snapchat in 2012.

I day-trade attention, and lately I am particularly interested by what people pay attention to during the transitions of their day, especially the three that occur in the home: what they do during the first fifteen minutes of their morning, the first fifteen minutes after they come home from work, and the last fifteen minutes before they go to sleep at night. Those are transition periods. They’re the moments when we take stock, get updated, and plan for the next few hours of our lives. We’re busy, so we want to do it fast. There was a time you’d pull out a pen and paper and start a to-do list, turn on the radio, or even check an app. Now, though, you don’t even have to do that. All you have to do is talk.

Podcasts fill our brains during the long periods when we’re quiet, such as while we drive or travel. Voice-first platforms are going to allow us to fill our brains during all the interstices of our lives, those blips of time that used to be lost to forgettable activities like brushing our teeth, sorting through mail, or even checking our phone notifications. In 2016, Google revealed that 20 percent of searches on its mobile app and Android devices are done by voice.1 That number is only going to rise, fast. And you have an amazing opportunity to make sure your brand rises with this trend.

As of this moment, there are two key players: Amazon Alexa, played through a device called the Echo, and Google Assistant, played through its Google Home device. Microsoft, Apple, Samsung, and others are preparing to make their respective pushes into the space with platforms of their own, but at this time it makes sense to focus only on the big two. I started with Alexa, launching a Flash Briefing Skill called GaryVee365. A Flash Briefing is a short report offering users a key bit of information. Mine offers daily motivation from yours truly. The Skimm’s airs its breakdown of the day’s top news stories; eHow’s presents daily life hacks. Add these and others to your list of Flash Briefings, and when you ask for them, either by saying, “Alexa, give me my Flash Briefings,” or even, “Alexa, what’s in the news?” you’ll hear from your favorite sources one after another.

Other Skills offer more interactive experiences. Enable The Tonight Show Skill (as opposed to the Flash Briefing) and you could ask for Jimmy Fallon’s most recent monologue, but you could also get the most recent Tonight Show guest list or a rundown of his newest Thank-You Notes, a popular segment on the show where he expresses gratitude for anything from Pop-Tarts to Ryan Gosling. I could develop a Skill called GaryVee Recommends Wine that recommends three wines to go with whatever you told it you were going to eat and gives you the ability to order those wines straight from the Skill through a third-party alcohol delivery service like Drizly or Minibar Delivery or from my family wine shop, Wine Library.

What we’re seeing with the development of Voice-First is the culmination of our addiction to speed. The world moves fast and we want to keep up. If there is a choice between reading a notification or checking an app and getting the same information via Voice-First, which allows us to keep our hands free and multitask, the latter is what we’re going to pick. Just like the first washing machines and coffeemakers, Voice-First platforms will save people time. Once the masses understand that, they are going to flock to them. Be there ready and waiting when they do.

Your Flash Briefing will be a one-minute version of your one-hour podcast, a one-minute audio version of your eight-minute videos or live streams, or a one-minute selection of your pretty pictures on Instagram. You can bring people so much value right now, whether you create for Google, Amazon, or both. While brands have developed countless Skills, most deliver the same basic experience. The field is clear for anyone who is clever enough to come up with something fresh and new. Take the landgrab, my friends, and become a vital part of your consumers’ morning routines. Very soon, as even more brands jump onto these platforms, it will get harder to make a dent in people’s awareness. Don’t let this moment pass. Don’t let the big guys snap up all the cheap real estate. Please, put down this book right now and go create your Skill. Your one-minute audio tip of the day could be the thing that compels a person to put on your podcast during their morning commute instead of their usual NPR or classic rock.

Skills 101

Keep your content super brief.

Make it native. Do not do what I did with my original podcast when I just transferred the audio from a video onto the podcast platform. Tailor your content to suit the reason people are coming, which is to get fast, easily digestible information nuggets. “Hey, Alexa users . . .”

Make it the highest quality possible. I cannot stress how important it is that you not treat your Skill as a dumping ground. It’s great to collect the scraps from your other content so they don’t go to waste, but study each piece closely and use your imagination and creativity to craft something new and fresh with them.

You know how it’s such an irritating process to get off an e-mail list? First, you have to bother to go to the bottom of the e-mail and hunt for the unsubscribe button. Then you have to plod through a box asking if you are absolutely sure you want to leave, and would you care to share the reason? And then finally, upon confirming that you’ve been unsubscribed, you’re told it could take a few business days before the e-mails stop coming.

In Voice-First, all people will have to do once they lose interest in your content is say, “Alexa, remove MumboJumbo’s Flash Briefing,” and boom, it will be done. You will have no room for error. No room to be annoying or too long or low quality. Go ahead and document the process while you learn how to craft your content—you can use clips from all that material for other content—but make sure whatever segment you publish is short and tight. You will need to be remarkable right out of the gate, or in three milliseconds, you’ll be shut down.

Voice-First is going to become a huge pillar in our communications. By the time this book is published, Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple Siri, or some other platform will be talking to us in our cars. Remember when we all thought it was amazing that we could be driving along, recall that we used to love Kenny Rogers’s “Lady,” and download his greatest hits as soon as we got to our destination (because we would never do that while driving, right?). Soon, we won’t have to wait to play a song or pull over to type in a location on a map app. We’ll just tell Alexa what we want her to do, and she’ll do it. Finally, texting and driving will be a thing of the past—unless we’re in our driverless cars.

Skills 201

There is no Skills 201. The feature is so new, we’re only just now identifying best practices. I hope you’ll share yours with me as you discover them and explore all the exciting possibilities in this space. Hit me up at @garyvee.

My intuition is that all the brands in the how-to space will flock to Voice-First by 2020, and they will battle to be the ones chosen to teach people to make cookies and pair wine and get better at chess and clean carpets. It’ll be our on-the-go resource, too. When changing our oil in the garage, we won’t pull out the car manual or Google “How to change your oil.” We’ll just call out, “Tell me how to change my oil,” and the Voice-First technology sitting on a shelf or mounted on the wall will ask us what kind of car we drive, then walk us through the process with step-by-step instructions. Right now we’re putting Voice-First tech in only one or two rooms in the house. In the future, we won’t go anywhere without it.

Imagine This: Alexa Skills

Let’s say you’re a forty-nine-year-old etiquette coach named Marlo. You used to think you’d be educating children in the finer points of polite conversation and the continental style of eating, but over time your services have been increasingly sought out by companies desperate to fill in the educational gaps of their millennial hires. They just don’t know anything about proper protocol, especially for international business or formal affairs. Your business is doing OK, but things are starting to feel routine.

You’re at your boyfriend’s house one morning, and you hear him ask Alexa to tell him what’s in the news. A seemingly human voice reads the morning headlines, then the weather, some sports stats, and a fun fact of the day, all from different media outlets.

Fun fact of the day? That’s not news; that’s just learning for the sake of learning.

A lightbulb goes on.

You spend the next few weeks recording the answers to every etiquette question you can think of. How do you fold a napkin for a formal table? Should I invite my boss to my birthday dinner? What’s the best icebreaker question? How do I end a conversation at a cocktail party without being rude? Can I wear black sneakers with a black suit? You could have asked your phone these questions, but you look up “How to build an Alexa Skill” online and learn that there’s a studio just a few miles away that will help you record the audio file. You upload your new Alexa Skill, The Manners Maven, and announce it to your clients and on all your content channels. They love the way the platforms let them engage with you in a virtual one-on-one. It gives them confidence. Eventually, you add “calls to action” to direct people to other pieces of your content on the Internet so they can discover longer versions of the answers they got from you here, as well as guest posts from other experts and interviews with people sharing their funniest, most awkward faux pas.

Imagine This: Flash Briefings

Let’s say you’re a thirty-seven-year-old landscaper named Johnny. Your business, Johnny’s Landscape Art, nets around $200,000 per year. You decide that you need to boost your brand awareness, so you launch eleven Flash Briefings: Johnny’s Daily Yard Tips—Zone 1, Johnny’s Daily Yard Tips—Zone 2, and so on. Every day of the year, you offer the country seasonal information that will help gardeners tend their yards better, tailored for each of the eleven USDA plant hardiness zones, which are based on a region’s minimum temperatures.2 “It’s April 21, and spring has sprung. Zone 4, you’re going to want to start fertilizing those spring bulbs. Zone 9 friends, I want you to consider planting citrus. Zone 6, now that your forsythia is blooming, make sure not to wait too long to prune it, or it’ll be scraggly next year.” You’re the first of your kind on Amazon, and you’re really good at this. The love you have for your work and your playful nature come through bright and shiny to the gardeners and homeowners who add one of your Flash Briefings to their morning lineup.

Meanwhile, Yvette in Seattle is in charge of curating the Alexa Skills Store, and she is bored. Every Flash Briefing is the same news-tech-weather-sports shit over and over and . . . wait a minute. What’s this Johnny’s Daily Yard Tip? Well, that’s different. Different is good. She features one of them on the Skills page.

And this, this, is why you want to create content for Alexa now. What Facebook did for social-network games and Apple did for apps, Amazon is going to do for Skills and Flash Briefings. They’re going to run commercials to raise awareness about their new product. Can you imagine if your voice is the one the whole country hears as an example of a great Flash Briefing? It could do for you what Apple’s choosing to play “1234” in their 2007 iPod Nano commercial did for Feist.

Here’s the very best part. You know how I’m always telling you that everything I want you to do is going to be hard and take scads of patience? Not this time. It will not take you too much time or effort to be discovered for creating a Flash Briefing because of the early novelty. It will five years from now, however. Five years from now, everyone will have a Flash Briefing, and it’s highly unlikely that yours will get noticed without marketing the living shit out of it to get exposure. Five years from now, the moment will be gone. Do. Not. Wait.

Because you know what else happens to you, Johnny? Your Flash Briefings are featured, take off, and suddenly you get an e-mail from Cindy in Missouri, asking if you’re interested in franchising your now nationally known brand. Within two years, your $200,000-a-year landscaping business is collecting a $25,000 check each year from seven hundred people all over the country.

Incidentally, Marlo the Manners Maven should do this, too, in addition to making her Skill. She should make a new recording of 365 etiquette questions, one for every day of the year. Did you know that even in the digital age, a handwritten thank-you note should always be sent after a job interview? Did you know that the word etiquette is derived from the French word for “ticket” and King Louis XIV’s attempts to keep visitors from trampling his gardens? 3 She needs to do this for the simple reason that she can, because the cost of Internet real estate today is still so, so low. Don’t be the 2017 first-time home buyer in Malibu; be goddamn Thomas Jefferson buying about eight hundred thousand square miles of Louisiana Territory for three cents an acre in 1803 dollars (skipping the part about screwing the Native Americans already living on that land).

On the Horizon

While I was working on this book, Amazon announced that it had bought Whole Foods for just over $13.4 billion. We all woke up to the news and thought, How the fuck did that happen? It never should have. Whole Foods should have bought Amazon. There was a time twenty years ago when Whole Foods was a much bigger business than Amazon, and when your company is that much bigger than someone else’s, with that much of a lead, yours should never lose. If it does, it’s because your opposite number innovated ahead of you.

To those who think they don’t have to invest in all the platforms because they’re concentrating their efforts where they’re seeing the most ROI, I say you’re being foolish. I can think of several bloggers who were massively popular in 2004. It was the new frontier, and they had positioned themselves front and center, but they ignored the rise of YouTube and podcasts and Twitter, and now they’re irrelevant. They found something that worked and preferred to rest on their laurels rather than stay hungry and sharp. They thumbed their noses at traditional media, but then they became traditional media.

We see it all the time. ESPN made Sports Illustrated look old. Bleacher Report is in the process of making ESPN look fusty. Barstool Sports is already starting to make Bleacher Report feel stale. It happened to Macy’s. It happened to Radio Shack, Woolworth’s, Tower Records, Nokia . . . They crushed, they stagnated, they died. They are no different from any brand crushing it today. One day we could have a WTF moment upon hearing that Ralph Lauren filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection or that GQ no longer exists. Learn the lesson now: everyone is playing the same game. If you don’t play offense all the time, every day, every year, no matter how successful you become, someday you will wind up playing defense.

You have to keep looking ahead. I’ve got my eye on Marco Polo, Anchor, After School, AR (augmented reality), VR (virtual reality), and AI (artificial intelligence). You know what’s going to happen? One day there’s going to be a little ball hanging above every single human being’s head recording everything they do. Swear to God, it’s going to happen. Maybe it’ll be a camera embedded in your body. I don’t know the details, but I know that recording and documenting every minute of our lives will seem perfectly normal one day. You might think it sounds awful, and even scary, but just imagine if you could watch your grandmother right now. Imagine seeing her move through her life as a young woman, watching her fall in love with your grandpa, raising her kids, your mom, or starting a new job—not as though you’re watching a movie, but feeling as if you’re physically moving through her world with her. That’s how real the technology is going to be. The question is not if but when.

The passion I have deployed around Alexa Flash Skills is the same passion I had for Twitter and YouTube in 2008 when I wrote this book’s mother, Crush It!, back when the masses didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about. Now people know what I’m talking about when it comes to Twitter and Instagram and YouTube, but they aren’t doing the next step. They aren’t tasting and trying and experimenting. They’re leaving that up to me. They shouldn’t. They should be out there with me trying things out for themselves.

You shouldn’t have to turn to me to ask what’s next. What do you see? All I’m doing is looking toward the horizon to see what platforms are capturing people’s attention and altering their behavior. If I see something that is performing consistently, I take a closer look, and then a longer look, and then I start to execute. That’s all you have to do, too. I don’t have second sight; I just have a lot more patience than you do.

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