Thanks to Google funding, The Guardian has a four-person team figuring out smart speakers

The Guardian wants to get under the hood of what role news organizations can have on voice-activated devices. The publisher has assigned four dedicated employees — a developer, audio producer, designer and product lead — to figure out what kinds of stories and formats work best with Google Assistant, Google’s answer to Amazon’s Alexa for voice commands.

The six-month project, funded by Google, is in the very early stages, but the new voice team will regularly post what has been learned via a blog. The Guardian wouldn’t give details on the type of experiments the group will undertake or when they will be released.

“We want the whole [news] ecosystem to thrive, which is why we want to be open about everything we find,” said Christian Bennett, executive editor, multimedia, Guardian News and Media. “It’s a very young technology, but it’s very important for journalists to explore this as the platforms are being built — to learn about the structure and how they can be useful to journalism — then feed that back to the platforms.”

For the Guardian, assembling a four-person team to experiment with what formats work is low risk, given Google has agreed to fund the project. The Guardian team wants to get to grips with what types of stories work best on the devices, though it is still working out what metrics will be used to track success, according to Bennett. The overall goal is to find ways to engage with people when they aren’t necessarily able to use their phone or laptop.

“When people are cooking or doing things around the house, for instance — there is a place for the Guardian to have a relationship with people in those moments,” added Bennett. “It’s important we test the limits of the medium.”

Publishers are old hands at exploring new ways to build consumer habits when it comes to news consumption. But voice-activated environments bring new challenges, like discoverability. Agencies, like WPP’s Wavemaker, have set up voice divisions in order to test what works on behalf of clients. The Guardian will need to take its cue from its SEO strategy, to narrow down what device owners will respond to, according to Ben McInerney, innovation lead at Wavemaker. “The Guardian may need to look at key topics people search for when it comes to news — and if it’s sports news, then make sure their keywords are ready for it. Not just keywords in isolation, but also the themes around them: Are people asking for the latest results or for upcoming fixtures, or how to get to the venue. We try and model our questions and answers [for Alexa Skills and Google Actions] based on our SEO because the way people seek information doesn’t seem to change.”

Also, research the agency has done with neuroscience partners has shown that people do respond differently based on things like gender of voice, tone, accent and language. “For the Guardian, at a time when trustworthiness [in journalism] is so important, ensuring they pick a voice that resonates with people as trustworthy, will be key,” added McInerney.

Whether the publisher commits further resource beyond the planned six months hasn’t been decided. Having Google fund its editorial experiments into new technology is a model the Guardian has used before for its virtual reality projects which produced work such as “6×9 A Virtual Experience of Solitary Confinement” and “Underworld.” The publisher’s U.S. mobile innovation lab, which ran two dozen experiments on different formats for mobile storytelling in the two years it existed, was also funded by an external organization — the Knight Foundation.

Adoption of smart speakers is still early. In April, market research firm YouGov stated that 10 percent of the U.K. population owned a smart speaker, and just 5 percent more were in the market for one. Of the 10 percent who owned one in April, Amazon smart speakers which use the Alexa digital interface made up 75 percent of the market, with 7 percent of people owning a Google Home and 9 percent a Google Home Mini, according to the same report.

The Telegraph, BBC, and MTV are among those U.K. publishers to experiment with content for Echo devices. While in the U.S., Hearst and Bloomberg Media are among those to have experimented in earnest and have cited discoverability and monetization as top challenges.

Media analyst firm Enders estimates there are around 3 million households with smart speakers in the U.K., and a third of them use them for news regularly.

“We’re talking small numbers,” said Joseph Evans, senior media research analyst at Enders. “But if they grow, the Guardian could use a strong position in voice to increase loyalty and hopefully the number of people contributing financially,” he said. “The addressable market is tiny, and monetization is impossible. But if Google’s footing the bill, you might as well give it a shot, as long as you remember that Google isn’t promoting its Assistant for the good of its health.”

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