Corinna Gleich, Junior Digital Media Planner at Plan.Net Media, has travelled to China to work for three months as part of an internal company exchange programme. She’s been at the House of Communication in Beijing for four weeks now, and is starting to feel at home in China’s capital city. We asked her to write about all about the surprises that living there has brought so far. This report is based on her experiences during the first four weeks.

When I arrived in China, the first thing I had to come to terms with was that my phone was as good as useless – Google, Facebook and Instagram were all blocked and WhatsApp didn’t work. I could get around this with a VPN, though. Speaking English wasn’t an option, hardly anyone here can speak it and that meant me having to work hard to learn Chinese. At first, I could only pay for things with cash (German bank cards aren’t usually accepted and there are only a few ATMs that work with Visa, for example), so I had to open a Chinese bank account as soon as possible to be able to pay using WeChat Pay. I needed to have a local mobile number before I could get a bank card. Luckily, this was quick and cheap to set up. I could set up WeChat with my new number and get a bank card (I was lucky in this respect, too, as the rules for bank cards were recently changed and foreign nationals now have to have lived in the country for at least a year to be able to request one). Getting money into the account from back home was the next challenge, but WeChat had that covered. WeChat makes it easy for another user to transfer money; this money doesn’t go into the account, but rather into the WeChat Wallet. Everything’s done on your mobile here – which is why there are a few more handy apps to help you go about your day, such as Alipay (WeChat’s biggest competitor and which has more users in some cities), Didi (Uber), Ofo (for cycle hire), Air Matters (an air pollution analyser), Dianping (Yelp), E (for ordering food) and translation apps.

The office in Beijing is located right inside a shopping mall. The work day in China is almost exactly the same as in Germany. The only thing is you have a much later start. Turning up between 10 and 12 is normal; you just work longer in the evening to make up for it. It’s also not unheard of to just take a power nap while at work. There are lots of cushions and cuddly toys dotted about to make the place comfortable. They drink coffee here too. You can order food and drinks round the clock. Generally speaking, the food is much cheaper than in Germany – three euros gets you a decent meal. You can also have bubble tea and other drinks delivered. Delivery people race on their scooters at breakneck speed, up and down streets and even steps!

Shopping mall right next to the office with big screens on the ceilings

The way people interact with and consume media here is completely different. Everyone wants to stand out from the crowd without really worrying about data protection. Live streaming is the big thing over here; you can watch a person eat their dinner, for example, and send them virtual gifts that you have to buy. This is how live streamers make their money. There’s a parallel for everything – WeChat is like Facebook, Sina Weibo like Twitter, Youku like YouTube and Nice like Instagram. There’s shops on every corner (I’ve never seen so many shopping centres in such close proximity), and great importance is attached to brands; Western brands are particularly fashionable. German brands (some that I didn’t even know existed) are seen as must-haves in electronics. Owning an iPhone is the norm here.

Work and everyday life aside, sightseeing in Beijing is amazing for a tourist! There’s so much to discover and ticket prices are only around two to three euros. Public transport is cheap, too (the subway and bus are around 50 cents a journey). You can also travel to nearby big cities (e.g. Shanghai, Hangzhou) in no time with the high-speed train. A highlight for me so far was the Summer Palace, which is just outside of Beijing on a small hill surrounded by a lake. I was actually quite disappointed by the Forbidden City; the architecture was very impressive, but there wasn’t much to see in any of the buildings and some were closed altogether. Hangzhou is definitely the place to visit for nature lovers (around five hours from Beijing by high-speed train); it’s rare to see so much green in a city, even in Germany.

Corinna at the Summer Palace

 

Another tourist attraction: The (crowded) Great Wall

My main takeaway from this experience so far is that Beijing is so much more than just a big city; you have to get used to the crowds and fast pace of life here. To me, China and Beijing are like a completely different world. If you want to discover something totally new like I did, you’d really love it over here.

SEO News

Spring has finally sprung, driving even the most hard-nosed online marketeers outdoors to enjoy the sunshine. It’s a time when important trends and developments can easily be missed – and that’s why we’ve summarised the most important SEO news for May here. This time we will be looking at the development of the search market, Google’s assault on e-commerce, and possible negative impacts of language assistants on our behaviour.

1) The market for search engines is maturing

It’s once again back in fashion to question Google’s dominance in the search market. The Facebook data protection scandal means that many critics of the Google system are hoping that a slightly larger portion of the online community is beginning to recognise that “free of charge” online doesn’t mean “without cost”, and that as a result, user numbers for the Mountain View search engine will no longer continue to grow. We can see some support for this assumption in the trend of many users preferring to start their shopping search directly in Amazon – a competing company. And this presents a good reason to ask the questions: is Google losing market share? Where are users actually doing their online searching? A study by American data collectors from Jumpshot sheds some light on the matter. SEO veteran Rand Fishkin interpreted their analysis of US clickstream data – i.e. referrer data at server level and anonymised click logs from web applications – from 2015 to 2018, with surprising results. Contrary to the presumed trend, the number of searches on Amazon is in fact growing; however, because the total figure for all searches increased at the same time, Amazon’s market share consistently remained around 2.3% over the entire period analysed. A detailed look at the various Google services, such as the image search or Google maps, reveals declining figures for searches within these special services, due to technological and design changes. However, these searches are simply shifting to the universal Google web search. This means that the company from Mountain View has been successful in integrating a range of services for users on mobile devices and desktops into its central search results page. Google’s market share therefore also increased by 1.5 percentage points between 2015 and 2018 to around 90%, meaning that the competition seems miles behind. As with Amazon, the search share for YouTube, Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter is almost unchanged. Microsoft’s search engine Bing and Yahoo have not increased their market share despite a rise in searches. Fishkin’s conclusion is appropriately pragmatic: the search engine industry was at a sufficiently high level of maturity in 2018 that a handful of strong players were able to successfully establish themselves on the market. However, Google’s dominance will not be at risk for some years, as all of its pursuers are benefiting equally from continued dynamic growth in search volumes, the SEO expert summarises. Fishkin adds that even if the giant from Mountain View manages to emerge apparently unscathed from any data scandals, the fact that Amazon, Bing, etc. are able to successfully keep pace with the market leader is the real key finding behind the Jumpshot figures. This assessment is also in line with the phenomenon of growth in mobile searches not coming at the expense of traditional desktop searches. Instead, mobile expansion is also taking place as growth, while desktop searches at a continued high level have not lost relevance.

2) Google wants to know what you bought last summer

In the growing segment of transactional shopping searches, Google’s market power is built on sand. Although the Mountain View company has successfully established Google Shopping as a brokering platform, their vision of controlling the entire value chain, including payment platform, has remained a pipe dream. Or to identify the issue more precisely: Google knows what people are searching for, but only Amazon knows what millions of people actually buy. This is about to change. With a feature launched in the USA called ‘Google Shopping Actions’, a buy option can be displayed directly in the Google search results for products from participating retailers. This feature is intended for retailers that want to sell their products via Google search, the Google Express local delivery service, and in the Google Assistant on smartphones, as well as language assistants. Instead of having to sidestep to selling platforms such as Amazon, the user will in future be able to procure products directly through Google. Google says that Google Shopping Actions will make buying simpler and centralised. The company announced that a centralised shopping basket and a payment process that uses a Google account means that the shopping experience will be processed easily and securely for users of the search engine. In addition to traditional search using the Google search field, it will also be possible to make purchases using speech input, enabling the company to remain competitive in the age of language assistants. Of course the other side of the coin is that a direct shopping function also enables a new level of quality data to be collected and attributed to individual users in Mountain View.

3) Alexa and the age of unrefinement

“Mummy! Turn the living room light on now!” Any child that tries to get what it wants using these words will probably fail miserably. It’s an unchanging component of childhood that you learn to politely word a request to another person as a question, and that that little word “please” is always – by a distance – the most important part of a statement of wish. But this iron certainty is at risk. And that’s not because of a vague suspicion that children these days are no longer taught manners by their parents: what might prove to be a much stronger factor is that the highly digitised younger generation have at their command – even from a very early age – a whole arsenal of compliant, uncomplaining helpers and assistants who do not respond with hurt feelings or refusal if given an abrupt command to complete a task immediately. In the American magazine ‘The Atlantic’, author Ken Gordon engages with the effects of this development on future generations. He states that although precise commands are a central component in controlling software, it makes a huge difference whether these are silently conveyed to a system using a keyboard, or delivered to a humanised machine assistant via speech commands. Gordon goes on to say that the fact that Alexa, Cortana, Siri, and so on accept the lack of a “Please” or “Thank you” without complaint could leave an emotional blind spot in young people. Finally, he concludes that although a speech command is just a different type of programming: “Vocalizing one’s authority can be problematic, if done repeatedly and unreflectively.” But it’s still too early to start predicting how our interaction with each other will change when artificial intelligence and robots become fixed parts of our family, work teams, and ultimately society.

SEO News

In 2018 the Easter Bunny brought us more than just chocolate, it also gave us the long-awaited mobile-first index from Google. It will be interesting to see what impact this has when it comes to optimising digital assets. I’ve no doubt that we’ll be hearing a lot more about this in the weeks and months ahead. For the time being, however, the SEO news for April has focussed on short clicks, the need for speed in e-commerce, and a new (search) view of the world.

1) Google’s quest for instant search satisfaction

People are often looking for shortcuts, especially when it comes to searching for things on the Internet. We want to find exactly what we’re looking for straight away, with zero hassle. However, it’s never the case that your search query immediately takes you to the result you’re looking for. On average, you have to return to the search results five times, either to refine your search term or to search for something different. These clicks back to Google or Bing are known as ‘short clicks’. You could argue that the primary objective of search engine optimisation is to make these short clicks obsolete, because the aim is to tailor the content of websites to exactly match what people are searching for. Google has made clear its desire to improve and speed up the search experience, and the company has now rolled out a feature which has been extensively tested on mobile devices and in the USA. If you return to Google with a short click, a box with the heading “People also search for” is shown underneath the first search result. This box contains a list of links with similar search queries. This list differs markedly from the list of alternative search queries which is already shown at the end of the search results. The fact that Google has rolled out this short click box globally indicates that the company is taking the issue of laborious, time-consuming searches seriously, and is prepared to take concrete steps to address it. It’s also another indication that short clicks are a negative thing in terms of the users. As such, it’s clear that search engine optimisation teams need to continue with their efforts to eliminate short clicks, with a view to making life that bit easier when you head to a search engine.

2) A real need for speed in the battle for the top spot in e-commerce

It’s now spring, which means the conference season for the industry is well under way. However, if you compare the main topics being discussed at ‘Search Marketing Expo’ (SMX), the leading international trade fair for the industry, in North America and Europe, you might notice that Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) is a much bigger topic in the USA than on our shores. On the other side of the pond, website operators and increasingly also e-commerce providers are placing a major focus on this stripped-down HTML protocol. It’s primarily designed to improve the user experience and increase conversion rates by ensuring that pages load faster. What’s more, at this year’s Online Marketing Rockstars conference in Hamburg, representatives from Google also indicated that fast loading times are crucial if you want to stay ahead of the competition, particularly when it comes to the top dog, Amazon. In keeping with this topic, US search expert Eric Enge has published a study which investigates the advantages of AMP technology and aims to dispel four key myths which are presumably holding many companies back from using the technology. Firstly, Enge points out that AMP is not just suitable for news publishers, even though the ‘stories’ format has only recently been implemented on the AMP platform for this. Instead, using examples from India, he demonstrates that the higher speeds available for e-commerce result in significantly higher conversion rates, particularly in markets in which mobile end devices are heavily used. Enge also explains that opting for AMP in no way means needing to compromise on design features. He argues that the responsive website design recommended by the major search engine operators has major weaknesses compared against AMP. According to Enge, more resources would need to be planned to design and implement an optimal AMP user experience as there are not enough use cases in this field yet. The study also expressly warns against half-hearted AMP implementations, as this would make it more difficult to use the technology on mobile devices, and would unnecessarily complicate key functions such as the navigation. Loading speed should already be a central pillar of every SEO strategy. However, if German companies want to prevail against their competitors on the global stage, they too should take a closer look at AMP technology and the benefits it offers.

3) Life through a lens – say hello to Visual Search

“Alexa! Can I show you something quickly?” You might already like to give the latest generation of voice-enabled personal assistants this kind of command, in the same way that you might ask a member of your family. Yet there’s one fundamental obstacle standing in the way of such integration: voice assistants don’t have eyes. This will very soon be a thing of the past, however, through what is known as ‘Visual Search’. Thanks to increasingly deep integration of artificial intelligence, it has now become possible to interpret visual information and recognise objects. Just look at the ‘Google Lens’ as the most recent example. This tool for performing visual searches was launched a few months ago and is available exclusively on Google’s own ‘Pixel’ smartphones. ‘Google Lens’ enables the user to run a search on a photo at the touch of a button. The search engine automatically recognises what is depicted in the photo, e.g. sights such as the Eiffel Tower. It then provides relevant additional information such as directions, opening hours, entry prices and reviews. What’s more, Google Lens really excels with text. Although text recognition is by no means a new feature, Google is able to recognise a photo of a business card as an address format, for example, and convert the information from the photo into a corresponding contact file. However, Google isn’t the only player investing in this field. Microsoft upgraded its Bing search engine with an AI package a few weeks ago, which also contained new features for running visual searches. And Pinterest – the popular platform which has always considered itself to be a tool of visual discovery – has also put visual searches at the heart of the user experience through its new ‘Pinterest Lens’ app. Not only does Pinterest Lens break down scanned images into their attributes such as colour, quality and function, it can also generate shopping links for selected brands from an image search. It’s no coincidence that all major Internet companies are placing visual searches centre stage. According to the market research institute Gartner, around 50 percent of all mobile searches will be triggered either by voice or an image by as early as 2019. As such, the new context-driven searches constitute a growth segment which complements intuitive human behaviour. It remains to be seen whether it will quickly become a real revenue driver in e-commerce, as is currently promised. However, it’s clear that search engine optimisation is facing a steep learning curve that goes beyond keywords and content.

Agiles Arbeiten

“Being able to adapt quickly, flexibly, and proactively to new situations” – the significance of agility is not disputed. But how to achieve an agile digital agency definitely is. In the middle of the transformation of hmmh, we take a break and look back: what are the most valuable experiences from our change process with 300 employees up to this point and what questions should agencies ask when they move in the direction of agility?

Independent of industry, many employees today expect being able to realize themselves in the company and being able to show off their skills in interdisciplinary and exciting projects. Questions like “Why do we go to work in the morning” and “What is our mission?” demand clear answers. The objectives of companies are also clearly defined: finding creative solutions for the ever-changing needs of customers quickly, to keep up, and thus growing the company’s success and consequently their own. Achieving this while staying competitive requires more autonomous working methods and an agile structure. In addition to the will to change something, one must also raise internal awareness for the subject in order to be able to get all employees on board. And it requires a company structure with as few hierarchies as possible. However, the whole thing will only work within predefined boundaries for the entire team which leave enough room for creativity and autonomy for each individual and provide mutual trust. Once the change has been decided and the general direction laid out, the right strategy for the agile transformation must be found.

1. What is the right strategy for the transformation?

First of all: There is no “one right” strategy. Depending on industry, business size, and the willingness of the team, we decide whether the culture and structure should change gradually or in a short time. For companies with different service areas, only partially agile customers, and employees who are not yet completely convinced we recommend putting together a small group of promotors. As representatives of the different departments, they collect requirements, wishes, and concerns of the entire company, take care of the framework conditions, and accompany the process. The more varied the opinions, the better. Routines are deconstructed and then new paths found together. In 2015, after interviews and open spaces and after finding a strategy task force consisting of elected representatives for each area who accompanied the process, at hmmh this meant saying goodbye to functional pillar structures and “departments”. As the word already indicates, it is derived from parts (“de-part-ment”), the exact opposite of the objective. In this phase, hmmh formed agile customer teams in order to be able to address customer wishes faster and more flexible.

2. Creating initiative – How does one do that?

The developer, creative conceptioner, consultant, graphic designer, copywriter, HR, or management: each person in the company has different responsibilities and roles which require different skills. Breaking up all structures and redistributing responsibilities requires large-scale T-shaping in the company. This means that for instance developers also need to take on leadership roles for customer projects and internal tasks: either as member of a temporary SIG (Special Interest Group) created for a specific question or of a COP (Community of Practice) which tackles specialized topics across the company. Most of all, one must get adapted to the new spirit in order to focus on the positive aspects of an autonomous working method. Transparency and the involvement of each employee is the main point here in order to achieve the needed acceptance. This also includes education concerning the new possibilities and duties that come with such a change. The management must lead by example, delegate responsibility, and trust in its team and give them space to work. However, this also means that the management should initiate this process, guide it positively, and sometimes provide additional impetus. Courage to change serves as a role model and is contagious. The main foundation and guarantee for a successful transformation is a team that knows the objective.

3. Do the internal systems still fit the structure?

While the type of organization, the thinking, and working methods change it is important to check the internal systems for their fitness. How agile are the tools and programs which are a part of everyday work? Be it for internal information exchange, scheduling, or budgeting. The tools have to fit the organizational structure and permit agile work. No matter whether you use Confluence, Rocket Chat, or Bit Bucket – the decision for or against a tool should be based on the opinions of the internal experts and a reconciliation of all important requirements. One must also consider that compatibility with customers is also important. Tools may vary, but the focus should not: one must always ensure that the customer gets the best solution, the best service, or both. This means that agile work requires the transparent use of software, tools, and systems. Internal working methods can and must be adjusted: whether open spaces, lean coffees, or Kanban boards, the implementation must fit the structure. This also applies to the management.

4. How can you convince less agile customers?

At the moment, digital agencies usually are a lot more agile than its customers. This poses a great challenge in working together, since rigid structures and routines are often firmly anchored in the customer’s procedures. These customers want security and a perfect solution at a fixed price. When dealing with less agile customers it is important to let them know that they not only receive a tailor-made result but also tailor-made service which adapts to all their requirements in order to achieve the best possible result without compromises. Ideally, the price moves within a target range. Transparent processes, a sometimes cheaper but always better solution, and measurably better productivity as well as enjoying your work often also makes customers think twice. Agility is contagious.

5. When is the agile process completed?

Once the strategy and the roles have been found, the first agile projects implemented successfully, and new agile projects are added continually, then the acceptance of those who were not quite convinced of the model also increases. Employees who are unhappy with the new environment will leave, but make room for new ones. This is normal. It is important to reflect, verify, and adjust – as part of everyday work – internally and externally. This path is a permanent process that is never completed. And that is a good thing, since stagnation is boring.

Conclusion

Agile working is not just a method that makes businesses more efficient and flexible in order to achieve better results. Agility is a business philosophy. It requires clear and transparent communication, both with colleagues and with customers. It requires a great deal of initiative, mutual trust, and space for development. A complex process that not only need to be initiated well, but also continually supported, reflected, and adjusted. It is essential to find the right strategy for the respective business, give employees space to develop their own responsibility, adjust internal processes and roles, and get customers excited about the method. Only then can the entire company react flexibly to new challenges. There is no path to becoming an agile business without a change in culture. This piece of wisdom is well-established: “Structure follows strategy but culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

How agile a business really is does not depend on the management but every team member. Agility is not an end in itself and also no cure-all. But it is necessary today and even more in the future in order to be able to act successfully in the market in disruptive times.

Space Rocket

Some people in the digital sector, especially, have ceased to believe in brands. However, I am convinced that in the digital age, more than any other, brands offer precisely what we need in a multi-optional, information-flooded world: orientation. Brands condense a large volume of information into a (hopefully) relevant promise. Of course brands that want to be successful in the future, will also have to adapt to a society in transition. Anyone who takes the following five tenets for the brand management of the future to heart, will have a good chance of achieving this.

1. Viable brands are defined in three dimensions

What is a brand? A logo, a slogan, a value proposition? The appearance and if possible, differentiated positioning are only two dimensions shaping the brand image and consumer perceptions. In the digital age, every brand must prove itself, above all in its direct interaction with people. In order to offer a coherent, self-similar brand experience, the brand must establish rules of conduct which govern how it interacts while defining its stance towards people and the subjects on which it pronounces.

2. Viable brands offer a real benefit

The days when brand communication consisted in stating as loudly as possible why your own brand is so great and why people should buy it, are over. To be noticed for the long term, brands today must not only compete for people’s attention, but also offer content which delivers a noticeable, relevant benefit in the eyes of consumers. Depending on the context and the target market, this can, for example, consist of personalised offers, entertainment, monetary benefits or exclusive information. To enable the brand to develop promising content, the challenge is to put customers and their needs not just at the beginning but at the centre of your own concepts and actions.

3. Viable brands are user-friendly

Our digital devices have accustomed us to getting fast, easy access to everything we need. Usability is the umbrella term for the degree of user-friendliness experienced. This is not primarily about content. From the website via the hotline all the way to local service — every touchpoint with the brand should be intuitively comprehensible, simple to use and capable of being unambiguously implemented.

4. Viable brands communicate personally and in personalised fashion

People in a digitised world expect personal communication and personalised content and offers from their brands. If such offers are tailored to their individual needs, users will reward the brand with above-average response, purchase and loyalty rates. However, it is vital to find the right degree of personalisation: just because it’s technically possible, doesn’t mean it makes sense. Because enthusiasm over the newsletter containing exactly the right offers can quickly turn into a horrified “How do they know that?”.

5. Viable brands offer a consistent, coherent customer experience

Today, people experience brands at many very different touchpoints: in a shop, on the website as well as on social media and through advertising. In the best case, this so-called customer experience will give a consistent, coherent overall image across the various touchpoints. So here is my tip. Place a relevant customer experience at the start and at the centre of your transformation in the marketing sphere. In doing so, you will create a good platform — on the one hand for the greatest possible success today, and on the other, to ensure the viability of your brand tomorrow.

SEO News

Following the major cold snap in February, spring is now well on the way in terms of SEO. Appropriately enough, the hot topics for the month of March are AMP, backlinks and Bing.

1) Google liberates stories format from confines of an app

The popular information and entertainment format of “Stories” is breaking new ground. Originally invented by Snapchat and quickly pounced on by Facebook and Instagram once it proved successful, the handy multimedia gallery has since been confined to the closed systems of smartphone apps and social media worlds. Google now has plans to liberate stories from captivity. The search engine has developed a stories format for the stripped-back Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) HTML protocol, which it presented at this year’s AMP Conference in Amsterdam. The aim is to combine the narrative options of the stories format with the technological benefits of AMP, such as fast loading times and optimum display on all platforms and devices. The new format supports videos, images, GIF animations and links. Publishers including CNN, Hearst, and Mashable supplied three sample stories on the “open” internet as part of an initial showcase. Fast loading times and platform independent user experiences are two key ranking factors for search engines, so it is worth news publishers and content producers taking a closer look at the options afforded by AMP stories. In addition, it has previously often been shown that the Mountain View search engine sometimes prioritises its preferred technologies in its search results. For instance, this is what happened with the markup for structured data. It remains to be seen whether the introduction of the stories format will accelerate the spread of AMP technology. Despite the benefits, there are also limitations in terms of the feature set and the implementation of tracking.

2) Old school? You must be joking: SEO success with backlinks

Optimising a website to increase its organic reach to the right target group is a complex undertaking. The explosion in the number of ranking factors and signals across a range of new platforms, and the expansion of the search function to include new interfaces such as voice and image, means that SEO managers are spoilt for choice when selecting the correct approach for a project design. So it’s time to remember the origins of our craft and consider a good old-fashioned backlink campaign. In an article for the Search Engine Land blog, US columnist Andrew Dennis explains that the use of brand mentions and shrewd competitor research can substantially boost reach, even for completely new domains. Dennis quotes the example of an offline brand with a relatively small digital marketing footprint. Despite this, the brand manages to attract a high level of attention in relation to news and blogs in its niche industry. Dennis states that this initial position applies to many companies in the cybersecurity, STEM education, payment, fitness and hotel industries, in particular start-ups. The first tactic was to generate brand mentions, i.e. unlinked mentions of the brand on third-party websites in the most positive context possible. By involving the right managers, a large number of brand mentions were obtained through the PR and HR departments, as well as industry associations, press interviews and charitable work. The second tactic involved analysis of the most successful competitors’ backlink profiles, whose key link sources were automatically relevant for the company wishing to make improvements. According to the author, it did not take much effort to identify a large number of portals and directories where backlinks could be acquired, including those not featuring expensive content. The effort put into link analysis and developing brand mentions resulted in a total of 64 new links and a 43% increase in organic traffic over a six-month period. This example in itself is nothing out of the ordinary, but illustrates how relatively simple results can be achieved in our trend-driven SEO world by applying classic analysis and common sense.

3) Bing in favour of a balanced argument

We have become so accustomed to using search engines to help us in almost every aspect of life that it is high time we started to question viewpoints supplied by a machine (in this case the search engine). Following on from Amazon’s announcement of plans to give personal assistant Alexa her own opinions (as reported here), Microsoft has now added a new feature to its search engine Bing – the multi-perspective answer. This may initially sound incredibly academic, but actually makes perfect sense on closer inspection. For example, asking whether a hot yoga session is good for the body will result in contradictory responses, as will many other queries. Bing now lists and compares the pros and cons in a neat box on the search results page, similar to the Featured Snippet Box on Google. According to Microsoft, the viewpoints are selected via a self-learning neural network that uses reputable content from trusted, high-quality websites. The company states that another requirement for a place in the response box is the indexability of the content on the original site, where it must be displayed prominently and clearly. Early examples of multi-perspective answers from the USA relate primarily to health and nutrition issues. However, Microsoft has announced plans to roll out the feature in the UK initially and then to other markets, as well as expanding it to cover other topics.

 

On the face of it, the SXSW is a pretty poor deal. You spend 12 hours on a plane and then rush around downtown Austin with 30,000 other lunatics for a week to listen to lectures and panels in air-conditioned 80s-style conference rooms. Doesn’t sound very inspiring. For me, the conference is nevertheless one of the absolute highlights of the year, because you’d be hard pressed to find a higher concentration of excellent speakers on current trends in the digital world. Read about the topics and lectures I am particularly looking forward to below.

Digitisation has arrived in society

In recent years it has become apparent that the times when you had guaranteed attention with the next hype platform or app in the market are over. The issues have no longer been revolving around digital services or the marketing behind them for a while now, because digitisation currently covers all areas of life. The impact of this process on society, working life, health and urban development will be the dominant themes of the conference, as they were in 2017. The same goes for the demand for specific solutions that include new technologies in product development and the creative process.

The perennial favourites: VR, AR & AI

Virtual reality continues to be a hot topic, especially in the creative industries. While the search for meaningful application scenarios outside the niche continues, augmented reality is preparing to make the breakthrough into a modern storytelling tool suitable for the mass market.

AI, on the other hand, is much more established: Data as the DNA of the modern world and ever better algorithms promise automation and increased efficiency in many areas. But how much of this will find its way into consumers’ everyday lives? Amazon Echo & Google Home are now in millions of homes, but currently lead a sorrowful existence as glorified light switches and Bluetooth speakers for Spotify. What do the truly smart assistants of the future look like in comparison? And how are various industry pioneers already using AI today for communication, data analysis or product development?

Blockchain self-awareness

This year’s theme for tech conferences is probably inevitable: the blockchain. The flagship project Bitcoin has evolved from a democratic, borderless payment system into an investment bubble for dauntless investors. But there is tremendous potential in the technology behind it. How will smart contracts and transaction-based systems change our economic life, business processes and, ultimately, marketing? Ethereum co-inventor Joseph Lubin has titled his lecture “Why Ethereum Is Going To Change The World” and the other actors in the blockchain business are not lacking in self-awareness. It will be interesting!

Gaming & eSports

Representatives of the gaming and eSports world are also confidently taking an increasingly prominent place at SXSW. Often ridiculed by outsiders, gaming has now become a dominant force in the entertainment industry. The professionalisation of the eSports scene reached new heights in 2017 with millions invested in tournaments and teams. So if you’re still around in the second week of the conference, you should drop in on the lectures of SXSW Gaming. It could be interesting to see what the industry’s ROI expectations look like and what opportunities there are in marketing.

Problem children start-ups & disrupting dystopia

In contrast, the start-up scene in Silicon Valley is experiencing a bit of a crisis. At last year’s elevator pitches, every second comment was “Nice idea, but what are you going to do in three months’ time when Zuckerberg copies you?” The stifling market position of the Big Four has noticeably cooled the willingness of investors to provide seed capital for new start-ups. How can start-ups continue to raise capital to make their ideas a reality and grow in a world dominated by Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple?

A few months after the Trumpocalypse, the mood in 2017 was somewhat gloomy, a rather atypical level of self-reflection for the industry. In our enthusiasm for the digitisation of all areas of life, have we underestimated the risks of a fully networked and automated world? What will be left of the quiet self-doubt in 2018? The closing keynote from SciFi author & SXSW bedrock Bruce Sterling is likely to be an excellent barometer. An hour-long rant with subtle peaks against the self-loving tech and marketing scene will surely be a highlight once again. A fitting title for 2018: Disrupting Dystopia.

Away from the lectures

In addition to the lectures and panels at the conference, the event spaces of the numerous brands and companies will be another highlight. Exciting from a German point of view: the presence of Mercedes-Benz. The joint focus of the me Convention during the IAA had already indicated far-reaching cooperation with SXSW. Mercedes and Smart are now on the starting line in Austin as super sponsors and are hosting their own lectures and events on the topic of Future Mobility in Palm Park, right next to the Convention Centre.

In addition, visits to the brand locations of the Japanese electronics giants Sony and Panasonic are also likely to be worthwhile. In 2017, Panasonic exhibited numerous prototypes developed in cooperation with students on the subject of the Smart Home. Sony, on the other hand, devoted itself to VR.

The large number of lectures, panel discussions, pop-up locations and the numerous events off the official program make planning your SXSW visit a challenge. When you think back to your time in Austin on your flight home, you often realize that the most exciting lectures were those you caught by chance, that the best Brand Lounge was one where you just happened to be passing by and you only met the most interesting people because they were standing next to you in the endless queues. Resisting the temptation to plan everything in advance makes a visit to SXSW all the more interesting.

It’s a nightmare for marketing managers. Where there used to be clearly defined spheres of action, today the digital economy throws up more and more new subject areas for the agenda which have to be evaluated and, if applicable, worked into your own plan. The “Internet of Things” (IoT for short) is one of these new fields. However, before we examine the significance of the IoT for marketing, let’s quickly look at how the market is developing. Because like many other digital developments, the IoT impacts a variety of sectors and processes, and it is by no means merely a subject for techies or nerds.

When the fridge suddenly starts surfing the net

The Internet of Things is invading our homes under the umbrella term of “smart home”, supporting us in our everyday office life, helping to optimise production and logistics processes (Industry 4.0), able to alter the mechanisms in the health sector (smart health) and impacting the world of mobility products (smart mobility). In short, there is no area where the IoT is not playing a role. And the developments are coming thick and fast. By way of an example: whereas two years ago, the first internet-enabled fridges were to be seen at the largest electronics fair CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas, at the latest IFA in Berlin, they were a fixture in the product ranges of nearly every appliance manufacturer. And in five years, we will have a hard time buying any appliance without internet access and display.

These developments are being driven by two guiding principles. The first of these runs as follows: “What can be done, will be done”. The Internet of Things is a gigantic experimental field where anything that seems to be more or less feasible, will also be tried out sooner or later. This may appear to be devoid of reason in certain cases but it definitely delivers new insights and empirical values. And even if the idea initially seems far-fetched, it may suddenly become an exciting solution in a different context of use. So you shouldn’t ridicule an initiative too early. Even if you’re talking about connected hairbrushes or fishing drones.

The second principle is that the real aim of IoT developments is to simplify flows, interactions and processes for users. The task here is to analyse process sequences, identify the benefits provided by connected devices and products and exploit them to our own advantage. So when devices automatically analyse parts subject to wear and tear and reorder them at the right time, breakdowns and the potential user frustration ensuing from them are eliminated. A good basis for a long-term customer relationship. And therefore also a great opportunity which you should take advantage of as a brand and not leave to your competitors.

One thing is sure: Both perspectives are driving developments relentlessly. Why and how can those responsible for brands now act to actively shape the development of the market and therefore to position themselves for the future? For this, we will look here predominantly at the areas of smart home and mobility, in other words spaces which are usually highly relevant as touchpoints for our target markets.

“Things” become touchpoints

In our homes, in particular, new smart products are coming onto the market almost daily, and everyday things which have hitherto been analogue, are now becoming smart, networked system modules. The fridge already mentioned will not only be available for direct food orders via a touchscreen in the future, it will also analyse its own contents in order to produce its own shopping lists independently or to support health-conscious nutrition.

Cooktops and ovens will be remotely controlled or easily operated through natural language assistants. Light compositions, burglar protection, optimisation of energy consumption — already feasible today, in future ubiquitous as a result of the rapidly rising range of products. Car manufacturers, too, have long since initiated changes to their product portfolios. As well as vehicle production, they are positioning themselves as service providers, and they increasingly view cars as “smartphones on wheels”. As well as primary vehicle services such as the temporary release of engine performance or entertainment offers, manufacturers will also include external services in their vehicle environment for a charge. Insurance, delivery services — whatever the heart desires and users can benefit from is welcome in the coming app economy in cars.

What unites all touchpoints, by the way, is the increasing control of the environment through voice control systems such as Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant.

Challenges and opportunities

The task in both areas is to master fundamentally different challenges which go beyond simple operation. Consumers clearly expect “machines” to think proactively. Digital control — fine! But real simplifications only succeed if you are also successful in identifying the particular user, knowing and pinpointing their profile and making them proactive offers in return. To do so, we need to generate user IDs and use them as seamlessly as possible throughout the customer journey with the data saved to the cloud. That’s the theory, at least. Because ownership of the interfaces with consumers — which is what the user ID is — and ownership of the data are regarded as critical factors in future success. In short, everyone wants a piece of the action and they are all manoeuvring to face up to platform giants such as Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon.

As well as the structural challenge — user IDs and cloud services — the task is to develop and implement the right offers for the future. In contrast to the past when this job was usually performed by clearly defined specialist profiles for research and development, this development environment requires far greater capabilities which have to be combined, demanding a new way of working. New digital services will not be the sole responsibility of the R&D department, and the trend towards “advertising as a service” will also extend the variety of topics on the marketing agenda. As it is no longer the idea on its own that is crucial for the success of a new product but above all the way in which it is implemented and to some extent also the speed, collaborative styles of working and greater agility than shown in the past will be important criteria for success. Product specialists will then encounter information architects, designers, programmers, analysts and lateral thinkers. And ideally, consumers will also quickly become part of the team in order to develop sensible services for this new market. The challenges for marketing can therefore only de facto be met by interdisciplinary task forces able to quickly develop IoT offers — hardware as well as digital services — in close collaboration with the aid of design thinking workshops, rapid prototyping and iterative development processes.

“We are a young, dynamic team. The organisational structures are flat, and doors are always open. Every week there’s fresh fruit and smoothies in the canteen. And for relaxation, there’s a ball pool and table football in the leisure lounge.” Have you ever read that in a job advertisement? Once or maybe more like a hundred times? Our new generation of employees would say: “Nice”. But in my view, the arguments listed above are of less and less use as real reasons for persuading people to move to an agency.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I have nothing against playing table football in the lunch break, a latte from the cafeteria or an apple from the fruit basket. Nor anything against meetings on the patio, home office or flexi office solutions or brainstorming meetings involving all levels of the company. But I am firmly convinced that these are not the deciding factors which prompt young people to apply for a job with an agency. In my eyes, a job with a digital agency has very different attractions, especially for those embarking on a career or switching horses in mid-stream.

1. Learning more, faster

Ever done an internship in a large corporation in Department 4.7 and performed the same job for four weeks straight? In an agency, you get to know the business in a much shorter space of time. And in fact you’re thrown in the deep end time and again. But those are precisely the situations from which you usually emerge with more self-confidence and many new insights as an employee. From independent customer support, via project management and strategy all the way to reporting and evaluations: in digital agencies, there are numerous areas in which you can bring your interests and talent to bear and refine your skills. Of course, Fanta4-like (Fanta4 is a German hip hop band, they had a song called “MfG” with lyrics only made of abbreviations), we also have SSP, DSP and KPI, but in addition we programme skills for Alexa, helpful apps for refugees and invent new advertising tools. Nobody needs an A38 pass with us.

2. Taking on responsibility fast

Constant learning, new knowledge and more skills naturally go hand-in-hand with greater responsibility within a short space of time. Racking up a few years of servitude on the back benches before taking on some responsibility yourself, that makes no sense in our industry. Wherever specialist knowledge is needed, we require experts who can get stuck in immediately. And generalists or strategists who not only can see the wood from the trees but can also construct the most beautiful tree houses from it. Regardless of whether it’s an assignment for a new client or an internal process: anyone can make a contribution in a digital agency, no matter where they stand in the hierarchy. Stultifying committees and working groups don’t fit with a working culture shaped by scrum and the like. You can only sprint if there’s enough room to slow down. Taking on responsibility for the final result is in employees’ DNA in a digital agency. That can be strenuous at times, but usually satisfying is the more appropriate epithet.

3. Climbing the ranks faster

Four more years in a junior post and the next promotion will only come if a colleague is moved or resigns? That’s an absolute exception in digital agencies. If you’re a fast learner and show commitment, you are guaranteed to get the chance to climb the ladder. While employees in a large corporation often have to wait longer in the career queue, it is entirely possible in a digital agency to take the next step in your career every year and to reach a position of team leader after three to four years. These opportunities not only motivate individuals but are also important for the agency to enable it to develop as a company in as agile a fashion as possible. That’s why it’s in the DNA of digital agencies to give their employees the greatest possible leeway.

4. First movers, influencers, checkers

Artificial Intelligence, influencers, chatbots, data management platforms and customer centricity. Quite normal language for us, but just double Dutch to normal people. We are the first to develop the solutions which will later play a major role in people’s everyday lives. Anyone working in a digital agency, doesn’t just have their finger on the pulse of the times. They are among the first movers in our society. We get insights into companies and stimulating markets in a very early phase of development. And the rule for new developments is often that the experts are the ones who are the first to devote themselves to the subject — because no-one else has any experience of it. In the process, we don’t just develop new solutions with the latest tools and technologies, we also have to acquire a keen instinct for people’s motives and the way they behave. This also sometimes makes us influencers in private life when it comes to explaining new developments. Our job is exciting, with every day a fresh challenge. And we learn with every update.

5. Integrated, overarching work

Graphic designers, creatives, media planners, programmers, strategists — a digital agency works most efficiently when it takes an integrated approach. Together with numerous advertising trades, acting as the client’s general contractor. We are the architects, foremen, bricklayers, electricians or tilers of the Digital Transformation. The only difference is that our building sites are called “campaigns”, “applications”, “skills” or “solutions”. The common goal is not a finished building but the financial success of our clients. And because every assignment highlights different aspects, requiring varying strategies and communication measures, the team constantly faces new challenges. Thinking in the round and focusing on the outcome are bread and butter for a digital agency. This also includes mutual understanding. On a personal level, of course, but predominantly from a professional perspective. For this reason, the usability expert must know what the SEO advertising professional does, and creatives have to know how media works. That is not always easy in detail but very enriching in totality.

6. Variety as the rule

Every day by rote? That rarely happens in a digital agency. Different clients from a wide variety of sectors, new tools and technologies. The fast pace of things digital in the world makes demands on us every day. Very little of it can be learned at universities, and every update throws up a new challenge. Digital agencies represent the ideal professional environment for first and fast movers. And salaries and working hours? Appropriate, totally competitive remuneration and flexible working time arrangements almost go without saying in a modern digital agency. We know what a competitive world it is, and we have long since taken the fight for talent to heart. A good salary, a working environment that promotes initiative and a modern workplace are therefore part of the compulsory programme. The freestyle element does not include a ball pool. It is the DNA of digital agencies (see points 1 to 6) that makes us as employers attractive to young people starting out on their careers.

The New Year is not giving us any breathers. The New Year’s Eve fireworks have barely died down and we are already invited to enthuse about the long-awaited relaunch of an important tool. How it’s not too long before we’ll be browsing with our reading glasses and why voice assistants are likely to get on our nerves soon – this and more you’ll find out in the SEO News bulletin for February.

1) Hooray, the new Google Search Console is here!

With the start of the New Year, the mailboxes of webmasters, in-house SEOs and agencies far and wide have been overwhelmed with countless emails. What initially looked like spam soon turned out to be a long-awaited message from Mountain View. After a test phase lasting many months, the new Google Search Console is now available to all users. Though officially still in its beta phase, the data portal for monitoring the organic search aspect of website performance formerly known as Webmaster Tools has had its design completely overhauled. Alongside its fresh look, the Search Console also offers real improvements, such as access to historical data from the last 16 months instead of the previous mere 90 days. There are new functions too, like the Index Coverage Report, which enables superior tracing of the search function performance for individual URLs. Although some basic functions are still missing, Google has announced that it will further expand the range of functions for the new Console within the year. At the same time, new functions will also be added to the API. The fact that the highly-anticipated rollout took so long was mainly due to the need to collect and evaluate the beta testers’ feedback, a Google spokesperson said. Google is also still interested in Webmasters’ input. They have been asked to submit ideas to Google for useful reports and functionalities. SEOs and Webmasters should not let this opportunity slip by to further adapt one of the most important tools of the sector to the changing needs of our time.

2) Voice search ranking: new study reveals first figures

The British online performance agency Roast has run a study to investigate the connection between rankings of classic Google search results and responses of the Google Home digital voice assistant. To this end, 616 top search terms from the areas of medicine, retail, travel and finance were entered as queries, and in the UK, an “answer box”, the so-called featured snippet, was shown as the search result. The Google Home voice assistant could answer roughly 75% of the queries through its automated search process; the remaining 25% left Google speechless, although the desktop search showed a corresponding answer box. No statement could be made about the rules governing the answers displayed, as the study shows. What’s more, about 20% of the queries answered by the voice assistant did not tally with the featured snippet on the desktop. For search marketing, these results mean that a successful battle for featured snippet ranking in a desktop search is far off from guaranteeing an equivalent reception on Google Home, and the Google My Business tool is still indispensable for managing information that serves search queries for local services.

3) Visual search on the rise

While we’re still waxing lyrical about the influence of voice search on digital marketing, AI is yet again opening up totally new avenues. With new apps like Google Lens and Pinterest Lens, as well as expanded functions on Microsoft’s search machine Bing, we’re advancing in the visual search era. Since the early days of Google we have been able to look for images using key words; later came reverse search for image files with the aid of structured data. In the next developmental step of visual search, AI will recognize the content of photos or only sections of images, completely without context, and will not only come up with similar images in its results list, but also detailed information on the properties of the depicted object. For the e-commerce sector, this means a new access point on the customer journey. Information searches and purchase decisions can be conducted quickly and intuitively. The need to translate your own search purpose into a written or spoken search phrase becomes obsolete; results are instantly reflected in an augmented image. For search engine optimization, this development means that providing product information via automated data feeds and data banks will become even more important. In this way, suitable information be stored in the search systems and successfully served by this kind of push paradigm. The transferred content – images and text – need to be optimized for quality and relevance and be able to excel as structured data in order to take their place in the competitive data world. The integration of visual search in cameras, browsers and apps will take place very quickly and accelerate the transition from on-page to data optimization even further.

4) Alexa gets her own opinion

In the meantime, we know that digital voice assistants like Alexa and Siri have female voices because studies verify that both men and women find the female voice more trustworthy than its male equivalent.
But apart from fact-based question-and-answer exchanges, so far it has not been possible to carry on a conversation with the voice assistants. This should now change through an Amazon decision. According to Techcrunch, Alexa will be endowed with her own opinion and also express this confidently in conversation with her user. By way of example, the company gives comments on films in its own video product range. As she once did with the funny character at the video shop counter, (the older reader will remember this), in future Alexa is intended to start up conversations with users looking for the right evening entertainment – which will not be based on content curated by humans. Instead the artificial intelligence of the voice assistant will independently generate the necessary portion of attitude and humour that is crucial for lifelike conversation in all its nuances and suitable for the market. With use of this strategy, Amazon expects to win an advantage over its competitor Google, which has recourse to information and facts from a disparately larger data set, a company spokesperson has explained. Thus, Alexa is today already declaring the US beer brand Budweiser to be her favourite drink. Humour aside, a machine’s skill in conducting a natural conversation with a human will shape and change the future of search marketing in a more decisive way than any leap in technology we have experienced so far.