Jonathan Power, Voxbet: finding a voice in the sports betting wilderness

The ability to place a bet using your voice will take wagering engagement rates to new heights, Voxbet CEO Jonathan Power told SBC Americas, highlighting that such a functionality may also help sportsbooks reach new, more tech-savvy player bases. 

Outlining the reasons why he believes voice betting is the ‘next frontier’, Power takes a look at some of the regulatory developments taking place in the US market before explaining why ease of navigation should be at the forefront of any sportsbook’s mind.

SBC Americas: Give us your elevator pitch. What do you do and where do your products and technologies fit into the industry?

JP: Well, if this elevator is only going to the first floor: Voxbet makes the bet placement process as easy as speaking your bet. There isn’t an easier way. It’s not even close. We enable punters to speak or write their bet and get it on in a fraction of the time current user experiences allow.  

Climbing a bit higher, though, we are about making more profitable bets easier to buy (essentially, e-commerce 101) – and our interfaces can make the bet placement process actionable from the moment a punter is first inspired to bet.

SBC Americas: What problem are you solving for and how does Voxbet pull it off?

JP: Sportsbooks can be very difficult to navigate, particularly for the uninitiated. Everyone recognises this. The volume of content has exploded. Yet the means of navigating it has stayed the same. Navigation is at the heart of all successful e-commerce sites. 

To date, it is at best peripheral in betting and we can change that. Why not just speak or write your bet and cut through the hassle? Voxbet will do the rest, translating and trawling the backend, rather than showing you hundreds of markets and bet types within those markets (e.g. individual players’ rushing yards, number of receptions et cetera and so on).

SBC Americas: How does Voxbet’s portfolio change the way users interact with their preferred betting apps?

JP: Being able to speak or type your bet can distill the sportsbook into a tiny widget. That widget can go anywhere. Which means users can interact with their betting app without actually being in the betting app. They could be anywhere – online they could be reading an article that inspires them to bet. They could type it into a media widget. Or they could be listening to a podcast preview of a game and not have a free hand. They could ask their favorite voice device to send them their selections. Of course, they could be in the betting app too, and use Speak-Type-Bet to populate the betslip with their selections in a flash. Speak-Type-Bet will always be a lot easier than digging for it!

At present, when inspired to bet, you have a bit of a journey to executing that bet. And if it’s a niche wager, maybe one comprised of multi-tab components, or if the desired bet resides a long way down a market list, or an unfamiliar interface, then users may even abort their journeys entirely. It doesn’t have to be this way. You don’t even need to visit Google to search the internet or visit Amazon to buy something – it can be a right-click or simple spoken sentence away. Betting can be made that easy. In fact, it’s high time our sector caught up with others in this regard.

SBC Americas: Where do you think most companies are making big misses in sports betting? Is understanding younger audiences a big hurdle?

JP: Sports betting is unique in fields of e-commerce in that the most profitable products for operators (e.g. long-list accas, or build-a-bets) are often the hardest to reach and buy. On the other hand, the typical offers front-and-center on a sportsbook are the lowest margin. That’s a miss. 

Younger players in new markets like the US would expect to be able to navigate the sportsbook the way they navigate the internet. Nowadays, they’re far too young to remember how we used to navigate the internet with Yahoo! 

However, as of now, brands are still lifting and dropping what worked for them in Europe into the US market. That won’t fail for those with deep enough pockets – but it is a miss. 

True, operators may continue to make the lion’s share of their margin from more well-heeled and conditioned older punters. Nevertheless, tomorrow’s punters can only be shoe-horned into archaic user journeys with limited success. That will make a bottom-line difference over the medium-term – and it’s a tide that’s only rolling one way.

SBC Americas: Are there any particular barriers to market for Voxbet in the US?

JP: Naturally, the US has its fair share of regulatory hurdles. As we’re seeing, legislation by state will vary, but sportsbooks almost universally prohibit users from placing bets anywhere but the central sportsbook platform. It’s a product of the patchwork quilt` that is the North American landscape. Bettors must precisely confirm their location, which requires bets to be placed on the platform and nowhere else. 

This means that, in the US, the speak-type-bet experience must conclude inside the betting app. Of course, it can also begin inside the betting app – but it won’t have to. The bet request can still be made away from the app – but completion will always have to be within a geo-location-enabled app. So, for example, if you ask Alexa for a bet, you will receive a deep link push notification from the betting app.

SBC Americas: Is a less cumbersome user-interface make or break in a cutthroat sports betting industry?

JP: That’s a good question. I don’t think it’s “make or break” for the big brands, but it would certainly prove a worthwhile differentiator. For now, operators can lift and drop what are essentially copies of retail-based football coupons from 50 years ago onto a site and fire their money cannon. Copying what worked in Europe won’t fail in the US if you have deep enough pockets. That said, the user interface conundrum stateside, in a highly fragmented marketplace that is crying out for intuitive localized UX, will only place a higher premium on a streamlined user interface. 

Still, there’s an army of US brands trying to bridge the gap and capture the castle who may come a cropper if their drawbridge is only made of money. We believe the industry is calling out for innovation on UX and, as we know from the very few genuine innovations in the space over the past 15 years, once one gets across and flies the flag, the walls come tumbling down. A copycat syndrome embraces anything game-changing. Self-evidently, if that innovation fails to materialize, the bigger brands won’t spontaneously combust – they can ride out any inefficiencies for now. I’m afraid it will be a crueler cut, though, for many of the challenger brands who can’t afford such slips.

Speaking more specifically then, how are Voxbet evolving your technology to stay one step ahead? Will they take a leaf from the playbooks of tech innovators in other sectors?

As we’ve discussed, voice is the next frontier, and the main way in which Voxbet is innovating to maintain our competitive advantage. No one else is in the game. 

Elsewhere in the industry, following the lead of other e-commerce sectors (cue a host of Amazon, Netflix and Spotify reference points), recommendation engines are increasingly being pressed into service effectively by our sector. And high time. After all, there’s no substitute for first-party data when it comes to creating responsive algorithms which will enable the company to maximize its bottom line through unique player behavioral insights. 

Users can be recommended better configured interfaces or games better aligned with their personal favorites in order to enhance the overall experience. These recommendations will be based on similarity of profile, content and playability, and perfectly capture individual user taste.

It’s all about knowing your customer from the log-in. Even the auto-complete suggestions on search engines and email clients typically rely on these systems. Sportsbook operators are no different, already deploying significant resources to make subtle enhancements to user interfaces that will drive retention and revenues. 

At Voxbet, we’ve already developed our machine learning predictive tools across both text and voice. And as with any AI system, the more data we process, the better we get around not only unpacking and translating some of betting’s unique “jargon” terms but also predicting and prompting preferred bets, based on individual player history.

In our ongoing collaboration with the Tote, for instance, where we’ve recently gone live with Viber (alongside other existing messaging services already integrated with the same firm) UK Tote Group players can back a horse in seconds by speaking or typing its name, or can be helped build a bet with a quick-fire predictive bet builder. Voxbet predicts the most likely results as players type or speak – the same feature anyone who uses Google will be familiar with – bolstering Voxbet’s mission statement as the fastest way to bet.

SBC Americas: What’s different about Viber as a messaging service? And can you tell us any other deals you have in the works?

JP: We’ve found that moving customers from SMS (where users bet on average 80 times a month) to Viber doubled their frequency of activity and has seen revenues rise by around 17%. In due course, the ability to bet by voice should now take those engagement rates even higher and appeal to younger customers. We’ve demonstrably proven this Viber model through one of our cornerstone partnerships with PMU, and it’s great to see that the Tote customers are already benefiting in a similar way. 

We are bringing Speak-Type-Bet to some of our other customers soon and have just begun getting our platform to understand Chinese – but we can’t announce anything just yet, but we are incredibly excited to be working with some of the very biggest brands in the industry and soon to add more.

As we’ve seen with PMU and Tote Group, two operators whose brands are intrinsically linked with racing, Voxbet can also help update the appeal of more traditional “legacy” sports for a younger audience. By allowing a largely untapped audience to speak or write their bets (e.g. North American racing has so far struggled to recruit its next generation of fans) our tech is providing a sleek, intuitive and modern delivery method which tracks a younger audience’s sensibilities around digital engagement

SBC Americas: More generally, what does the future of betting look like? How will the industry look different in a year or perhaps five?

JP: There are some horizons you just can’t see past. But I don’t think the picture will alter too drastically in a year, especially as things continue to light up state-by-state in the US, preoccupying many in the proverbial gold rush. 

I don’t think anyone’s leadership position stateside should be taken for granted long-term, though, certainly five or even 10 years down the track. The next cycle will only see more early skirmishes, as contenders jockey for market dominance.

As for other territories and short-term predictions, I do think you will see more established brands look to Africa in the meantime. But in five years? We will either have many fewer brands, or finally innovation on user experience may be driving increasing competition. The cost of customer acquisition is now astronomical and only sustainable for a few. When the costs of retention are added in, and then combined with a lower margin product mix in terms of percentage of bets that are high margin, it will really become the case of innovate or die.

My own feeling is that the convenience economy, which previously transformed eating and transport, will transform betting over the next five years. Young people today would be amused to know how hard we used to work to get a takeaway meal or a taxi. I think young punters will be similarly amused in a few years’ time at how hard punters were prepared to work to get a bet on.

If you look back over the last 15 years, perhaps only one big change happens every five – despite everyone saying how much they spend on innovation, little breaks through and gains market traction. Now it is in-game multiples, before that cashout and, before that the in-play revolution. 

So, looking forward five years, if there was to be one salient change, I think it will be around navigation and voice navigation. At Voxbet we’ve staked our business model on it. And if we are wrong about that, so are all the big tech companies spending billions on it. So, at least we’re in some good company!

As I alluded to earlier, true innovation comes so rarely to our sector. But when it does, it’s invariably salient and universally adopted. At Voxbet, we firmly believe the next major step will center around navigation, and voice navigation in particular. In a few years, there’s simply no way we’ll still be navigating sportsbooks in essentially the same way we did at the turn of the millennium. Just look at all the big tech companies currently spending billions on voice. It’s just a matter of time, and we’re the only ones doing it in the sports betting space.