'Alexa, what ETF should I buy?' Asset managers like BlackRock and Invesco are testing out voice assistants - but it's too early to tell if customers will actually use them
- Asset managers' websites are difficult to navigate. Soon institutional and retail investors could ask questions and access their portfolios via voice assistants like Siri and Alexa.
- Some of the largest fund managers, including BlackRock, Invesco, JPMorgan, State Street, and T. Rowe Price, are laying the foundations for voice programs, which they could roll out as soon as next year.
- It's unclear how much investors will use these programs, and some advisers are worried about privacy and encouraging short-term behavior.
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With just a few spoken words, you can schedule doctors' appointments on Alexa, order groceries on Google Home, and ask Siri for flight updates. Soon people will be able to interact just as easily with the companies that manage their investment and retirement accounts.
Big asset managers such as BlackRock, Invesco, State Street, T. Rowe Price, and JPMorgan are preparing to roll out tools on platforms like Alexa and Siri as soon as next year, top digital and marketing executives told Business Insider. They're planning to start with simple search-related tasks for voice assistants, like asking Siri about account balances or answering specific market questions, such as how US futures are trading.
Still years away are more complicated use cases, like asking Alexa to recommend the best exchange-traded fund for a portfolio or ordering a voice assistant to pull information into a PDF.
Because voice functionalities, including those for financial services, are still developing, it's hard to predict what the demand will be - or even if there will be any at all.
Scott Smith, the director of digital advice at the consultancy Cerulli Associates, said the appeal for new technology is always unclear.
"In the 1890s, people wanted better horses, not better cars. In 2001, no one knew they needed an iPad. We really don't know what the use cases are until we see what the capabilities of these offerings are," he said, adding that voice isn't for everyone.
"Most asset managers aren't ready to do [voice] yet. They're still trying to make their sites work better for advisers and get investors to use them," Smith said.
Those asset managers that are preparing for voice are tapping into an exploding market. A recent Microsoft report predicted that 75% of households would have at least one smart speaker by 2020, up from 22% at the end of 2018. Voice isn't limited to smart speakers - mobile assistants such as Apple's Siri and Google Assistant were the most commonly used digital assistants last year, according to Microsoft, followed by Amazon's Alexa.
BlackRock already has an application on Alexa that gives weekly market briefings, but the program's popularity is unclear - the app has just three reviews on Amazon.
Frank Cooper, BlackRock's chief marketing officer, told Business Insider in October that the $6.5 trillion asset manager would launch applications on Alexa, Google Home, and Microsoft's Cortana for institutional and retail investors, many of whom invest in BlackRock products via financial advisers.
A representative for BlackRock declined further comment.
Read more: BlackRock and Microsoft want to make retirement investing as easy as ordering an Uber
Search capabilities first
Most asset managers said they're first looking to add voice-enabled search before moving to full applications on smart speakers and other platforms. About three quarters of the consumers Microsoft surveyed said they use voice assistants for search.
When Cerulli's Smith started off his career at Putnam Investments as a retirement project coordinator, he said the vast majority of his calls were just about clients' account balances - an easy question for a voice assistant to answer quickly. Voice can also help with accessibility efforts, making websites and accounts easier to use for clients with impairments.
"Voice search makes all the sense in the world because people have trouble navigating any websites, especially those of asset managers and wealth managers," Smith said. "There's no good map. You start at the front page, you often have to click four times to get to what you're looking for."
Even laying the groundwork for simple search requires significant preparation to get websites up to the task. Emily Pachuta, Invesco's chief marketing and analytics officer, said Invesco teams are first working on new tag management.
"It's a lot faster to speak a request than to type a request," Pachuta said. "I think we'll see traditional search going away over time and being replaced with voice."
She added that working in voice "is all uncharted territory." Invesco is also considering paid-content partnerships on the smart-speaker platforms, as well as functionalities for institutional clients. Those investors may use search to more quickly prepare for an investment-committee meeting, which typically entails putting together a variety of information, from performance to holdings.
Like Invesco, State Street Global Advisors (SSGA) is working with teams globally to better standardize, group, and tag its website, Jet Lali, the firm's chief digital officer, said. The firm has been partnering with Ireland's University College Cork to develop a voice pilot.
"Voice search is an answer engine rather than a search engine," Lali said. "It does the hard work. It doesn't rank order [results], it just tells you the answer ... If you have a pointed question with a pointed answer, it's the easiest way to get an answer, i.e. 'what is the net asset value for a fund?'"
Short-termism and privacy concerns
As voice assistants add more capabilities, such as video and screen displays, Lali said SSGA is also thinking about how to add return data, charts, and video. One functionality he predicts is the ability to compare several funds visually on the smart assistants, much like investors can do on Morningstar's website.
Rob Carrigg, a Portsmouth, New Hampshire-based partner with the advisory firm Steward Partners, said he thinks of Alexa - which his family uses - and other assistants as multitasking enablers. They're well-suited to answer questions like "What are the S&P 500 futures doing?" while a user is making coffee, but for the sort of fund comparison that Lali mentioned, Carrigg would still prefer a computer. He also worries that if consumers check their portfolios more frequently via voice, they're more likely to make decisions in response to immediate market changes, rather than thinking long-term.
"I have found that there's an inverse relationship between access to information about someone's portfolio every millisecond and the long-term performance of that portfolio," Carrigg said.
Advisers are also wary of privacy issues.
Jeff Smith, a managing partner at the San Francisco-based registered investment adviser FundX Investment Group, said he's concerned about data mining and cross-marketing.
"As we have all experienced, once you express interest in a product or service, the large technology firms are using that interest to customize ads and tracking," he said.
Read more: BlackRock, Vanguard, and other big asset managers are placing big bets on tech. But some advisers have major concerns about the new platforms.
He said voice offers some opportunities for better investor education but that compliance could be an issue.
Managers have plenty of time to address these concerns. Kathy Awanis, JPMorgan Asset Management's head of digital, said the industry is about two years away from general adoption of basic voice skills and five to 10 years away from full voice-enabled interfaces. JPMorgan has been working on voice capabilities for the past two years, launching a trio of podcasts and eyeing future uses, including reminders and portfolio creation.
"We want it to be as ubiquitous as [consumers] using a smartphone," Awanis said. "When I'm building my overall ecosystem, voice is the center."
Before SSGA launches its voice app - which the firm will roll out in phases starting next year, first to a US adviser market - Lali said it's important to anticipate what customers will ask, then build accordingly.
"What we want to do is serve our customers in the way they want to be served," Lali said. "Many will carry on going to Google. This is an extension of that. If you want hands free, it works. Why would you spend a few seconds extra on Google? People are very impatient - those few seconds matter."
How widespread could voice be?
Lali said that while future voice usage is hard to predict, even a sliver of market penetration would be worthwhile. He likened the advent of voice to that of social media: 15 years ago, no asset managers maintained corporate LinkedIn accounts, but now every large firm does.
"It's a slow start but once people realize how important it is, it'll become normal," he said. "It's going to be meaningful - even if you have 1% of your customers engaging digitally, that's like the equivalent of every sales conversation in your market."
Cerulli's Smith said firms have little to lose by testing the voice space.
"For anyone who's getting involved, these efforts will help them understand the dynamics of the voice market and how it could be used," he said. "In the best case scenario, it could be a differentiator for them."
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