What, When and How to Sell With Alexa Skills With In-Skill Purchase (ISP)

Original article can be found here (source): Artificial Intelligence on Medium

In September 2019, while I was part of the team, Alexa launched ISP (In-Skill Purchase) allowing Alexa Skills creators to offer and sell digital goods in their interactions.

If you want to design a successful strategy with Alexa and ISP most of the decisions that you will need to make can be solved with 3 key questions (What, When, How) impacted by 3 main actors (Alexa, Users and the Product Team that creates the Alexa Skill).

In this post, I will walk you through these different questions and how each participant impacts them.

What is up for sell and what users buy in Alexa Skills?

For this question, each one of the 3 actors plays a very important role. However, with ISP being a very new feature, users are the ones that still offer more uncertainty.

Alexa: What does Alexa allow to sell?

Alexa represents both the technology and the company. The technology itself limits the interactions that can be accomplished purely by voice, along with the company, which also prioritizes some options among others.

In that prioritization, Amazon currently offers three different categories of products:

  • Subscription: Users pay a monthly fee that grants them access to a set of items or to specific features. A good example would be the “Hypnotherapist Skill”, which offers 6 therapies for free and access to the whole catalog for a monthly fee.
  • One-time purchase: Users can buy the entitlement of an item or feature. For instance, the Spanish “VeoVeo” offers a paid option that gives you access to a different space in the game.
  • Consumables: Users get content or features that can be purchased, depleted, and purchased again. An example is “Yes sire”, with users able to pay to extend the game when they run out of their virtual money.

Besides these 3 options, Amazon sets several red lines regarding the content of the Alexa Skills that we need to take into account: violent, sexual, advertising… (more info here)

The Product Team: What is the creator willing to sell?

The “Product Team” represents you: the brand, company or individual creating the Alexa Skill.

As a business designer, you will need to find which of the existing models (subscription, one-time, consumables) fits better on your use case, taking into account your resources. You will normally face two different scenarios: the product exists outside Alexa or it has been created for the device.

If the product exists, the Alexa Skill is only a different branch for the digital strategy of the company. In this situation, the normal trend is to adapt the existing business model into a voice interaction. Depending on the use case, the adaptation can be an exact copy or a new version that takes advantage of the existing resources. A good example will be “English with Oxford”.

As part of their existing business, Oxford University Press has tons of recorded readings that they sell with their books. Adapting those recordings in order to be offered in the Alexa Skill with a crafted voice experience, helped to reduce the development complexity.

On the other hand, there are products that have been genuinely created for Alexa. Since the business model doesn’t exist yet, it needs to be created from scratch, learning what users are willing to pay for in their experience. The biggest challenges are related to finding those features or premium contents, and also with the costs of producing new materials. A good example here is the interactive adventure “Escape the Room” which offers paid Hints for players struggling in any of the rooms.

Users: What are users willing to buy?

Users always have the power and there´s no strategy that could fix a lack of product-market fit. However, ISP is still a new feature and there’s still a lot of uncertainty around what key aspects could be taken into consideration by users.

All this means that we only have a hypothesis about users’ preferences. This also means that we are still in a very exciting moment open to experimentation. We need to test as many options as possible to make our customers fall in love with our products.

As of today, users seem to enjoy things like:

  • Extra content: Like the “English with Oxford” Skill example above.
  • Hints: When they struggle in games like “Escape the Room”.
  • Premium features: Like extending your life in “Yes sire” when you run out of money.

When shall we offer upsell messages in the Alexa Skill?

Since Alexa guidelines push developers to have part of the experience free in every skill, we need to understand in which part of the conversation will be easier to make a sell. From the 3 main players, users should be the most important part here, followed by the Amazon recommendations. The Product Team would be in the last position then.

Alexa: When does Alexa suggest to give upsell messages?

The most repeated answer to that question from the Alexa team will be “early and often”. As I mentioned before, we are on a time for experimentation and testing different options is the best way to go nowadays.

Maybe in the future they will implement some solution to automatically place upsell messages in the interaction maximizing the results. In the meantime, feel free to test!

The main restriction/recommendation here from Alexa will be to give always the free part of the experience first as in the following example:

User: How is the game going?
Alexa: Your team is winning 3–0
Alexa: Do you want information about how to listen to the game now?

You can find more examples in this Alexa blog post.

The Product Team: When can the Product Team make an upsell message?

As part of the Product Team, you can impact on the types of products to sell and the promotion of products on specific dates, but you will have less to say about the moments in the conversation where an upsell message should be placed.

Upsell messages need to be visible, but your job as a designer will be to understand what the technology allows, and what users are open to accept. Do your best as a UX researcher, test different solutions and try to find those perfects moments.

As a general rule though, respect your users, give them as much value as you can without bothering them with unsolicited and unrelated messages, and avoid practices that could lead to unwanted purchases.

Users: When are users open to make a purchase?

More important than technology or product requirements, the decision about finding the right moment for this kind of message needs to be aligned with your users’ needs. There’s no fixed number or default moment since this decision will be defined by the conversation context and will change depending on the use case, the user and the situation.

If we want to find the right moment we will need to test different options. In my opinion, we need to look for two main cases: users’ needs and avoid being annoying.

Close to the users’ needs. Some examples on each of the 3 available categories will be:

  • Consumables: In a Trivia game after a wrong answer we can offer answer Jokers like they do in “Trivia Hero”.
  • One-time purchase: During audiobooks when users are close to finish the available content.
  • Subscription: Similar to the one-time purchase, taking into account the available content is key for being successful with the upsell. This is a great strategy for Skills like “Blinkist”.

Moments when we don’t bother our users. Besides contextually relevant moments, you can promote paid products trying to avoid being annoying to users. You need to take into account:

  • Product novelty: Users can enjoy hearing about new releases that improve the product so it can be something to add in your Welcome Message. However, once the product has been already promoted we will need to replace it since it won’t be a novelty anymore.
  • Upsell messages recurrency: Nobody enjoys SPAM messages so make sure that your main experience is not impacted by them.
  • Answers log: If a user has declined to buy a specific product we should decrease or even stop the upsell messages regarding that product for that user.

How shall we make an upsell message?

If we want to create an effective upsell message we will need to pay attention to the Alexa guidelines first, the user expectations, and the Product Team opinion last, which can be more limited in this topic.

Alexa: How should you present your upsell messages?

In the official documentation, we can find lots of recommendations on how to craft the perfect upsell message. These guidelines are created based on how the feature is built, which tries to avoid users from unconsciously buying goods, or experiencing a broken, inconsistent and bad experience.

The buying experience in Alexa Skills has two main parts: upsell message and buying feature. The second one is completely managed by Alexa and developers can only modify prices and a short introduction message explaining the item.

Regarding the parts controlled by the creators, the Alexa team gives some important guidelines to follow:

  • The upsell message cannot include details about pricing (they will be offered in the part controlled by Alexa). I.e.: I have a new room f̶o̶r̶ ̶1̶,̶9̶9̶ ̶€̶. Do you want to know more about it?
  • Its purpose is to inform users about the existence of paid items and to gather interest in knowing more info about these items. It is a yes/no question with a clear selling proposition. I.e.: Besides these free chapters we have a 1.000 titles catalog. Do you want to know more about it?
  • As we have already mentioned, the fee contest needs to be served first, i.e.: How is the game doing? / Your team is up 2–0. Do you want to know how to listen to the live game from here?
  • It needs to make clear that users are about to make a purchase and they will be charged accordingly.

For more information, you can check the full documentation here.

The Product Team: What to focus on a product?

Every product has dozens of great features, but the real challenge for the Product Team is to understand what’s THE THING that users are going to value the most and to share that information in only a few words. Finding this unique selling proposition (USP)and promoting this idea taking into account the limitations of voice interfaces is going to be their main task.

In some cases it will be extending the fun (“Yes Sire”), helping users to finish the interaction (“Escape the Room”), or making the skill more useful (“English with Oxford”).

Besides the USP, the role of the Product Team is more limited and highly dependent on the guidelines from the Alexa technology.

Users: Which messages can convince users to make a purchase in an ethical way?

Not only you will need to find a relevant moment for your users, but you will also need to understand how to craft a perfect message to convince them, but avoiding any option of users acquiring unwanted goods.

Cognitive overload needs to be taken into account. Users are interacting with an Alexa Skill and they are going to get an unsolicited message about an item/feature they didn’t request. We don’t want that message to go through their ears without leaving any mark in their memory. The Product Team will help a lot by focusing on the unique selling proposition but how the message is integrated with the rest of the conversation will also play a basic role.

A good example would be the “Yes Sire” Alexa Skill, with an immersive experience similar to the following:

  • “Sire, your wealth has dropped to 0, the emperor will be outraged.
    The head of the powerful Rizzoli banking says he can secretly restore your wealth to fifty for a small fee.
    Would you like to talk to the banker Rizzoli?”

Regarding ethics, you need to pay careful attention to two points. First at all, upsell messages need to be transparent for users and clearly show that a paid offering is made. Secondly, they need to give clear and true information about what is about to be purchased. There’s no worst way of losing users’ trust than making them spend money on something they didn’t want.

A good way of dealing with that is by making explicit references to “premium” or “paid features”. Some examples would be:

  • “You can get one extra story a day in our premium version. Do you want to know more about it?”
  • “You run out of lives, and you will need to start over. However, you can keep your level by acquiring a paid bonus. Do you want to know more about it?”
  • “That was everything in our free version. You can access 50 new books in our paid version. Do you want to know more about it?”