Episode #037: Dave Isbitski, Chief Evangelist, Alexa at Amazon
Voice is truly transforming how brands engage with consumers and it has tremendous staying power. For starters, voice is easily accessible by almost any generation. There are constantly videos on social media of children talking to Alexa demonstrating how easy it is for a child to understand how to use it. We’re also seeing older generations take advantage of Alexa because it's so simple to use. Plus, it doesn’t require any software updates and doesn't’ planned obsolescence like we’ve become accustomed to with our mobile devices. This means if you haven’t implemented a voice strategy for your brand, then you need to start figuring one out. And, there isn’t anyone better to learn from than this week’s guest. In this episode of Mobile Matters, we talk to Chief Evangelist at Amazon Alexa, Dave Isbitski, about what it was like to be the first person in the skills marketing organization at Amazon and launch Alexa, how every tech wave is merely building upon a prior one, and why you need to start developing brand guidelines for voice.
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Stephanie Cox: I’m Stephanie Cox, and this is Mobile Matters. Today I’m joined by Dave Isbitski. Dave is currently the Chief Evangelist for Alexa and Echo at Amazon. He’s been a professional speaker, trainer, and evangelist for over two decades. He’s taught full-day courses on many topics including voice design, natural language understanding mobile, and the cloud. He also helped launch numerous technology platforms and devices while at Microsoft and Amazon. In this episode, Dave and I talk a lot about what it was like to be the first employee in the skills marketing org in Amazon and helping to launch Alexa in 2014, how each tech wave we’ve seen is really just building upon a previous one and why you should start thinking right now about brand guidelines for voice. And make sure you stick around until the end where I’ll give my recap and top takeaways so you can not only think about mobile differently but implement it effectively. Welcome to the show, Dave.
I always love to get started by asking how did you get where you are today, so tell me about your role leading up to Amazon.
David Isbitski: Not on my own, certainly! It's, gosh, you know, I just started out as a kid, when I was younger I just loved tech. Like I knew I wanted to do tech and I didn't know what kind of job that would even mean and I've just been fortunate to be in the middle of these waves. So like when I graduated college it was like the internet and web pages and all of that, right? And I started coding as a little kid. I was like, "Why don't I get a job coding HTML, whatever that is," right? And I kind of did the whole dot com thing, that's where I got a lot of e-commerce experience and I worked for a whole bunch of companies. I worked for a consulting agency and did a whole bunch of different jobs, so I got to see what big companies are like, what startups are like, and what I wanted to do next. And then I did the whole corporate gig. I was in pharma for a while and research in tech, I guess you can even say in like early biotech days. And somewhere along the way–and I should have known this, right? Because I've always been this way–is I just realized I really love talking about it and I love teaching people about it and I never liked the fact that stuff came harder for other people I wanted everybody to be as excited as I was and so it was, oh gosh, what year was it, now it's 2007. It was like 2006, 2007 I saw this job, tech evangelist at Microsoft I applied for it wound up getting it and it was you know basically community building. Back then it wasn't even like social media like it is right now. Right. In the beginning, it was like I was using Facebook to talk to people. I think I went on Twitter in 2008, is when I started using Twitter, and LinkedIn wasn't like it is today, you know. And but for me, I always was using the latest thing. Even today and I have kids that are older–my oldest, she just turned 15–and she's always had, you know, too much, like, I know which app she's using, I know how she tries to get around things, and it's just–
Stephanie Cox: My kids do the same thing!
David Isbitski: Yeah it's like so she doesn't even bother she's just like, whatever. But you know, it's always been that ride, and I've been really fortunate to work with these incredible companies. I've always been East Coast, by the way, I was born and raised in Jersey. I'm outside Philadelphia now. But I travel all over and do a lot of stuff online. So I've worked for these amazing Seattle companies, you know Microsoft for seven years. I ended there as the Chief Evangelist of Gaming, whatever that meant which meant basically–
Stephanie Cox: I was going to say, that's a cool job.
David Isbitski: It was super cool. Like I got to work on the Xbox team for a while and helped launch the Kinect and I got to work with a bunch of indie devs and just...and I've always been, I'm a lifelong gamer. Like I can go on and on for hours of stuff I waste too much time but I love it. It's just part of me.
And then Amazon, you know, I started 2013, and it was a role in starting the app store because there was the Kindle tablets at the time and the Kindle Fire tablets were going to come out, and now they're just Fire tablets, right. And it was, hey we want to make this app store. That was one of the things I was helping with at Microsoft across Windows Phone, Windows Store. And so I got to do that and then got to dive into Android and just incredible ride there and helped launch Fire TV and did Fire Phone stuff–still have my Fire Phone here at my desk, I love it. And then it was 2014 and they were like, hey Dave why don't you check this thing out. It's wasn't called what she's called today, it was just the one speaker and I remember using that and being like, wow like there's something to this. Because I started talking to Alexa every day, even then! So I happened to be Employee 1 in their skills marketing org in 2014, and then got to announce publicly in 2015 our first kind of NDA for people if they wanted to extend the functionality–it was the Echo App SDK, and I was literally sending emails on like how you would get in, and just trying to figure out, yeah, like what does this even mean? And back then everything was IoT, right? That was like the buzz word, so is it IoT? Is it a speaker? And so it was a learning journey for me too, like–I started learning about what is Ambient Computing and A.I. and machine learning and NLU and ASR and all these things which I love. I just love learning new stuff. And so that has been an incredible ride and we launched that same year we launched our first API, so we had the Alexa Skills Kit to have conversations with Alexa and build these skills and then we had the Alexa voice service where you can put Alexa into things, and so I've just been part of that ride. And you know Amazon–this is one of the things I really love about it, and it depends on the type you are. I am the type–I love scrappy.
And so Amazon is–the way I tell people–it's like a lot of these little startups and just happens to be funded by this rich VC called Amazon.com. So it's like, I don't get the startup experience of like worrying too much about the money, but it's the whole experience of like, you're figuring it out, right? Like there's no processes in place. And so like in the beginning, I was the person that was going around hacking phones with devs and then I was going to companies and talking to execs like it was just doing everything right? You know, there was no marketing BDM, developer evangelist. And I loved it. And it was such a thrill ride. And then now we have thousands of people working in the org across all sorts of different industries and so a lot of what I do today is talking with brands about what voice means and what they need to be thinking about. It's a lot of like keynotes you'll see, it's a lot of social media talking online. I have a podcast going on, podcasts like education and then incubation in the new areas. So you'll see me doing stuff with like Alexa for business and auto and we just had a HIPAA and other areas where we may see voice starting to take off as well. So it's one of those jobs where I'm fortunate enough where I was just right place right time. I totally did not plan it and I just love, I truly do love what I do every day and I have that cool thing where, like, I'm not selling anything, I'm just helping people out. And the biggest downside with that is like you have to be careful not to spread yourself too thin right? Because otherwise you'll be on calls all day long helping people build pieces and things like that. And so that's kind of the nutshell that's how I got started out.
Stephanie Cox: So you've seen, it sounds like, from your career, a ton of technology change happen. What has been one or two things that you've seen happen once, let's say a decade or 15 years, that you think it's really been the biggest transformative piece of technology that's impacting how we think about engaging with consumers, how brands market?
David Isbitski: It's even when I was just starting out. I always felt that people have amnesia. And there would be all these all other older people that'd be like, we already solved these problems! And we're like, what do you know that's COBOL! But it's really just a people thing. We have a tendency to forget. I know I forget! This is a crazy thing, like, I was just on a panel–PR Week Ruder Finn–I was on a panel and people kept coming up. People were like, you know it's IT, IT If we're doing internal comms, we've gotta get stuff passed through IT! And I was like, Look. I was the person–I was the consultant that we're helping companies write these docs to implement an intranet. And it was the stuff back then! And then it was the same with mobile. It was the same with the cloud. And I'm like, go dust off that doc, and everybody laughed and I'm like you're totally right. There's an eight-page doc on security principles for Bring Your Own Device with mobile. And I'm like, Yeah! It's not–there's nothing new in these tech waves. Right? The way I look at it is where I was going have the same concerns the same problems, what I look at it as is the inclusiveness of the tech. And so this is what I mean by that. I feel like today all these other waves that have happened, while though they have been important, Right? And when I say "recent waves" I'm talking cloud mobile and social. They target 18 to 34 right? They just do. And when I talk to companies, you know, what are you targeting? 18 to 34. Right? Unless it's specifically targeted, you know if it's a kid app or something like that. But otherwise, it's 18 to 34. And the only reason that is so is because tech is hard. You have to understand it. You have to patch it. You have to learn it. You have to update it. And so for me, I've always wanted, what we're seeing now in voice, is that I mean if you think about this, right, it's the first time we've ever had this wave come where you can buy a device once. I mean there's people who bought an Echo in 2014 and it still works, you don't have to patch it. You don't have to get an OS every year, right?
Stephanie Cox: It doesn't stop working and tell you to buy a new phone, right?
David Isbitski: Right. And then here's the other interesting thing that I've always found, like especially when I did enterprise work, a lot of it was like tradeoffs between cost of retraining, right? It was like, if I roll out this new OS, yes it's going to be great but it's going to cost me a hundred million dollars to roll it out across 100,000 global employees, right? This is the first time that every brand–because you mentioned brand–so every brand experience is the current as of today. So if I go and talk to a brand today, it's what that brand wants to say. It's not what that brand said on the last version of iOS because I haven't updated, right? And I think that's super impactful because it has the discoverability of an app store ,which I think is one of the true benefits of an app store, but it also has the maintainability of the web. So you are always getting that latest version that, oh you know ,there are people in your life you'll find online, people talking about their skills. How many users that they have. I mean millions that are just having the same current conversation that they want to have every day, so that to me is really impactful. The other thing is inclusiveness across all age divides. Right? And so like, I have a parent who has never used a computer as crazy as that sounds. But he tells me all that stuff he's doing the Alexa and I continue to hear that! I get emails and people hit me up on social media. And you know we have HIPAA compliant skills now too. So that's what's really gotten me excited there. Is it the inclusiveness of this tech wave. Now it's built upon all the other waves before. We certainly would not have without NLU, which is natural language understanding, which is the ability for Alexa and you know all the assistants work this way. AI works this way, of understanding context. It's not translating, you know, speech to text ,it's actually understanding what's the context in which those words–what is a person asking for, right? None of that would have happened without big data and machine learning and none of that would have happened without cloud storage. Right? None of the cloud storage would have happened without the Internet. And so it's kind of like these waves. It's really a pyramid of just building upon and building upon and building upon to get to where we want. It's not like people didn't have these ideas 30, 40 years ago, too. In fact I've met–and it's humbling meeting people who've been in the NLU, in this space for 30+ years. You know there was these IVR systems that we've all used where you dial into a phone line and I mean it's been around, but it's not had the ability to generally understand intention of just a normal human being. And that's really what the change is.
Stephanie Cox: So that's what's got me I would say that's a really great point because when you mentioned IVR I was like, everyone hates IVR, because I feel like it has not gotten better. But Alexa understands my 4-year-old niece! And sometimes I don’t even understand her!
David Isbitski: Right! And you know, as human beings, nothing's going to beat time. We don't like having our time wasted. So even going back to desktop apps and then web and mobile, if you think about it, I like to say it's all on rails, we've decided this is the way that a human being can interact with us. This is a dropdown thing and you've got to go through it, right. And there's something really amazing as a human being when you can on your own terms ask for what you want to ask. And that's you know an IVR system was basically just using text to speech. And it's still a rail system but if you can come in and you're starting to see this you're starting to see assistance even in Mobile, you're seeing some financial assistance that was just there was there was a bunch of stuff on social media recently with Bank of America. Just the ability to go in and ask for something! So think about that, like, you can do this too. You can do this on Alexa, like Capital One skill. People are asking “How am I doing?”. You could just ask for things and you don't have to know what a ledger is when an account transfers, like every industry does this. It happened when I was in pharma too. Like you expect people to understand all of the acronyms and when in fact they just want to know did their lab results come back OK. Do I have anything to worry about? And that's really-that's the difference now. So that's exciting because I tell brands, hey, if you don't have brick and mortar then you've probably never had the ability for your customer to ask you anything in the moment. You have a call center, you're going to hear angry customers. And so you've probably never ever had that ability, unless you were a big enough brand that you were at an event somewhere and somebody came up to you as a customer and just anecdotally told you what they love about your service. Right? You just you never really had that ability and now you have that ability all day long. It adds tremendous value.
Stephanie Cox: Now that's a really great point and I love what you're saying about just really how voice ranges and really works for all ages because when you're talking about your dad, I was thinking the same thing, I was like, my parents use Alexa and so does my niece! That's like her first thing to do when she goes to my dad's house is tell Alexa to play music and turn the lights on, and it's just interesting because that's that is how she's growing up and that's her and her normal now.
David Isbitski: Oh yeah. I hear from parents all the time they go in the car and the kids are hollering at the radio, “Alexa!”.
Stephanie Cox: Yes! I’ve seen that I love that. Or they go to a house where there's not one and then...
David Isbitski: Yeah, they are truly the voice-first generation. And that is in terms of...you know Elon Musk talked about his and I really liked what he said. He said it’s about bandwidth, right? And so typing is very, very low bandwidth, and this is where I struggle as a writer because I talk so fast and my brain runs so fast, it’s so low bandwidth. I’ve actually tried a lot of different text-to-speech to get all my thoughts out. But you know, voice and speech are a lot higher bands. Ultimately we want to be able to start reading and even when you when you read the stuff that's reading it's not reading your thoughts it's reading the part of the cortex where it language actually forms. So it's no different than me saying the word because you actually in your brain use the word that’s there before you verbalize it. That's basically what it's reading. So that an even higher bandwidth type of ability. Right? So I think it's only natural for human beings now to say, hey I can I can speak first, so I want to go ahead do that! And I tease some brand sometimes–because I do do this–where any brand I use, I have said your name to Alexa. And it's interesting to see if any of them know what Alexa will say back.
Stephanie Cox: And it is interesting. It's a good test.
David Isbitski: Because I think you and I have heard from people that are doing that because you know it's like I remember in mobile like I used to make decisions on the bank I was gonna have based on if they had a mobile app, so I could transfer money without having to go drive to the branch right there today. If you've got a skill where you can just get quick information, you can get flight status or you can get an order or you can actually order merchandise, you can do other things right. If one brand has that and another brand doesn't. When we just kind of figure out if it has just asked Alexa. You know, and over time what we've done is, if you say a name like if you say, you know, Jeopardy, she's going to say, “Would you like to play Jeopardy?”. Right? Nobody to help you! So it's not a straight up invocation, you can actually invoke it as you're talking to. So I think it's a neat exercise for brands to do just to see. And then of course go Amazon.com/skills and actually look and search.
Stephanie Cox: So thinking about just Alexa and how we've seen that take off, how do you think– or why has that been so successful, whereas I feel like Siri on my iPhone is not as successful? I don't see as many will using that as I see Alexa being used.
David Isbitski: Yeah well I obviously I can't speak to any other companies. As somebody who has been with the company for a while, one of our, you know, you can you can look up the leadership principles online, there's a bunch of them. And one of my favorites is bias for action and another is diving deep and all that goes into customer obsession, right? So even the developers in Alexa before we like do a developer API, they do the PR release of what that actually means. So everybody's starting with the customer and working backwards. So if you think about that from the very beginning, voice has always been a way of making it easier to do things. All right. Just think about music and weather and smart home. Oh gosh I remember 2014 being on panels at Smart conferences and people like we need one uniting interface. And I was like yes, this is called my voice, guys. You know, and people started to figure that out, so I think that's really what's made it successful based on what customers have told me. And you could see this in the reviews too is that whole idea of ambient computing is that you just ask, and then two: she hears and understands. I think that's important, right. We've all had different bouts with text to speech over the years where it was never heard correctly and that was–I mean even right from the get-go in 2014 that was one of the things I was hearing from customers was, I don't even remember what I said but it worked. Right? And over time you know the ability to just ask for music from specific years? I do that all the time! I'll be like, "Play the top hits from 2005" or something like that. And just looking at how customers are actually using that the feedback that we get just in order to make things easier and easier, and that's been the idea with the API of Alexa's voice service and Alexa's skills. I mean we don't charge for that. It's a way for people to actually–I like to say that voice is the new HTML and I think it helps people, instead of obsessing over the tech itself to realize, oh what did HTML do? It allowed all of these people to reach their customers across both mobile and web, right? But you didn't obsess about the actual tech itself, it just kind of worked and I think that's how voice will be. Voice will be that interface for everything. It'll be the first type of interface that we want to use. And so for me, I mean, I still use mobile which is not replacing it. And the other thing to think about in this scenario and I'm surprised how many people don't think about this, and I tell them and the light bulb goes off as I'm like, look–it's multi-modal out human beings are multi-modal. We use all sorts of different interfaces. We're just talking because it's fast but that doesn't mean I can't order something from your mobile app and 15 minutes later ask Alexa when is it going to arrive again. Yeah. Right. And that is incredible too because you gotta think of in terms of utility and I think of utility, like, one of the highest metrics for utility is time. And so if there's something that I've done with you as a as a brand and I want to get to that information very very quickly, the ability to do that with your voice is incredible. I'll give you another example. Just like a personal example. I use, well, two apps: I use My Fitness Pal, I track all my calories and all my macros, and then I also have a Fitbit. And so both of those are skills. But what I've actually seen with those brands do is while I'm in the mobile app on my phone is it's actually told me what I can say to Alexa. Just last night, it was like, what was it, when My Fitness Pal said, hey you know you can tell Alexa "add weight" and you just say your weight. So like I can now, because I have an Alexa in the bathroom, the next time that I'm weighing in I can literally just say it. I don't even have to take out my phone. And so it's not changing the overall service, but what it's doing is it's increasing customer engagement which is what you want as a brand. Right? And so I can now choose on my own terms when to engage how to engage across all of these different modalities so it's an additive. And you know you do you. I do hear from brands where you're seeing increasing engagement across there, and you'll see a stuff on online like people who are doing everything from like, you know, delivering groceries and food and things like that, is the type of engagement they've seen because it's just easier.
Stephanie Cox: You've mentioned brands a couple times so I'd love to dive into that. How should brands think about their voice strategy?
David Isbitski: What I'd like to tell people is that because it's really interesting when you start to get into brands in this new space then you have internal comms, right? And you have PR and you have all these other stakeholders, because companies and every company I've been at it's no different,, like their design guidelines around what this stuff actually looks like, but there's absolutely nothing on what it sounds like which blows me away. And if you think about it, that used to be the most important thing like radio shows of old! What is it? How do you say the actual name? How do you enunciate? What does it sound like? In other countries and other languages, all of that. And so what I tell people is that's the first decision you have to make: Is there a single voice? Because I think people make the mistake of, oh we're gonna do our own voice we're gonna do Alexa's voice and it's like no how about a voice I care about as a customer? Because we give you the ability to use over like 50 different voices for free through this AWS technology called Polly across multiple languages. So what do you want your voice to sound like? Do you want it to be male, female, young, older? Can I choose? You know, that I think is incredibly engaging there. And then you know remember jingles and things like that just little tunes and like the ability to use sound? And all of that becomes incredibly important too. So I started to think about that. Another interesting thing with that too is, when are they engaging? Typically in Alexa and smart assistants in general you'll see it on a cycle where people are engaged in the morning, you know, you're getting coffee ready, you're asking for the weather, news, and then maybe in the afternoon you're firing off a skill getting some information, and then maybe in the evening you're playing music or asking for some information. Right? So there's these touchpoints and then of course you have the automobile now which we're seeing even more and more Alexa in the automobile. We had over a million preorders of the Echo auto device. You can just plug into the car. Yeah.
And so I think I really feel like that's going to be huge. For me now that I have it in the car when I'm driving a long ways and I have a tendency to listen a lot of nonfiction through like Audible and even my podcasts, my brain gets to a point where it's like, I'm done. And then sometimes I don't even wanna listen to music but I play games now. And it's really fun playing games in the car! Like I play a song quiz, which is like music trivia. And it's just a different way of interacting, but it becomes incredibly powerful in the car. And then it's also communal so I can have the whole family participate as well. And so you know depending on the touchpoint you may want a different voice or a different interaction there you can have a flash briefing that's specifically curated. You know like, if I want medical advice what do I want that person to sound like. I want probably them to sound like my doctor, right? But if I'm older, do I want it to be an older doctor or a young doctor? Think about that. This doesn't exist in mobile and web but that's absolutely why people pick doctors. Like I've heard my parents go, "Oh, he's so young" He's not that young, Mom! He's in his 50s! You know? But it's like, it's just the perception because that's how we connect with people, you know. And so giving people that option or even thinking about it, I think that's the first thing to think about: What does it sound like? What does your engagement sound like there? Right? And then the second thing is be really realistic about what you can do today in 2019. And what I find for a lot of people that's helpful is to have a plan for now, but also a plan for five years out.
And so the plan for now depending on budget a lot of times you'll see brands might have–depending on if they're consumer or business–well, I'll break that up into two. I'd say a lot of the consumer brands, if it's a media brand you'll see things where I may have had budget allocated for a social campaign or some ad ad spend. Right? And so I can move some of that budget over and actually do a scale, where maybe if it's like a movie, I'm actually talking with the characters and those have been successful you'll see I see lots of reviews for those type of skills on on Amazon from customers especially kids movies and things like that, being able to actually talk to the characters highly engaged. Right? But then you look at a plan overall going out and what I like to tell people is that you can learn more now about your customer than waiting. Right? Because we have things like we have iPods where we have interactive path analysis so you can say, hey look we started this scale, and you can ask these these, I don't know, 50 different things and nobody's asking this, but everybody's asking this. Right? Like that's surprising to people, like the Capital One example I had where people just saying, "how am I doing?", they really just wanted an overall "is there anything I need to worry about". So you know that's one of the things, is, well, nobody's actually told me this before because they've never had the chance, they've either used my app or they've called me up and hollered about something at work. So that's important, is customer discoverability. Right. Like what are they actually asking? And you might–the interesting thing is you might find that's different across age groups too. I've talked to brands where they're seeing, you know, it isn't just the 18 to 34 talking to them and they're not seeing that in other areas. And so, do you have a plan for that? There are some brands that have none. Right? And so what does that mean? Is that new customer acquisition? No, actually that's been existing customer acquisition but engagements have been super low because you haven't given them anyway to engage.
Stephanie Cox: If you can't tell Dave has an incredibly impressive resume and it's definitely the person you need to talk to you when you're thinking about implementing voice for your brand and he honestly has so much more to say on the topic and when you get someone from Amazon to be on your show, you tend to ask a lot of questions. That's why I'm breaking my conversation with Dave into two episodes.
So let’s dive into my top three takeaways from the first part of our conversation and then I'll share what you can expect to hear from the rest of my interview with Dave and next week's episode. First voice has the potential to really transform how brands engage with consumers. Think about it for a minute. The Alexa device you purchased five years ago still works together and never needs to be updated or upgraded, unlike our phones. It has the discoverability of the app store, making it easy to find what you're looking for by simply using your voice while also having a real-time ability of the web ensuring that you always get access our latest information...not to mention that voice is something that anyone can access regardless of age or tech-savviness, everyone from your grandparents to my youngest niece knows how to use Alexa. What other technology that's come out in the last five years can you say that about? It's a truly inclusive tech, and in my opinion, that's the type of tech that transforms generations and my children and their children are going to grow up in a world where talking to Alexa is just how they live. They’re a voice-first generation
Next, do you know what Alexa is saying about your brand today? If not, you need to find out. That was one part of my conversation with Dave that really hit home for me as a marketer and most of their channels you can control whether or not you have digital as you appear in search but with voice it’s different. If you're not controlling what Alexa saying about your brain intentionally, then you left that up to what she knows, which is not likely the ideal customer experience your brand wants.
Finally, it's time for all of us to develop brand guidelines for our voice strategy. We need to go back to the days where we would obsess over the voice for radio ad our commercial and do the same thing with our voice strategy now. What should your voice sound like? Can customize customize it or do you want eventually customize it based on who your customer actually is? There's so much potential here for brands that you really need to think through it. Especially given the role that voice is going to play in consumer engagement moving forward. It's something we need to start doing now. And make sure you check out next week's episode where Dave is sharing so much more about voice, including why you need to think about voice as a customer engagement channel and not an acquisition strategy. How enterprise organizations are using Alexa for business and let me tell you that one is really interesting. What he thinks about the future of what voice is going to look like and so much more. If you enjoyed this episode, then you're going to love next week’s.
I'm Stephanie Cox and you've been listening to Mobile Matters. If you haven't yet, be sure to subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. Until then be sure to visit Lumavate.com and subscribe to get more access to thought leaders, best practices, and all things mobile.