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Alexa may answer your questions with ads soon

Amazon wants Alexa owners to buy more things. That's the clear impetus behind the new Alexa feature announced today at Amazon's Accelerate conference, called Customers Ask Alexa, which lets brands submit answers to common questions like "How can I remove pet hair from my carpet?" and "How to eliminate odor from soil stains?" Previously, Alexa supplied generic tips from the web and other sources in response to such queries. But Customers Ask Alexa turns answers into product spots.

"Brands registered with Amazon Brand Registry will see the new Customers Ask Alexa feature in Seller Central, where they can easily discover and answer frequently asked customer questions using self-service tools," Amazon explains in a blog post -- clarifying that brands don't sponsor or pay for the feature. "Customers Ask Alexa will be available to shoppers via the Amazon search bar in late 2022 and via Echo devices in mid-2023."

Is that desirable? For sellers, maybe. For Alexa users … probably not. I, for one, don't want to be bombarded with ads every time a random question about a household chore comes up. Amazon says that all brand-submitted answers will be subject to content moderation and quality checks and that the program will be invite-only to start (in October 2022) ahead of a broader rollout in 2023 in the U.S. But I can't say I have much faith companies won't try to hijack answers to the most popular questions, angling for prime placement in Alexa users' households.

Customers Ask Alexa dovetails with another feature unveiled today at Accelerate, Tailored Audiences, which will allow sellers and brands on Amazon to send marketing emails directly to customers. Bloomberg rightly notes that could backfire -- particularly if those same brands aggressively push their products on Customers Ask Alexa.

Customers Ask Alexa
Customers Ask Alexa

Image Credits: Amazon

In any case, it seems unlikely that unwanted product placement will do much to bolster Alexa-driven sales on Amazon's marketplace. The estimated tens of millions of Alexa users around the world have historically been loathe to make purchases with their voices, with stats from one eMarketer survey showing that just 10.8% of customers used Alexa for online shopping in 2020.

The low uptake -- and fading interest in Alexa generally -- hasn't stopped Amazon from increasingly leveraging Alexa-powered products as an advertising medium. In 2021, the company launched interactive audio ads on Amazon Music's ad-supported tier, which is enabled by default on supported Echo devices, allowing listeners to add items featured in an ad to their Amazon carts by saying "Alexa, add to cart." Amazon also recently began partnering with brands to run promotions as static images on Echo devices, displaying them during "ambient use" and in rotation with content such as weather, recipes, sports and news.

To attract higher ad bids from advertisers, Amazon uses personal voice data -- a fact with which not all users might be comfortable. According to a report published in April -- key details of which were confirmed by an Amazon spokesperson to The Verge -- Amazon and third parties including advertising and tracking services collect data from owners' interactions with Alexa through speakers, TVs and other devices.