Since Amazon released its voice-controlled, wireless speaker device Amazon Echo in 2014, users have been able to access a number of “skills” or services, such as the latest news updates, pay their bills, listen to their favorite playlist and even hail an Uber, all within the personal-assistant-like app, Alexa. As Alexa’s skills have grown, so too have the number of publishers that are featured within the app. News outlets including CNN,The Washington Post, NPR and The Economist offer users daily news briefings through Alexa.
As a unique platform for news distribution, publishers have the opportunity to develop a new form of storytelling while engaging users, attracting new listeners and perhaps even advertising opportunities in the process. But to succeed on Alexa, it is important for publishers to adapt their news stories to fit the Alexa format, while preserving their unique voice.
According to Joey Marburger, director of product at The Washington Post, “You want to be able to offer only what you can offer, and especially for a news source, focus on the distinct things.” And with more than 1,400 skills that can be enabled via the Alexa app, being able to offer original, unique content is key.
Launching on Amazon Echo’s Alexa this past March, The Post began by offering an election-focused, weekday news digest written by the publication’s politics team. Marburger explained that readers associateThe Post with politics and elections – though they offer much more – and that those topics help to set them apart on Alexa. The pre-recorded news updates are aired through the app’s Flash Briefing functionality.
This summer The Post has plans to release a 2016 Olympics skill through Alexa that will provide data and updates about the Games (such as medal counts), utilizing information that many other outlets will feature, but through a medium that perhaps others are not using.
Marburger says The Post is experimenting with Echo and Alexa because it may be a valuable platform for accessing news – not because they are obligated to use Amazon’s technology.
“Some people might think because Jeff Bezos owns us that we just do all this stuff with Amazon because he also owns Amazon, but that’s not really true. We had been thinking about audio overall for a little while, and when the Echo came out we thought, ‘Oh that’s a medium to start paying attention to,’” Marburger said, explaining that it’s a good place to experiment with short-form audio to see how users engage with it.
Marburger reports that The Post saw the number of users engaging with its election briefing on Alexa double in April and May. Although creating awareness within the Alexa app can be challenging, The Post has gained a loyal audience. Once listeners add The Post’s app, they tend to engage with the briefing almost daily.
As with all platforms, it’s critically important to tailor content specifically for Alexa.
“Be a user of the medium and the platform, because you are your best beta tester,” Marburger said. “So if you like listening to things a certain way, probably a lot of other people do too.”
He recommends considering length – stories should ideally be around two to three minutes to see peak engagement – with room to experiment as needed. And if relying on Alexa’s text-to-speech capabilities, read scripts aloud to see how they sound. Additionally, he said, publishers need to consider that news consumers use multiple platforms to get information, and they may not want to read the same story that they just heard on Alexa.
“It’s thinking about how news follows you and being able to personalize to [users] to the best of your ability,” Marburger said. “So I think it’s a change that’s already happening now, but as things become more seamless and there’s less friction for information, then people expect there to be less friction in how the provider gives you information.”
Publishers, including The Post, are already looking into offering advertising within the Amazon Echo space, but Marburger cautions that it must be done in nonintrusive ways that fit within the new format, such as sponsored radio spots.
“Publishers are businesses, so they have to start thinking about the business side as well, but we don’t necessarily need to make that the upfront that drives the idea, the experiment,” Marburger said.
As Echo further emerges as another way in which publishers can engage audiences and disseminate their content, it is important that the platform and the storytelling work together. In creating an informative and unique listening experience, publishers can make their voices heard.
Members of the News Media Alliance staff have contributed to this post.