While conversing with inanimate voice applications about the weather or your daily schedule once seemed like a scene out of a sci-fi movie, it's actually becoming more and more common.
According to a recent eMarketer report, 60.5 million Americans will converse with voice apps like Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana on their phones this year — that's more than a quarter of all smartphone users and almost a fifth of the U.S. population. And that's not even including the number of people who use voice-first devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home. According to MediaPost, seven million voice-first devices were put in the market last year and another 25 million devices will be shipped by the end of 2017.
“Right now, the industry around voice is very powerful," said Varad Kishore, a former Yahoo engineer and Johnson Cornell Tech MBA '17. “There are an estimated 30 million voice-activated devices that will be in circulation by the end of the year. The only problem is that there is no way to monetize the platform in an effective way that doesn't harm the user experience."
That's why Kishore joined forces with Pranav Sachdev and Alan Lau, also receiving their MBAs this year at Cornell Tech, to create SageLink, the advertising ecosystem's first marketplace for voice applications.
Helping Advertisers Talk The Talk
“As a team, we believe that voice is the most natural way for us to interact with technology," said Sachdev, SageLink's CEO.
Coming from a video advertising background at Tremor Video, Sachdev was accustomed to fighting for users' attention — they were immune to pre-roll ads and quick to skip over it after the requisite five seconds. But voice apps can hold a user's attention.
“When people interact with [Amazon's] Alexa, for example, they remember the conversations they have with it in the same way they'd remember having conversations with a friend," he says. “That means that advertisements on voice apps are often more effective."
But that doesn't come without its pitfalls. Since users are intrinsically more engaged with voice content, they are also more sensitive to invasive and inorganic experiences.
The SageLink team uses a recent, ill-conceived Beauty and the Beast ad on Google Home as an example. The Twitterverse expressed its displeasure on a Thursday morning in March when users' questions about their calendar or the weather forecast was answered along with the inorganic addition: "By the way, Disney's live action 'Beauty and the Beast' opens today." The social media backlash was swift, as was Google's decision to pull the ad that night.
“Our user testing taught us that ads have to be contextual and delivered in a native way based on the format and style that the voice application is already in," said CTO Kishore. “So we created a marketplace that allows marketers and creators of voice applications to come together and collaborate to create these native voice ads."
The co-founders didn't want to make an automated ad network. Rather, they created a marketplace that purposefully pairs marketers with voice applications so that they can forge long-term partnerships and create organic advertising content. SageLink doesn't just connect marketers with voice apps; its platform also provides them with various interactive ad formats and tools that allows them to track campaign progress in real time — that way, marketers can immediately see how users are reacting to the campaign. App creators can also use SageLink's platform to control how often users will experience advertising.
And the partnerships being created are working.
Earlier this semester, SageLink facilitated a successful collaboration between a meditation app and an athleisure brand. “The way we made the ad native is to play it in the end in a very gentle voice that matches the mediation," said Sachdev. The software takes into account the that the user just finished a meditation session, and since the advertiser is in a similar space, the user understands why it's there and isn't upset by an inauthentic disruption.
What's Next For The SageLink Team
Kishore, Sachdev, and Lau, who built technology systems for financial institutions as a consultant with EY and Accenture before becoming the COO of SageLink, first came together at Cornell Tech as friends. But their relationship evolved to co-founders last winter when they were enrolled in Startup Studio, a class that asks students to pair up and create an original business venture.
"We had complementary skill sets and were drawn each other because we all have a structured way of thinking," said Kishore. "We were also aligned in terms of what we wanted to do and what we wanted to accomplish."
The ideation of SageLink began in December and has quickly developed into an operational product. The company currently has 150,000 daily sessions in its skill partnership ecosystem and various advertising partners that will be announced when the network officially launches.
As one of four winners of Cornell Tech's Startup Awards, SageLink has earned $80,000 in pre-seed money as well as a year's free office space (worth $20,000) at The Bridge, a co-working space on Cornell Tech's new Roosevelt Island campus.