What if publishers started programming the new generation of audio assistants as a kind of hybrid of daily news, on demand radio/podcasting and information resource? That’s the sort of experiment Hearst recently launched for the Amazon Echo with its “My Beauty Chat” voice-first brand. Once the skill is enabled, asking Alexa to open the app offers you a choice of hearing a morning or afternoon 5-10 minute beauty program or a tip of the day. With launch support from sole sponsor L’Oreal, Hearst is programming this project aggressively, with two daily shows (one available before 4 p.m. and the other after) as well as a daily beauty tip.
Why twice a day and at those times? “We looked at behaviors people have in their day,” Chris Papaleo, Hearst’s executive director of emerging technology tells Folio:. Women are in the bathroom in the morning getting ready for the day and at night washing up and winding down. “The beauty regimen occurs in people’s lives at those times,” he says.
And more to the point, they’re looking for hands-free content that is both entertaining and of use, he argues. And so, My Beauty Chat adopts a chatty format in its programming. A regular host brings in editors and experts from across the magazine and online brands (Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Marie Claire and O, The Oprah Magazine, among others) for a conversational exchange. Both the format and the reach across brands were deliberate, he says.
The twice-daily format is about both weaving Hearst content into daily routines but also helping to make the show itself similarly ritualistic. “What we are not doing is taking the articles from our site and reading them back or creating summary reading,” he says. “We are trying to give this new voice-only, hands-free interface the thought and design that it deserves.”
With the introduction of the cheaper Echo Dot recently, he sees these devices being placed throughout the home and approaching a kind of ambient computing environment. In effect, content can start targeting specific everyday routines.
At the same time Hearst wanted to create this program as a distinct new brand. “It allows us to reach more people by pulling together content from Marie Claire or Cosmopolitan or Elle,” he says. “Not everyone wants to hear about eye makeup for going out at night?” An umbrella brand allows a range of topics. To that end the twice-daily show drills into a weekly theme (like this week’s “streamlining” the regimen process) but with a number of editors from different brands. Papaleo says that the group chat format evolved naturally from the talent pool—editors who had great energy and chemistry just talking with each other.
The shows are designed to be fleeting, available only during their initial on-demand window and then gone. Although early users are already asking for a way to access an archive of content, Papaleo says that the initial design was to keep the interface as simple as possible and without any complicating instructions for calling up previous episodes.
Ambitious and grand as My Beauty Chat may be, it is still constrained by the inherent limitations of the hands-free audio format. Papaleo admits that discovery “is the biggest challenge that we as a developer and publisher have.” As it stands, users need to enable a skill and then remember the brand invocation phrase to launch My Beauty Chat.
In our everyday use, for instance, we found Alexa to be painfully literal, not even parsing our leaving of “My” in the invocation. Instead, it wanted to dial a phone number for us.
Papaleo says Amazon is working on the discovery and engagement problem. Getting people just to recall they have certain skills enabled and using them regularly is a native weakness of audio for now. “There aren’t quantified tactics for engaging people,” he says. “But don’t be surprised if Amazon comes up with more organized ways for Alexa to respond to user questions.”
He expects that as Amazon and Google both make better use of voice ID to distinguish individual within a household, then targeting voice search results will be easier.
The company is also mulling over how to use an alert mechanism to nudge users into remembering their subscribed service or to flag a special upcoming event. Papaelo speculates that a device like the Echo could use its color coded ring to signal a user that there are messages waiting for them on a device.
Interestingly, with My Beauty Chat, Hearst is also experimenting with a novel kind of native advertising. In the daily drop of content, the daily tip is the piece specifically powered by project sponsor L’Oreal.
This approach gives the sponsor a substantial dose of daily branded content, but it is distinct from the show it- self. When the user launches the skill each day, Alexa asks whether you want to hear the show or the tip.
Papaleo believes that for all of the challenges traditional media face in emerging platforms like voice assistants, the companies that get in early will be ahead of the learning curve. “We really believe that among the buzzy trends and the platforms evolving, we think voice is certain to be a huge factor for our business,” he says.