How to Build an Alexa Skill That Your Audience Will Love

Will Ezell

When they created Alexa, the folks at Amazon gave the world access to a novel (and enjoyable) method of digesting information — whilst simultaneously giving marketers the opportunity to reach customers on a whole new, personal level.

Things got even more interesting when they introduced the world to the Alexa Skills Kit, a comprehensive resource for developers who are interested in leveraging Alexa’s inherent capabilities to deliver custom experiences to its users. And that’s probably why there are already well over 15,000 Alexa Skills available to the public.

Why Developers Are Falling In Love With Alexa Skills

Here are some things that Alexa can do out of the box that developers now have access to thanks to the Alexa Skills Kit:

  1. Look up information related to a specific request or query
  2. Engage with a user by presenting puzzles, questions or games
  3. Controlling connected devices in the home (Ex: lights, TVs, or thermostats)
  4. Communicate original content as part of the customers flash briefing, a daily news request

Gettysburg College is one example of how developers have got creative with the Amazon Echo. Their set of Alexa Skills range from college dining options to college calendars, bringing a whole new audio-centric dimension to the education sector.

Why Consumers Aren’t Falling In Love With Alexa Skills

Just like with iOS or Android apps, the possible applications for Alexa skills are endless, but this broad spectrum of possible solutions means that consumers are forced to face the “good” skills with the “bad.”

On one hand, integrating Alexa’s functionality with existing web apps has given us useful abilities such as reviewing and managing our calendar with simple voice commands or ordering or reordering important items (like office supplies) in half the time.

On the other hand, we also have to deal with skills that are plain disappointing, like Taco Facts, a skill that provides on-demand facts and information about — you guessed it — tacos.

And this is indicative of a larger problem, which is that consumers aren’t loving Alexa skills right now. This was one of the key takeaways from VoiceLabs report which shows that 69 percent of Alexa Skills have zero or just one customer review, signaling extremely low usage.

Even more worryingly, even when brands do get consumers to download and use their Alexa Skill or Google Home app, the report shows that a mere 3 percent chance, on average, will be an active user by week 2. That’s a damning statistic considering the average Android and iOS app retention rates are 13 percent and 11 percent, respectively, one week after first use.

This could be down to the fact that Amazon skill platform is open to anyone in the world regardless of their programming skill level, there are also a large number of skills that fail to initiate on command, aren’t able to execute the function they are designed for, or return outcomes that are simply of a poor quality.

How to Build an Alexa Skill That Ticks The Right Boxes

So, as a marketer looking to adopt this new channel, how can you leverage an Alexa skill to deliver value and facilitate one-to-one customer interactions without dropping the ball? Here’s our advice, in five parts.

1. Know Who You’re Building For

Just like any other product development process, building a successful Alexa skill requires conducting thorough customer research in order to formulate personas — all before you ever write a line of code. You need to have a detailed understanding of your users, what their core challenges are and how their Alexa-powered device already fits into their life.

Your ability to answer the following questions will directly determine whether your skill gets widespread adoption or falls short of the mark:

  • Who are our target users? How do they currently use Alexa in their day-to-day lives? How will we introduce them to our skill and communicate it’s value?
  • What is a problem that is related to our core product offering that we can solve for these people?
  • What is an ability that is unique or inherent to Alexa that we can leverage to get the job done?

2. Solve a Real Problem

Here’s something you probably didn’t know.

There are Alexa skills that serve the sole purpose of making fart noises on demand.

Take a moment to let that sink in…

Sure, they probably provide entertainment to hundreds, maybe even thousands of households, but they probably aren’t getting used every day.

As a professional marketer, your job is to identify and maximize the business value that can be derived from every channel. In this case, that means using the combined power of your product and Alexa’s capabilities to solve real-world problems for your customer.

If you can’t find the right exchange of value, the people who install your Alexa skill will not translate into new users, customers, or advocates. If that happens, you wasted a lot of time, energy, and resources building something that nobody wanted in the first place.

3. Make it A Joy to Interact With

The experience of using your Alexa skill should be natural, valuable, and enjoyable. Users should be able to speak to Alexa just as they would with another human. If they have a general sense of what the skill can do (e.g. play music, set a reminder, add a calendar event, etc.) they should be able to ask her to do it in a conversational manner.

This combination of convenience and utility is the real value of voice interface, but it can quickly deteriorate if your skill requires users to interact with it in unnatural ways.

As an example, make your invocation — the phrase that initiates the skill — short and easy to remember.

Here’s what that might look like in practice:

Poor - Alexa, ask [source of industry news] for the [latest news] about [industry topic] for [yesterday].

Better - Alexa, ask [Financial Times] about [the news in my city].

You should always be on the lookout for potential stumbling blocks that your users might run into, such as the use of odd phrasing or the need to repeat commands to get multiple independent results.

Always approach your Alexa skill from the perspective of the end user and strive to make the experience as seamless as having a conversation with another person.  

Allowing your users to make simple requests (and delivering on them) without requiring them to think about the format or context those requests should be in will create a much better experience and generate those word of mouth referrals we’re always looking for.

4. Combine Usability With Utility

Building useful products and services for a platform like Alexa is dramatically different from a visual user interface like a website or desktop application. In fact, they can sometimes be polar opposites.

As an example, exploring a large selection of information is a breeze in a browser window where you can open multiple tabs, quickly scroll through a library of content, or toggle certain filters/categories to find what you’re looking for.

With a user interface that is voice-driven, this requires a substantial amount of additional interactions and time, both of which introduce additional points where your users can get frustrated or lost.

When choosing the use case for your skill, we recommend that you focus on trying to land somewhere on the upper end of this utility scale provided by David Isbitski on the Amazon developer blog.

When planning out the capabilities of your skill, you should always start with a narrow focus that positions you squarely in the “Searching” or “Doing” level.  This will provide your users with easy, intuitive access to a valuable service or piece of information. From there, you will have a strong foundation on which to build additional interactions that may require a slightly more complex user input, but also generate more interesting or valuable outcomes.

5. Keep It Fresh

So, you’ve done your research and built an Alexa skill that not only solves an important problem, but is also a dream to use.

Congratulations! Now what?

After launching their skill, many brands fail to keep it updated, which leads to user churn and poor reviews in the marketplace.

Remember that, over time, your product or service is probably going to have plenty of changes. Those should permeate all the way down to your Alexa skill, which may require updating invocations or scripts, re-wiring integrations with certain data sources, or even redesigning certain interactions altogether.

The important thing to remember is that simply building and launching an Alexa skill that is useful for your customers doesn’t mean your job is done. In order to continue deriving business value from your investment in the platform, someone needs to take ownership and ensure that your product is fulfilling its original purpose with the same level of quality and utility.

Amazon Echo: A Golden Opportunity

Admittedly, the Alexa Skills space is still in its infancy. The true value of Alexa as a marketing platform or channel for interacting with customers is just beginning to take shape.

Almost all of the Alexa skills today are free for consumers to install, because Amazon won’t allow most developers to charge users or serve ads inside of their skills. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the financial value being generated by Alexa skills is flowing to the marketing companies that are creating skills for big brands like Starbucks, Nestle, or Purina.

As for the rest of us, the value lies in delivering excellent, omnichannel customer experiences through content or services.

With that being said, Amazon has recently taken steps to increase the financial upside that the platform offers both independent developers and larger brands. Developers can now present in-app purchases or handle payment processing, which opens up the door for cross-sells, up-sells, and voice-based shopping or ordering.

The landscape of using Alexa skills as a sales or marketing channel is rife with both opportunity and risk. However, we all know that early entrants to emerging markets face the least amount of competition and stand the best chance of establishing a strong foothold as the channel gains traction with consumers.

If you’re considering building an Alexa skill for your brand, use the steps outlined above to help you build an Alexa skill that’s  not only useful for your customers, but also a reliable source of new leads, sales or readers.

Will Ezell
Chief Technology Officer
February 01, 2018

Recommended Reading

Why Global Brands Need a Multi-tenant CMS

Maintaining or achieving a global presence requires effective use of resources, time and money. Single-tenant CMS solutions were once the go-to choices for enterprises to reach out to different market...

14 Benefits of Cloud Computing and Terminology Glossary to Get You Started

What is cloud computing, and what benefits does the cloud bring to brands who are entering into the IoT era?

Headless CMS vs Hybrid CMS: How dotCMS Goes Beyond Headless

What’s the difference between a headless CMS and a hybrid CMS, and which one is best suited for an enterprise?