Stations Must Rush To Get Their Smart Speaker Name Right.
Originally published at Inside Radio
What’s in a name? When it comes to Amazon’s Alexa smart speaker, a whole lot. On Alexa, the most widely used speaker and currently the only one to support custom audio integrations, getting the name, or invocation, right is key to success—a huge deal for radio stations.
If a user recites the correct invocation name to access a station’s Alexa skill, they can be rewarded with a trove of station content, including live streams, time-shifted programs, podcasts and special features such as contests and bonus content. But get the name wrong, and Alexa will likely give her irritating stock response: “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that,” thwarting a station’s chance to deliver its content to the user.
“The name is really critical. That’s the starting block that gets you out of the gate,” says Amplifi Media chief Steven Goldstein who is developing skills in partnership with Jacobs Media through a new unit called SonicAI. “There are so many audio sources on this device. There is a need for clarity for people to find your brand. The invocation is key.”
As broadcasters begin to build custom integrations for Alexa, called skills, and eventually for other smart speakers as well (in Google Home’s case, they’re called ‘actions’), developers need to think carefully about how to brand a skill before they even consider populating it with content. If the invocation name isn’t logical or doesn’t fit into Amazon’s conventions, the skill could be dead on arrival.
Amazon’s current policies stipulate that only one skill can have a particular name, meaning there can only be one Mix FM or Lite FM or Z100. The first radio station to build a skill under that name and win Amazon’s approval locks up that real estate. So Federated Media’s country “B100” WBYT-FM South Bend, which launched its skill in March, will be the only station nationwide that can use that prompt on Alexa. Any other “B100s” will have to add its city name, channel position or something else to differentiate it. “There is a bit of a land grab going on,” notes Goldstein.
While every U.S. radio station has unique call letters, many outlets don’t bother using those calls in branding, instead opting for a moniker, channel position or a mix of both. Radio executives, technology partners and local managers across the country say they are currently brainstorming ideas that will be logical to listeners and also jibe well with branding. “Using call letters when no one uses call letters is a problem,” notes Fred Jacobs, president of Jacobs Media.
Townsquare Media is in the early stages of working with smart speakers. Several of its stations have created Flash Briefings, or local news updates, for Alexa and the company is exploring building its own custom skills. When considering invocation names, Townsquare Media’s chief content and digital officer, Bill Wilson, says the company aims for consistent branding across platforms, including smart speakers. “However consumers know the brand is how we name the station on the platform,” he says. In some instances, that will be call letters, like “WJON” for news/talk WJON-AM Minneapolis (1240), while others have a slogan, like “The Voice of Amarillo,” as KIXZ -AM Amarillo, TX (940) is known. “However consumers in our local cities and communities refer to the station is the brand we utilize,” Wilson adds.
Best Way To Secure Your Name—Act Fast
Broadcasters are so concerned about the naming, according to XAPPmedia president Pat Higbie, that the most frequent question he gets from radio managers is: “How do I get my name?” (The second is how do they make money off of it.) Higbie’s answer: Act quickly. “The only way to reserve a name is to build a skill,” he says. “This enhances the urgency for stations to act now.”
XAPP was one of the earliest media technology companies to begin working on skills, and is a preferred partner for both Alexa and Google Home. The company is working on custom skills with more than 60 stations and has already launched skills for Federated Media and Gabriel Broadcasting, using a mix of naming, such as Federated’s country “K105” skill for WQHK-FM Ft. Wayne and “1580 The Trumpet” for Gabriel’s religious KFCS-AM Colorado Springs.
Industry executives say they’d like to see Amazon relax the rules and allow radio station skills to have several alias names. That way a station could attach a few possible names a user might ask for and increase the success rates. Until that change happens, if it happens, radio digital executives say the pressure is on to get the names right the first time.
After Hubbard Broadcasting decided to start building Alexa skills, director of Digital Strategy Jeremy Sinon says he conferred with local market managers, asking how they market their stations and what they would choose for their invocation. “Once we pick it, we can’t change it and you only get one,” Sinon says. “It is easier for some than others.”
The Hubbard team assembled invocation names that use a wide range of labels, with some stations opting for nicknames—such as “Alt AZ” for KDKB-FM Phoenix (93.3)—while others picked call letters, like “WTOP” for news WTOP-FM Washington DC, or a mix such as WSHE-FM in Chicago’s “She 100.3.” Even the dot matters, as in “New Country 923.”
Bringing the Right Attention To Your Skill
To activate a skill, Alexa users need to prompt the device, such as saying, “Alexa, enable B100” or “Alexa, ask More FM to play.” Users need to be aware of a skill and instruct the device to play it. And while that puts a burden on the user—and creates an obstacle for stations to deliver the content—the ability to ask by voice for a skill is an improvement. Just a few months ago, users had to go to the Alexa app or website to add a skill. To access a station’s news update, or Flash Briefing, which is a popular Alexa feature and a starting point for many stations on the smart speakers, users still have to make the election online or in the app.
Even as voice technology improves, there is still plenty of room for error and frustration. If a station has a skill, but a user doesn’t ask Alexa in the proper terms to activate it, the system can default to the live stream from TuneIn. And, occasionally, when a user asked for a station using a common nickname, Alexa could default to iHeartRadio or TuneIn and pull up a station with a similar name from a different market.
To increase success, and help users discover and explore their Alexa content, stations are beginning to promote their skills and Flash Briefings on-air, online, on social media and in email/newsletters. Some are even crafting promotions where they give away Amazon’s lower-priced speaker, the Dot, to winners to build awareness.
iHeartRadio is using contests and interactive polls to get listeners interacting with their devices. In an early example of an interaction with Google Home, iHeartRadio allowed listeners to vote for “The Most Powerful Female Voice” category for its iHeartRadio Music Awards via their Google Home devices.
Since it launched Flash Briefings for its news/talk station WTMJ-AM (620) and its local TV stations, Scripps has been promoting the news updates with live reads and prerecorded spots. Plans call for other Scripps radio stations, including country stations KFDI-FM Wichita (101.3) and KTTS-FM Springfield, MO (94.7), which both have local news operations, to soon add Flash Briefing. Scripps is also exploring custom skills.
Executives say they’ll back the efforts with substantial support. “These devices are bringing radio back into the home. This is going to be a big part of our promotional strategy going forward,” says Scripps VP of Radio Steve Wexler.
PART THREE: Stations Explore Ways To Turn Alexa Skills Into Revenue.