Epsilon and Others Scramble for Alexa Data from Amazon

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Credit: Amazon

Amazon, not unlike other retail giants or the web's walled gardens, is notoriously stingy with its data. However, Amazon has opened up some high-level information derived from consumer interactions with Alexa, it's voice-activated home IoT platform. The data is limited, but developers, digital consultancies and analytics startups are clamoring for it.

There's a lot of Alexa data that Amazon is keeping under wraps. For now, developers and brands can track usage patterns such as the number of unique customers accessing the games or content streams they develop, or the total number of "utterances" related to their applications -- which in Amazon parlance are known as "skills."

The data handoff is inherent in Amazon's mission to woo developers to create new functions for Alexa, since ordering a large pepperoni from Domino's or streaming a Spotify playlist isn't quite enough to warrant the presence of a new digital home device for some people.

Epsilon's Data Design is among a handful of consultancies building Alexa skills for its brand clients. The firm, whose core business is as a supplier of data and related services, has worked closely with Amazon over the past year to devise uses for the Alexa platform and data. The company integrates unstructured, public Alexa data with its own rich trove of consumer information. It's all part of a broader effort to create ways of incorporating data from emerging technology platforms – think eye tracking or facial recognition data – into the information it uses to inform strategies for clients.

"Epsilon was an early adopter of Amazon Alexa," said Rob Pulciani, director at Alexa. "Over the last 12 months, we've worked closely with Epsilon's Data Design team as they've experimented with and leveraged the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) to help solve their client's business needs and make their customer's lives easier."

Other agencies recommended for Alexa skill development by Amazon include Mindshare, AKQA and Razorfish.

By the end of this year around 33 million voice-first devices will be in circulation, according to a new report from analytics firm and Amazon partner VoiceLabs, which cites research from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, shopper data firm InfoScout and VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers. News, games, education, lifestyle, weather and sports are top content categories for these devices, notes the 2017 Voice Report from VoiceLabs.

Epsilon has employed Amazon data to better understand consumer interactions with brands at a product SKU level, said Tom Edwards, chief digital officer, Agency at Epsilon. On behalf of a CPG brand, for instance, Epsilon may use the information associated with vitamin SKUs to identify brand perceptions and help inspire ways a maker of health supplements could use Alexa to coax consumers to incorporate its brand into their morning routine.

"We can build a profile of an individual beyond Alexa," added Mr. Edwards. That process might involve pairing Alexa data related to a skill with aggregated data from a brand client or Epsilon's own transactional data.

According to Amazon's Alexa FAQs, "When you use a skill, we may exchange related information with the developer of that skill, such as your answers when you play a trivia skill, your zip code when you ask for the weather, or the content of your requests."

Developers cannot tap an Alexa API for conversations overheard by devices that operate on the platform such as Amazon's Echo. For example, Domino's would be able to see data on keywords used when people place orders through Alexa, but not have access to a raw voice file. They can't glean information on demographics related to people using their skills, and they definitely cannot access any data about specific people using Alexa.

Of course, by keeping its data close to the vest, Amazon arguably has an advantage over brands and merchants using its platforms, as well as other retailers.

"To Amazon's credit, they've really put a lot of thought into privacy for obvious reasons," said Adam Marchick, CEO of VoiceLabs, one of three analytics tools recommended for Alexa skill developers.

Last year an Arkansas judge approved a warrant requiring Amazon to hand over voice recordings and other data associated with an Echo device in the home where an alleged murder occurred. It's not clear that the data captured by Amazon – often select signifiers like keywords – were stored in such a way that would be beneficial for the investigation, or whether Amazon has complied with the data request.

As agencies and brands attempt to navigate the uncharted voice waters, some are contemplating ways to reach device users beyond applications or skills, through ads. It's still early days, though, said Mr. Marchick. "You've got to be elegant here…. This ain't no IAB banner opportunity."

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