Author and leading nutritionist Ashley Koff talks to people she’s never met—every day, in their homes, quite likely in their kitchens. And they talk back. Sort of.
The conversations happen through Amazon’s Alexa platform and any number of smart speakers that support it. After opening Koff’s My Better Nutrition in Alexa, users can ask questions about better health and what supplements they should take. She can send them reminders and “calls to action” that include a seamless purchase.
Koff says she is amazed at the connection. “Somebody could say, ‘What’s the difference between dark chocolate and milk chocolate?’; and I can explain what that is. And then I’m able to say, ‘Would you like me to put my favorite dark chocolate in your cart?’” But she’s equally amazed how few brands are making that connection. Alexa isn’t exactly in its infancy, launching nearly five years ago, but use of the consumer interface for natural products and supplements is still sleeping in the crib.
As president of Studio Carlton, Victoria Weston produces Alexa “skills,” as they are called, for clients like Koff. She thinks brands have a lot to do to catch up with a technology that’s already out the door and down the street. Just because it’s new and complicated on the production side, doesn’t mean brands can ignore it. “I think part of the reason it is small is because people don’t know that it’s there, and how to utilize this, because they don’t know who to go to help them produce and develop an Alexa skill,” Weston says. “It’s much more work than creating a website.”
The potential could be enormous, and the demographic using Alexa and the other smart speaker assistant, Google Home, (read: people with enough expendable income to buy a smart speaker) seems ideally matched to the natural products industry. Supplements lie in a particular sweet spot, with consumers confused and looking for answers, Weston says. “Most of the people in this industry have the content, and they have content that sets them apart from other brands. It’s just a matter of drilling it down and making shorter snippets.”
Koff sees confusion around nutrition firsthand in first-person consultations. She’s able to address it more widely with smart speakers. She’d like to see more brands stepping in more proactively, and she’s happy to work with them on My Better Nutrition. Waiting is not an option, she says. “I think, for companies and influencers, we will not be using websites other than as destination points for some of these web links (delivered through the smart speaker) much longer. Everything will be done by voice activation.”
Nutrition and natural products may have more content to share than most big categories—one can imagine some dull Alexa conversations about paper clips—making it a rich area for smart speaker interaction. But the content must come first, ahead of the sales pitch. “It’s important to look at what kind of useful information are you going to provide your audience, and then you would do the call to action,” Weston says.
It’s hard to imagine anybody with more content than Mory Bahar. His company, Personal Remedies, offers a suite of smartphone apps aimed at helping people manage chronic conditions with nutrition. Celiac? Crohns? Diabetes? He’s got you covered. The content is food-based, but the same principals could be applied to supplements, Bahar says. “If somebody wanted to, they could come up with this, and it would work much the same, but it would push supplements,” Bahar says.
Personal Remedies has moved into the smart speaker space with My Dietician, which, the Amazon description promises, “provides actionable dietary guidance for 34 most common chronic illnesses.” The goal, Bahar says, is to put actionable nutrition information in situations that could be as simple as somebody standing in front of their refrigerator and asking, “what should I eat?” “You can say, ‘What are the best vegetables for high blood pressure?’; and then we give a description of 20 vegetables,” Bahar says.
Still, putting content in a smart speaker format isn’t as simple as it sounds. Bahar says the information that Personal Remedies provides is thoroughly vetted, and the company won’t stretch the science. The interaction is not infinite in nature either. My Dietician is not going to answer questions about nutrition history, for instance, or provide complicated scientific information. “We have to be careful about predicting exactly what the user is going to request and limit the dialogue in a fashion that it doesn’t have to articulate a long list of choices for the users to pick through.”
Within those limits, however, lies no shortage of opportunities. Beyond putting products in virtual shopping carts and sending web links for more information to email inboxes, Weston says her developers can build in reminders and nudges that could include “did you take your supplement today?” or a blinking alert that it’s time to order more. “Once a user says, ‘Okay, I’ll let you connect with me,’ you can send those people notifications,” Weston says.
Whatever people are using their smart speaker for now, there is a virtual guarantee they will be doing more with it in a few years. According to a report from market research firm Park Associates, the number of households with smart speakers doubled between 2017 and 2018. It could double again this year. A ubiquitous product integrating voice-commanded shopping into the homes of consumers with disposable income is an impossible-to-ignore prospect. Google coming through a screen is going to seem almost archaic at some point, in Weston’s opinion. They won’t be typing “healthy chocolate recipe” on their laptop or tablet, she says. “They’re going to be gaining their information through voice.”
Nutrition Business Journal just released these and other statistics in its 2019 Supplement Business Report, the go-to source for data and insight within the dietary supplement industry.