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Smart home hub. Streaming music source. Dad joke repository.

But Amazon’s Alexa has one skill that dates back to the introduction of the Echo, one that many rely upon every day: the Flash Briefing skill. And its longevity, as well as its popularity, has turned it into a Petri dish of sorts of what works for just-in-time informational audio, and now video, content.

Asking, “Alexa, what’s my Flash Briefing?” triggers a short news or information update that a listener can customize from literally thousands of content options. Amazon doesn’t state an official number, but navigating to “Get more Flash Briefing content” within the Amazon Alexa app settings pulls up more than 5,000 choices (specifically, it was 5,093 as of Friday, up from 5,005 a week earlier). Those are produced by more than 250 content providers, Amazon says.

It’s a stunning increase from just three providers of Flash Briefing content when both the briefings and the Echo launched in late 2014. It is, an Amazon spokesperson told me, “one of the most popular Alexa features.” Market research firm Futuresource supports the claim indirectly, reporting in March that 32 percent of smart speaker owners use the devices for news updates.

In a briefing about smart speakers and music, Futuresource noted nearly 1/3 of smart speaker owners in the US & UK use news updates. (Futuresource Image)

The variety of Flash Briefing content is dizzying … and sometimes puzzling.

While there’s no obvious way to sort Flash Briefing skills by category or provider, featured topics include news, tech, business, and sports. You’ll find familiar names among what Amazon says are the most popular sources, from the Wall Street Journal and ESPN to Reuters and NPR. Then there are the outliers that appeared recently in my choices, sorted by release date:  Digital Marketing Tips and Quote of the Day from Rob McMillin, Aviation Executive Flash Brief by Clickafy Media Group, Zoo Animal of the Day from Visit the Zoo, and Back Row Devotions by Back Row Baptist.

All of these note they’re updated daily, which is the minimum frequency Amazon recommends to content providers. Though if you click around you’ll find some that are refreshed only weekly while others, such as radio newscasts, far more often.

One of the most prolific content providers, if not the most prolific, appears to be local news website network Patch.com. Based on my searches, Patch.com alone accounts for 1,014 of the more than 5,000 Flash Briefing skills. Each of its briefings has a handful of local news stories, read in Alexa’s voice, for locations from Seattle to Miami Beach. That means one in five Flash Briefing skills are Patch.com skills. But there are lots of other local news providers (Seattle has at least 13) too.

Patch.com lists more than 1,000 Flash Briefing Skills, and some broadcast groups have several.

Combined, all of this makes stacking your own Flash Briefing skills into a regular personal briefing a bit of a Choose Your Own (news) Adventure.

The near four-year history of Alexa’s Flash Briefings has also informed the content providers themselves, and taught lessons that could be applied to newer smart speakers, such as Google Home and Apple’s HomePod.

National Public Radio (NPR) was the initial default provider of Flash Briefing news, said Joel Sucherman, vice president of new platform partnerships at NPR. “In fact, Amazon actually featured the NPR News Now newscast, and the smooth voice of newscaster Lakshmi Singh, in its launch video for the product,” he said. “The launch came first, the business arrangement came later.”

NPR has since added Flash Briefing skills for Up First, its daily news podcast, and The Indicator, work and financial news from Planet Money. Sucherman now estimates NPR’s monthly listeners “are well into the millions.”

The biggest obstacle? Discovery.

“There are thousands of skills, but ensuring listeners actually know those skills exist is an ongoing challenge,” Sucherman said. “It is also still early days in the world of voice assistants so even if a listener knows a skill exists, and asks for it by name, really whether it’s Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant, there are no guarantees to getting to the correct skill, instead of, say playing a song by an artist of a similar name.” He’s optimistic, thought, that this is a, “today problem only, which will be solved.” And to help, NPR has even created instructions and a video for prospective smart speaker listeners.

Other content provider have re-tooled efforts, or simply tried and moved on.

One of the earliest Flash Briefing skills I enabled was the Washington Post’s daily politics update to accompany my NPR news briefing. It was read by Alexa’s voice as text-to-speech (TTS, still used by the weather Flash Briefing skill and many other content providers, such as Patch.com and popular breezy national news update theSkimm).

One day, I noticed Post politics were suddenly being delivered by a human. It turns out that was part of the evolution of the Flash Briefing platform, allowing developers to submit audio mp3 files (and now, video with mp4 files for “enhanced with video” Flash Briefings on Echo Show and Spot, currently being tested with selected broadcasters and publishers).

An Amazon spokesperson said some developers, including the Post and CNN, remove skills and re-launch them to take advantage of new capabilities, such as moving from TTS to audio files.

Amazon describes the workings and variety of Flash Briefings to developers. (Amazon Image)

Seattle’s KING 5 television has been doing local news Flash Briefings since December 2016, and it’s made both internal and external changes over time. “We had several people working on it, and we realized we need to pare that number back for efficiency and more importantly, for consistency,” said Evonne Tersiisky, director of digital media for Tegna Media’s KING 5 Media Group. “For a while we experimented with a separate sports briefing, but it wasn’t getting the traction we had hoped for.”

Amazon says some providers pull skills when providers realize they don’t have enough content to keep them fresh each day.

But those who leave appear outpaced by those who continue to jump in, including Seattle public radio station KUOW. It began its first Flash Briefing this month, reflecting its top-of-the-hour newscast, after watching its overall smart speaker listening increase more than 5,000 percent in slightly more than a year — and realizing that smart speaker listening accounts for nearly 20 percent of its total streaming audience.

“The biggest hurdle for anyone developing content for this platform is to understand what the audience wants from us in this space,” said Jennifer Strachan, KUOW’s chief content officer. “Right now we have little data on how voice interaction changes the choices you make, particularly when it comes to news.”

GeekWire also has a new Flash Briefing skill for its daily TLDR update.

Strachan says KUOW is “eager to learn” what on-demand audio will teach it about its audience, and the station plans to work fast as it finds out.

KING 5, too, continues to tweak as it estimates its current number of Flash Briefing listeners at roughly 4,000. “We are now working on timing to try to reach more of those listeners earlier in the morning,” Tersiisky said. “We are trying different approaches and will see how they work. Our goal is to grow our listener base and our briefings per listener.”

Even early adopter NPR is pursuing what Mathilde Piard, senior project manager in NPR’s programming division, calls a three-fold strategy for voice platforms that goes beyond Flash Briefings. Yes, there’s easier discovery of what’s available. But there’s also packaging “existing content effectively, in a way that feels native to smart speakers,” she said, and creating new experiences that aren’t possible without smart speakers.

The colorful Echo Dot Kids Edition is new to the smart speaker market. (Amazon Image)

All of this occurs in an environment in which smart speaker makers like Amazon are constantly upping the ante by improving the back-end cloud software and introducing new consumer hardware. The Echo Show and Spot add video, but the new Echo Dot Kids Edition may extend the Flash Briefing audience to younger ages.

An Amazon spokesperson said there are currently no kid-friendly Flash Briefing skills specifically for the new Echo devices. But that doesn’t stop NPR’s Piard from thinking about it, mentioning the network’s current kids’ podcast Wow in the World and citing a study NPR did with Edison Research.

“Eight in ten parents say these devices have made it easier to entertain their children, and nearly 90 percent say their children enjoy smart speakers. In fact, 57 percent of owners with children at home say that entertaining children was a reason for wanting the speaker,” Piard said. “Whatever we decide do in the kids space, we would want to be fun, educational and respectful in a way that fulfills the brand promise of NPR.”

Overall, that kind of flexible approach to these devices seems appropriately smart.

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