Tiffany: Verbalising Email – How Will Voice Tech Change Email Marketing?


If there’s one thing that brands are likely to embrace in 2019, it’s voice technology. Instinctive, intuitive, pervasive, and accessible, voice technology is set to interweave into our lives more than we ever thought possible. 

Through voice assistants like Alexa and Siri we can engage with cyberspace without ever having to look at a screen. We can ask the Internet of Things to find us music, record TV programmes, do our shopping, even to adjust our home thermostats

And, now, we can get our devices to read emails to us. What does this mean for the future of email marketing?

Since the very beginning of email, we’ve been honing our skills as email marketers by steeping ourselves in visual media. We’ve been working on the assumption that people will be seeing our material, not hearing it. To have your carefully crafted copy, with all of its perfectly embedded images and beautiful fonts, read out in a robotic voice rather defeats the point, doesn’t it? And here’s the thing – you can’t predict which emails are going to be seen and which emails are going to be heard. 

Can we overcome this challenge? Can we somehow make emails which work brilliantly in both formats? Or must we grit our teeth and accept that some of our emails are always going to fall foul of Alexa?

What challenges could voice tech present to email?

Voice tech is developing all the time, and there’s no real way to know exactly where it’s headed. However, it’s got a ton of potential and we know that the big tech brands are excited about it. It’s a fair bet that it’s going to get pretty versatile pretty fast. 

This means that we need to start thinking about its potential challenges now. Here are some of the main ones I’ve come up with – you may well have ideas of your own to add to the list!

  • Design. This is the biggie. We’ve been working for ages in what’s essentially a visual medium. Now, we have to start thinking about sound. That’s not just a case of replacing pretty pictures with cool sound effects. Remember – any email will be both seen and heard, depending on how the user chooses to open it. So we need to start designing our emails in ways which work for both. That’s not as easily said as it is done. Right now, voice assistants ‘read’ emails according to their HTML formatting. For example, if you put in a smiley emoji, Siri will basically read it out like that, deadpanning “Smiling face emoji”. Any weird grammar or formatting will trip Siri up and result in a garbled message. But, the content and graphics nerds among us know that weird formatting tricks and grammatical peccadilloes can sometimes make an email interesting and engaging when it’s read as text on a page. We’re going to have to work hard to find a blend of visual and auditory which compliment rather than sabotage one another.
  • Accessibility. I’m going to go into this in more detail later, as this is a pretty important aspect aside of voice tech which deserves more than just a bullet point. However and I personally think this is a huge positive, in that voice tech is going to make email more accessible than ever before. It will open up a world of email possibilities for the visually impaired, as well as making email easier to access for everyone in general. Rather than waiting for a quiet moment to check your phone, you can just ask your smart watch to read incoming emails to you. There’s a lot to think about on this score, so stay tuned!
  • Privacy. Privacy and data protection are still very much headline issues, even in our post-GDPR world. Having your emails read out by a machine definitely brings up privacy concerns. For example, if you as a brand are using voice tech to ‘read’ emails from your customers and subscribers, how can you ensure that they are not overheard? Who will be doing the listening? And how will the information be recorded? Not to mention the fact that, because of the way you can ‘talk’ to them, some people think of their voice tech as strange, robotic ‘people’. Which makes it feel a bit weird when they’re reading out your emails. 
  • Spam and subscriptions. Let’s focus on Alexa for a moment, as she’s the star of email voice tech right now. As it stands, the things Alexa can do with your emails is reasonably limited. She can read them to you, or skip to the next one, or archive them, or delete them. She can also reply to emails – sort of – if you speak clearly enough. However, she can’t do things like recognise spam, or subscribe to newsletters, or unsubscribe, or follow social media links, or any of the other handy embedded actions we’ve come to rely upon. Now, it’s a fair bet that these features will come along in the end, but it’s a point worth remembering at the moment.
  • Tracking. Currently, as they’re essentially being ‘read’ from ‘inside’, emails opened by voice-tech programmes don’t register on tracking software. So they won’t show up as opened in your data. This is a problem and a potential gap in measurement metrics. 

How can voice tech help us?

A few challenges to think about, then! But we marketers are nothing if not adaptable. If we can get it right, voice tech could be the biggest opportunity email marketing has had in years. Why? Because of how accessible it makes email.

Email has always been a closed market to people with visual impairments or other issues which have in the past made it hard for to open and read emails on screens. Consider, as an email marketer, the last time you considered the colour that you’re using in your email design with regard to whether all of your subscribers could see it? About 4.5% of the population - millions and millions of people - are colour blind. While they may appear to see things perfectly well, they process certain colours in a different manner to the rest of us. Which means that 4.5% of the population has trouble reading text in certain colours, or against certain backgrounds. As far as I’m aware, that’s not something that most email marketers ever consider when designing content, and it really should be. And what about the size of the font? It’s very common for people with visual impairments to struggle with certain fonts and certain sizes, but, again, this is a rarely-considered factor in most email design.

This for me is the really exciting thing about voice tech reading out our emails. We as marketers will have to spend more time on assessing the accessibility of our email campaigns. And that can only be a good thing in the long run. 

If you have a device (a smart watch, an Alexa hub, even Siri on your phone) which can read your emails to you, a whole load of options open up - even if you’re not visually impaired. You can check your emails in the bath, while driving, during a run. Don’t want to blast your brain with blue light before bed? No problem, ask your voice tech to clear your inbox for you while you’re brushing your teeth. And let’s not forget the visually impaired community, who have been neglected for far too long. Now that we can reach them, we really should make serious efforts to do so. 

So, while there may be challenges associated with blending visuals and speech for all audiences, the rewards if we get it right are well worth it. A ton more accessibility, a wider audience, and the opportunity to connect with subscribers on a more personal and individual level than ever before. 

How can email marketers make the most of voice tech?

There will be all kinds of inventive and creative ways in which email marketers make the most of voice tech. Here are my thoughts on how we should be working towards really cracking this new and exciting format:

  • Learn to speak the language. Right now, most voice tech software reads HTML more or less verbatim. But that’s really not so scary. These programmes are designed to work in accordance with the grammar and punctuation rules of whatever language they’re using. If you know your way around a full stop, a semicolon, and a participle, you should be fine. Use proper syntax, pay full attention to your punctuation, and your emails will trip beautifully off those robot ‘tongues’! Learn how what you write translates to a ‘read’ by text-to-voice software, and you’ll be off to a flying start.
  • Keep your ear to the ground. This is a developing technology, which is going to throw up a lot of tasty new adaptations in the near future. Stay alert, be aware of what’s coming, and be ready!
  • Think constantly about accessibility. Accessibility is, in my opinion, THE major advantage voice tech brings to email marketing. Start bringing this into your creative and testing process if you’re not doing so already. 
  • Be adaptable. There are going to be a lot of changes and a lot of new developments as this technology progresses. You may well have to adapt formats and campaigns extremely quickly. So, weave a degree of adaptability into your campaign strategies, and be prepared to innovate.
  • Weave voice into your overall strategy. The best way to cover all of the above and still leave room for some fantastic campaigning is to weave voice potential into your overall strategy. That way, considering how your stuff will translate to voice will be an integral aspect of your campaign at every turn, rather than an afterthought. 

The bottom line

Email is the oldest and strongest of the marketing channels, because it is

  • Robust
  • Adaptable
  • Personal

Voice tech provides a unique opportunity for email to really play to these strengths, if we can do it right. 

Honestly, I’m quite excited by the potential that voice tech presents to email. It offers up new realms of creative content and enables us to connect with our customers in a way we’ve never been able to before! Sure, there are a few challenges we’ll have to face before we can get it quite right – but email is nothing if not up for a challenge! 

Title: Verbalising Email – How Will Voice Tech Change Email Marketing?
About: Email Marketing
Audience: Email Marketers
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