In order to master the challenges posed by the advancing digital transformation, many advertisers, media companies and agencies from the marketing and communications sector have invested in data-based technologies and infrastructure heavily in recent years. Despite this investment, however, they are often unsuccessful in getting this “horsepower” on the road and turning it into a relevant competitive advantage – this is due, among other reasons, to HiPPOs frequently operating on instinct.

The truth is that the digital transformation, that companies are facing, is not just a technical one, but also and primarily, a cultural one. For that reason, according to a Capgemini survey, problems in corporate culture are hindering the digital transformation to a far greater extent than factors like outdated IT systems or resource constraints.

At Plan.Net NEO we are intensively focused on establishing a consistently data-driven range of services, and on the data-based integration of media and content. These data, and the insights gained from them, are intended to serve both the creatives and the media experts on our team as “fuel” for the development of relevant content and its effective media activation.

This far-reaching process of transformation has taught us a great deal – not least about the critical importance of corporate cultural aspects on the journey to becoming a data-focused agency. The key lessons that we’ve learned can be distilled into five practical tips that are valid not just for agencies, but for all organisations.

  1. Develop and promote data skills

A data culture that is lived in practice begins with “empowerment” and the democratisation of data. It pays to equip your team with a range of technology to enable them to analyse data and make data-based decisions for themselves.

This is because the problem often faced by companies isn’t a lack of data, but a lack in the process of getting from data to decisions. When a company’s datasets are concentrated in the hands of a small number of experts, the potential that they represent for the company’s commercial success remains largely unexploited. In order for the company to extract the greatest possible benefit from them instead, every employee needs to be able to access the data and integrate them into their own decisions on a daily basis.

This doesn’t mean that every employee needs to become a data scientist (or that this should be possible). It does however mean that everybody should either already possess at least basic analytical skills, or be able to acquire them through qualifications, in order to be able to assess data-based issues and use data in decision-making.

  1. Technology has to adapt to the people who apply it, and not the other way around

The technology and tools used for realising the everyday use of data in the workplace play an important role. If these are to be used by team members other than data specialists, the following characteristics in particular are key to ensuring that they are broadly accepted among users and perceived as being usable and valuable in practice:

  • Convenience and intuitive operation

The easier and more intuitive data handling is set up for the user, the sooner they will appreciate its value for their daily working quality and no longer want to miss it.

  • Intelligent data visualisation

Dashboards and other display formats make it easier to rapidly grasp the central messages of the data and ensure that everybody involved sees the same picture. Reducing complexity in this way is an important prerequisite for efficient individual work and effective teamwork.

  • Opportunities for dynamic interaction with data

Decision-making processes seldom follow a linear path. That’s why data analysis platforms should make it as easy as possible to explore data, test hypotheses, and try out different scenarios.

A good example of data “empowerment” enabled through technology is the “Brand Investor” tool developed at our sister agency Plan.Net Business Intelligence, which we have been using for some time.

The tool enables our consultants and planners to determine an optimally efficient communication plan for our clients’ brands, without needing to rely extensively on the skills of data and BI specialists for this kind of demanding task as they did before. The Brand Investor uses artificial intelligence to make the knowledge gained from over 2,000 calculated media plans and more than 200 conducted marketing mix models available at the touch of a button. With the help of an interactive, visualisation-oriented user interface, users operating in “do-it-yourself mode” can optimise the budget allocation for their data-based decision-making. The results are shown through the significantly shorter time for planning scenarios of all kinds than before, and through forecasting their impact.

  1. Encouraging critical curiosity in interactions with data

Being fundamentally curious is a key driver of innovation and growth,  and also lays an important foundation for an analysis culture. After all, this is all about seeking out new approaches and the desire to try things out and experiment. At the same time, and especially where data are concerned, the cultural framework also needs to ensure that critical thinking doesn’t get neglected.

In particular, a “data first” corporate culture mustn’t mean blindly following indicators based on bare figures without discerning the broader context.  It’s far more important instead for the culture to motivate team members to be able to interpret data critically, so that your organisation doesn’t only base its decisions on reliable data, but also knows when it’s better not to do so with regard to data quality.

  1. Set the example for practicing a data culture from above

It may be less surprising to hear that successfully establishing a data-oriented corporate culture starts at the top. It’s important for management not to lose sight of this, however, as real life unfortunately shows that this is all too often forgotten amidst hectic everyday schedules.

Management teams need to set out a clear vision if data are to become ingrained in a company’s DNA. Rather than simply developing and diligently communicating this as a concept, however, it’s also important to set an example by practicing it on a daily basis. The key buzzphrase here is “walk the talk”: follow up your own words with actions.  When management teams set a good example, other managers and employees will be sure to quickly adapt their own behaviour – whether consciously or unconsciously.

At the same time, cultural change is also a two-way process: it works both from the top down and from the bottom up. It’s the role of management teams to set an example, but also to give focused encouragement to suitable and engaged employees, who will then go on to function as multipliers, or “agents of change”, in their respective teams.

  1. Don’t go with your gut

Closely linked with the previous point, our recommendation is to make every effort to replace gut feeling consistently, permanently and throughout the company with decisions that instead are based on data and facts.

Many company teams are still led by HiPPOs (HiPPO stands for “Highest Paid Person’s Opinion”). This means that decisions are often made by the highest-paid members of the team, who can often be far removed from the actual issue or problem. This is especially problematic in cases where these HiPPOs make decisions based on their instincts, as informed by their subjective experience and intuition, rather than reaching out for their teams to provide analyses and recommendations supported by data which would enable them to arrive at a decision objectively.

If data play a genuinely central role for corporate culture, then as a requirement, all decisions taken in the course of daily business life has to be based on those data – without exception.

The fact that digital marketing can only be successful with teamwork always becomes clear when half of your colleagues are on their summer holiday. In this holiday edition of the SEO News for August, we therefore take a look at the best colleagues in the world.

The engine room is where it all comes together

Beyond the glossy campaigns, big budgets and sparkling offices of advertising, there’s a world without whose dedication and expertise the lights would only shine half as bright, reach would only be half as wide and many grand promises would merely remain empty words. While the combination of creative ideas and empirical analysis may be seen as the future course of the digital transformation in marketing, its successful development in many areas has so far remained nothing more than betting on technical skills: the R&D department. But this doesn’t have to mean reinventing the world.

Even beyond disruptive transformations, internal and external developers, database experts and software architects are responsible for building and maintaining our digital marketplaces, networks and service platforms. In their hands lies the key to excellent performance and the targeted connection of current content with a user experience suitable for everyday life. They can also safeguard faultless data collection and, above all, legally binding business transactions. It’s not a matter of chance that all these points have become the focus of search engine optimisation in recent years.

The search engine optimiser – a digital caretaker

Tongue in cheek, you could say that search engine optimisers (SEOs) take on the caretaking work for the Googles, Bings and Baidus of this world. They ensure barrier-free access and use clever markers to provide the necessary orientation for search engines within their digital real estate. In the case of renovations or conversions, the search enginer optimiser also makes sure that loads and costs are avoided for users and owners where possible. This job necessarily involves tinkering in the engine room and seeking a constructive relationship with colleagues at the controls.

In an article for the magazine Searchenginejournal, Rachel Costello, technical SEO at the US technology provider Deep Crawl, has now accused developers of having a lack of understanding for the implications of their work. Costello claims many technicians are unaware of the potential consequences for the volume and quality of organic reach that “simply changing or removing a line of code” entails. In milder words, John Müller of Google advocates more understanding on both sides: “I’d like it if more SEOs would work together with developers,” the Swiss Webmaster Trends Analyst responded at the end of last year to a question about which topics should be the focus of the search industry in 2019. Unfortunately, experience shows that understanding for the work of other colleagues is rather lacking.

Mutual misunderstanding leads to wasted time and money

There’s not only a lack of knowledge of abilities and tasks. More importantly, marketing and R&D departments rarely get together to discuss how shared priorities could be organised and managed. Since SEO-relevant changes are often not entirely critical for a website’s operation, communication can drag on for weeks or months before they are implemented, especially for large, international platforms. The consequences of inadequate understanding and deficient communication are wasted time and money in a business environment where taking up the cause of agility and efficiency can’t come fast enough.  But it’s also true that the engine room feels pressure from many sides as the technological bottleneck in the company, and that its operations are shaped by standardised processes.

Likewise, it can hardly be an advantage if a large share of SEOs in companies and agencies come out from the “content corner” and often struggle to follow the relentless technological change of the web.

It’s the users who suffer

But ultimately, it’s not the developers or marketing staff who suffer. Instead, it’s the users who have to deal with slow webpages, awkward user guidance or frustrating 404 error pages. For this reason, it’s the job of search engine optimisation to leave the confines of caretaking and seek active collaboration with developers and technical service providers. This primarily includes taking ownership of processes and priorities in the technology department as well as clearly formulating the goals and dependencies of SEO work. Our experience has shown that, as an agency and tool provider, it is important to be flexible and to limit SEO roadmaps to what is feasible. This doesn’t mean getting as many measures off the ground as possible, but identifying and prioritising appropriate and manageable actions together.

The challenge for modern, successful SEO work lies precisely in this interface role between marketing and developer teams. Being mindful of the possibilities and constraints of the client and actively sharing knowledge with technical staff create the basis for establishing active governance with the aim of efficiently and profitably activating the search channel.

After all, once R&D and SEOs get talking and begin to learn from one another, they may soon realise that they simply work on different sides of the same coin.

To be clear from the outset: there is no single, universal startegy for selling on Amazon. But choosing the right sales model is a critical factor for success in any holistic distribution strategy. It’s therefore essential to closely examine all the options available.

A look back: Having started as an online book retailer in 1995, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos quickly realised that his goal of making Amazon the “largest online department store in the world” would only be difficult to achieve through retail business with vendors alone. For this reason, the company from Seattle also opened up to third-party merchants – or sellers – at the end of the 1990s, which have since been able to sell under their own name on the platform in exchange for a sales fee.

Since then, Amazon’s marketplace business has been developing incredibly rapidly. It already overtook its own retail business in revenue in 2015. According to a report by Jeff Bezos to his shareholders published at the start of the year, the marketplace generated around 58% of the total sales of goods on the platform in 2018. This fact prompted a dry, yet apt comment from Bezos: “Third-party sellers are kicking our butt. Hard.”

Amazon focuses increasingly on the marketplace business

But this development is not unwanted – it shows strategic calculation. While Amazon used its direct supplier relationships to achieve fast growth and market dominance in the past, for some time a clear focus has been on the marketplace business that’s more profitable and less risky for Amazon. For instance, on the one hand tools have been harmonised which sellers and vendors use to present and promote their products (such as sponsored ads, A+ content and brand stores).

On the other, support and personal service for vendors have been clearly cut back, for example with vendor and in-stock managers. Not least, a report at the start of the year caused a stir which claimed Amazon stopped orders for several thousand, predominantly smaller vendors, unannounced and without justification, to force them into the seller programme. This would be a very aggresive way to transfer the retail business in favour of the marketplace business.

The models continue to differ fundamentally

Despite harmonisation in some areas, both models continue to differ from each other fundamentally. A decision for the vendor model first requires a corresponding invitation from Amazon. Once this hurdle is cleared, decisive factors include sales policy reasons, for example if a competitive situation with other merchants who may also be customers is to be avoided.

What’s more, the higher sales potential (at least in theory), the high trust of customers in the Amazon brand as well as access to the remaining exclusive marketing programmes (such as Amazon VINE for generating product reviews) are arguments for the vendor status. In turn, vendors lose their ability to affect price policy, have to enter difficult and lengthy term negotiations with Amazon every year and forego contact with end customers to a large extent.

By contrast, sellers enjoy greater flexibility in terms of pricing and storage planning, as well as the far more extensive, freely provided data and insights in relation to orders, keywords and shopping basket statistics. However, the higher costs of fulfilment or customer support are considered a disadvantage.

A hybrid approach could also be a good solution

Those who have sufficient resources, expertise and the corresponding technological infrastructure to implement both models, may consider a hybrid approach as another option. This solution combines the advantages of vendor and seller status and is therefore becoming increasingly popular. The higher flexibility in setting sales prices, the securing of the availability of even unprofitable “CRaP products” (Can’t Realise any Profit), as well as access to specific analytical data in Seller Central can provide compelling reasons for choosing a hybrid model for certain segments of a manufacturer or merchant. Managed right, this model can more than compensate for the increased costs and any cannibalisation effects of both channels.

According to the University of Cologne’s Institute for Commercial Research (IFH Köln), 2018 saw the value of German e-commerce rise to EUR 53.3 billion. This represents an increase of more than EUR 4.4 billion, or 9.1%, on the previous year.   Around half of this growth was driven by Amazon Marketplace alone, which in 2018 succeeded in gaining over 100,000 new retailers and manufacturers in Germany, around 40% of whom were notably from from the People’s Republic of China.

The reasons behind this rapid development are not difficult to identify. On the one hand, consumers are increasingly using the Internet to do their shopping, and often begin their product search directly on Amazon. Until just a few years ago, this role of e-commerce gatekeeper was still reserved for the search engine Google. With Prime, Amazon has also succeeded in establishing an extremely attractive customer loyalty programme. In exchange for a fee, its approximately 100 million members worldwide enjoy free and fast delivery of their purchases, media products like Prime Video and Prime Music, exclusive discount offers (e.g. Prime Day), and special shops (e.g. Amazon Fresh). This has established the platform so firmly within the relevant set of customers that they order twice as often from Amazon on average as non-members.  What’s more, these customers are practically no longer attainable to other online shops as a target group for new customer acquisition.

In addition to their extensive reach and exceptionally loyal customer base, digital marketplaces like Amazon and OTTO & Co. offer a further, decisive advantage:    their technical and logistical infrastructure can be used by all suppliers without the need for financial outlay on their part. Platform maintenance, transaction processing, and marketing offers like Cyber Monday are all taken care of by the operator, with additional options available that extend the range of services provided to cover all logistics, including warehousing and returns handling, such as Amazon’s FBA fulfillment programme.

Figures published by IFH Köln show that suppliers who sold their products via Amazon in 2017 reported sales increases of more than 20% on the previous year – twice the total growth of e-commerce in the same period. Processing shipping, billing, and warranties via the marketplace is also making it easier for small retailers and manufacturers to gain a foothold in international markets. In this way, familiarity with the global brand promise of Amazon or eBay and the trust placed in them by customers is something that every supplier can use to their own advantage.

In addition to all of the incentives and advantages that the big platforms indubitably offer, however, it’s also important to take into consideration the risks and possible dangers that are posed by developing a marketplace strategy that is too reliant on them.

Manufacturers and retailers with interchangeable products who lack a strong brand identity of their own and do not offer a significant price advantage shouldn’t underestimate the level of competition that  marketplaces can have in store for them. Whereas having their own online shop allows retailers and manufacturers to make an exclusive presentation of their full range, on Amazon and similar platforms they’ll find themselves competing with numerous suppliers for customer attention and product visibility. Although a number of effective marketing tools enable them to purchase more desirable placement among the first pages of search results, achieving organic top-placement in the longer term will require significant investments in advertising together with the maintenance and optimisation of their product catalogue, which can quickly eat up a calculated margin.

An additional disadvantage – especially from a customer lifetime value point of view – is that they have little or no opportunity to make direct contact with their customers in order to let them know about special offers or new products and establish a sustainable CRM strategy.

Last but not least, there is the danger of them becoming too dependent on the marketplace and losing control over their own brand. Unforeseeable rises in fees, alterations to the general guidelines and terms and conditions, and the rise of numerous Amazon own-brands such as Basics, Essentials, and Find can render working with marketplaces unprofitable overnight. In the worst case scenario, bad business practices or negative black hat tactics on the part of the competition can lead to the immediate blocking of their own accounts.

For these reasons, retailers and manufacturers would be well advised to make an intensive exploration of additional sales channels in the interest of diversification. In addition to analysing niche marketplaces such as hood.de, yatego.com, avocadostore.de, or selekt.com, they should also consider creating their own online shop. This is especially likely to pay dividends if the shop offers customers something significantly different from the marketplaces in a way that they are readily able to appreciate. This can be achieved by offering a particularly attractive pricing structure, for example, or a distinctive product range or an outstanding user experience.  Making use of augmented reality or chatbots in the case of products or services that require a larger amount of explanation can achieve genuine added value, even making it possible to attract target groups away from the large marketplaces to new shopping channels.

Although there is no one-size-fits-all advice for developing and establishing a suitable e-commerce and marketplace strategy, which needs to be done on an individual basis, the following general conclusions can be drawn: Their extensive reach and potential mean that the big marketplaces are almost impossible for manufacturers and retailers to ignore. As their market power means that these platforms tend to dictate relationships on a one-sided basis, however, too much dependency and concentration on a single marketplace should be avoided, and alternative market footholds established.

At 40 degrees in the shade, Germany’s favourite pastime – watching television – is suddenly becoming irrelevant. A shame, because just as the summer heatwave is setting in, the relationship between TV devices and search engines is being newly configured. Find out why this is, and why special consideration should be given to voice-based search technology when it comes to younger and older target groups, in July’s edition of SEO News.

TV and search engines – two very different siblings on a bonding session

As we swelter our way through the summer of 2019, the global economy is beginning to look distinctly overcast, with world export champion Germany particularly badly hit. These developments force many companies to review their spending on marketing and advertising. Digital advertising channels provide the advantage (at least in theory) of permitting a direct comparison between costs and benefit, with the price of a conversion or ROI and ROAS with respect to budget allocated being generally straightforward to plan and calculate. This is less easy in the case of TV campaigns, however, which have an extensive reach that cannot be assessed with the same precision.

That’s why it’s in the interest of the advertising industry to start paying closer attention to the interplay between the two channels, in order to explore possible synergetic effects.  Although the question of how TV/display devices and search engines impact on one another is by no means a new one, the interesting thing is that both organic and paid searches are increasingly coming to be seen as the link between a sometimes diffuse TV impact and a company’s actual turnover.

Calls-to-action as a tool for generating higher demand

As New York trade journal Digiday reports, increasing numbers of American companies are beginning to examine their attribution models in order to establish how their TV presence is reflected in organic search requests and in the performance of their paid search campaigns. An increase in search requests for brand terms in particular can be stimulated not only by increased investment in TV and display device campaigns, but also by direct cues to search such as “Just Google XYZ”, or “Search for XYZ”, which can significantly increase search volumes via conventional media channels, the report reveals.

Although this creative approach has been in use for some years in the USA and the UK, in Germany it remains the exception rather than the rule. The setup enables analytics data from searches to be harnessed to optimize cross-media campaign planning throughout the customer journey. The approaches that enable conventional high-reach campaigns to stimulate awareness can be measured in the form of changes in search volumes, and the cost of paid search conversions used in turn to deliver the TV campaign’s ROI/ROAS. Sustained SEO work also enables newly-gained organic search volumes to be directed to landing pages with high conversion rates in a targeted way. This makes it possible to ensure an optimal user experience all the way from couch to conversion. As agency Mediaplus has established in a joint study with SevenOne Media and Google, similar advertising effects can also be achieved with the help of Google’s video search engine YouTube. This is why it’s high time that the long-standing competition between marketing siblings TV and search engines was ended, so that tight budgets can be used more effectively and efficiently in times of economic difficulty. After all, family needs to stick together.

Who’s talking to Alexa?

Even in an industry as latently hypereuphoric as ours, the tense hype about the possibilities and blessings of voice search technology has finally given way to a sober realism. We’ve pointed out here many times in the past that voice search is little more than an extension of the human-machine interface for search engines, and that its substantive developments in terms of new forms of interaction would most likely be unable to satisfy the high expectations surrounding them. As is now being reported, the expert prediction that by 2020 around 50% of all search requests will be made using voice technology was simply the result of an incorrect interpretation of data from the People’s Republic of China.

Voice search user numbers are also growing independently of this minor market research fail, of course. This is primarily due to the likewise inflationary market launch of dialogue-capable devices. US marketing agency Path conducted a global survey to investigate how the new technology is being used by different target groups on different platforms. The study delivered multifaceted results: Around 70% of participants reported using voice search on a weekly basis. A quarter use the technology as often as three times a day. When the respondents are divided into age groups, it’s striking that users at the lower (13-18 years) and upper (65+ years) ends of the spectrum in particular report using voice technology on a regular basis.

A glance at the used search systems reveals that the oldest user group communicates most often (approximately 57% of all group respondents) with Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa. Around 28% of respondents in the youngest target group aged between 18 and 22 likewise prefer the Echo/Alexa family produced by the technology giant from Seattle. This suggests that the best way to reach these especially solvent and tech-savvy groups is to employ a combination of conventional voice-based SEO with structured data and product data automation, like Amazon SEO. Such a combination is something that many agencies on the German market have yet to offer.

Imagine you have 550 siblings, daughters and sons. Add best friends and acquaintances to the mix. Now imagine you want to get them all to sit down at the same breakfast table. Or for a nice cup of coffee now and then. Or generally just to sit down and talk on a regular basis. How’s that sister in Switzerland doing? What was daughter 137 celebrating the other day?

In the future, employees at large companies will be able to answer questions like these in the space of just a few minutes, thanks to the company’s own InfoHub. But what does an application like this need to do in order to deliver and manage business communications on time?

Distillation of all information into one single app

Hours of searching in e-mail inboxes, on the intranet or on websites is now a thing of the past! Simply log in and see all of the group’s announcements and changes on one platform – well sorted and easy to grasp at a single glance.

Improved relevance of messages thanks to a filter function

More than 550 family members and joint venture partners can quickly amass countless pieces of information. That’s why a sophisticated filter function, which allows a personalized representation of the user interface, is an absolute necessity. Ideally, the function will do this without losing focus on general but important messages.

Well informed and on  time, through push notifications

What was that celebration that took place recently? When you ask yourself this question, it’s usually already too late. A brief message about when an event will take place is definitely an advantage in cases like these. That’s why push messages need to be triggered directly by the app as soon as a message is published. This ensures that everybody is immediately updated and – circumstances permitting – can even propose a live toast to daughter 137 to celebrate her anniversary. The additional bookmark function helps to ensure that no event is lost in the permanent flow of information.

New opportunities for corporate influencers

Sometimes there are messages that employees would like to pass on to their friends. For this purpose, subfunctions for preferred channels such as e-mail, WhatsApp, LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter should be implemented in the tool. This way, employees can easily become corporate influencers in their own company.

In the case of confidential company information, on the other hand, which must not leave the “family circle”, the sharing function should of course be deactivated.

Messages served in bite-sized chunks

The main appeal of the InfoHub, and a good reason why this form of information exchange is so readily accepted by many users, is the way information is prepared. All news is presented virtually on a silver platter, with content that can be grasped immediately with the help of expressive images, short headlines and teasers. The articles are best simply linked to the original source and/or can be downloaded as PDF files.

InfoHub at the Lufthansa Group

The international aviation group’s “InfoHubSales” platform, which went online in April 2018, was developed together with Plan.Net Connect – a subsidiary of the Serviceplan Group – especially for the sales department of Lufthansa Group Network Airlines. Since its global rollout in early 2019, the app has already become a big hit among Lufthansa Group sales staff.

For the further development of the InfoHubSales platform, Plan.Net Connect made use of the technological features of CMS system Contao. Regular updates, high functionality – also and especially when creating editorial content –, simple usability and control, social sharing options, stable performance, and worldwide availability: these were the most important factors when it came to choosing this system.

In addition, user behavior is constantly documented through permanent reporting in order to further increase the degree of personalized output.

Looking to the future

To ensure that every piece of information, however important, is preserved for future generations of large corporations, the communication platforms of today will become the knowledge databases of tomorrow. Digital reference works for company histories filled with technical developments and achievements are now in the process of being created. This way, even 50 years from now, everyone will still be able to read about what it was again that daughter 137 had to celebrate.

Artificial intelligence has many facets. In addition to autonomous driving, media planning and other application areas, it is also a major driver of innovation in the field of voice recognition. But can voice technology offer real added value, and if so, for whom?

Even five years after Amazon released its first Echo device, voice technology is still in its early stages. The glut of new devices, both from Amazon and Google, and the ongoing release of new features and upgrades demonstrate that there is still a long way to go before voice technology reaches its full potential. Having said that, voice recognition technology already makes life easier, or at least more convenient, in may ways. For example, even for the older generation, using speech recognition to switch the light on and off, control the heating, ask about the weather or find the right answer to a Trivial Pursuit question isn’t rocket science. And in certain situations, it even makes more sense to use voice control, for example while driving (at least as long as we still have to drive our cars ourselves), cycling, or for people with disabilities or older people who do not feel confident using other interfaces. Voice control is easy to understand and accessible to everyone on account of its intuitiveness.

Voice can enhance a brand’s personality

Brands communicate with their customers primarily through combinations of text and images. And, of course, every brand is very individual in terms of tonality and imagery. But until now, ‘real’ dialogue could only take place with representatives or brand ambassadors. Voice technology is changing this. Companies have to think carefully about how they present themselves as a brand to the outside world, what answers they want, and are able, to offer and how – and how they can do this as authentically as possible.

Therefore, voice should always be viewed as an opportunity to broaden and enhance a brand’s personality. In doing so, it is helpful to experiment with different approaches, content formats and sales pitches in order to find your brand’s ‘voice’.

At the Plan.Net Innovation Studio, we have been working with clients from various sectors over the past few years as they take their first steps into the world of voice technology. These sectors range from finance to automotive, retail to travel, and many others.

The first question you should ask yourself with projects like these is: what role should my brand actually play on the market? Do I just want to promote my own products and services, or do I want to try to occupy an entire field? Do I just want to inform, or do I want to give my customers the opportunity to buy something directly?

Whatever you do, the important thing is that you provide added value, and dispense with mere self-promotion.

Voice technology has become integral to our working lives

Voice technology is here to stay. Like the Internet, it has become a permanent feature of day-to-day life. That is why it is essential to examine the relevance of voice technology in every field.

Let’s take web searches as an example. The first three to four search results for a keyword will garner a click from the majority of users. With voice search, only the first result is actually relevant. This leads to even greater competition, and the platforms now answer many requests completely independently. As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult for third-party content to jockey for position. Moreover, the platforms are still very careful when it comes to the use of advertising. They are – rightly – fearful of squandering the trust of their users. That is why we are currently seeing a renaissance in audio ads, which audio streaming providers place as pre-roll ads, for example, before their content – a tried-and-tested mechanism used by YouTube for years.

In view of the above, it is especially important that colleagues and employees get to grips specifically with voice technology, that they are granted the necessary freedom to do so, and that they are able to experiment in this area. Given that there are still relatively few experts in voice technology, this presents an opportunity for interested colleagues to upskill, and in doing so to create added value for the company in this innovative field.

About the author: Jonas Heitzer works as Creative Coder at Plan.Net Group’s Innovation Studio since 2017. His responsibilities include technical development.

As we sweat through the first heatwave of summer 2019, Google is slowly but surely coming under pressure from the US antitrust watchdogs. That’s why in June’s edition of SEO News, we will be examining whether the search engine should be seriously concerned about the possibility of being broken up.

Google is set to become a global portal

Since Donald Trump’s election to President of the United States, governance on the other side of the Atlantic has not been quite as rigorous as it once was. Given that no important legislation is being passed in Washington D.C. anymore, politicians are even more eager to figure out how they got into this mess in the first place. That’s why the bosses of digital giants like Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple are being summoned by Congress, in no particular order, for the purposes of fact-finding and damage limitation. With the threat of antitrust laws being used to break up the corporation hanging over his head like a sword of Damocles, last December Google CEO Sundar Pichai was also forced to answer the question of what his company is doing with its legendary reach. More precisely put: How many hits does Google forward to third-party sites as a conventional search engine, and how much of this reach does the company retain for commercial exploitation and monetisation on its own Alphabet Holding websites and apps?

The answer Pichai gave at the time was not terribly helpful; rather than citing specific figures, he instead made vague statements about the distinctive characteristics of the user journey in Search. The search engine from Mountain View is also about to turn this user journey completely on its head: At the recent search marketing conference SMX Advanced in Seattle, observers were in agreement, for example, that Google is becoming increasingly less a search engine and much more a portal.

Clickstream data confirm the trend

A recent blog post from SEO aficionado Rand Fishkin conveniently fills in the gap in the numbers. Using clickstream data from analytics firm Jumpshot for the US market, he showed that around half of the approximately 150 billion Google hits in the US in 2018 were so-called ‘no-click searches’ – in other words, end points of the user journey, with no further click to a third-party site following the search request. This means that Google answers every second user’s query on its own website, thereby itself becoming the end point of the user journey.

New design layouts and clickable features in its once cleanly structured search results give the impression that Google is increasingly taking on the function of a classic web portal, according to the intention of the user request. What’s more, Google forwards around twelve percent of clicks to its own third-party sites, such as YouTube, according to Jumpshot data. According to Fishkin, what is not known is how many search requests are forwarded to a Google app such as Maps or Gmail on mobile devices and opened in those. This still leaves a significant proportion of more than 40 percent – over 60 billion clicks annually – that are forwarded to third-party sites as organic traffic on the Internet.

His traffic analysis also shows that the total number of these clicks has remained relatively consistent overall over the past three years. On the other hand, organic traffic from mobile end devices is falling sharply compared to desktop devices. This can be attributed to the increasing preference for paid and local search results on the small screen. The reason this decline in organic traffic from mobile searches is not yet being felt by website operators, according to Fishkin, is that Google’s reach continues to grow rapidly.

Google is standing at a crossroads

Let’s recap: Google is capitalising on most of its traffic growth on its own websites and apps. This loss of potential visitors to third-party websites is currently being offset by Google’s steep overall growth, however. One of the major reasons for this development is that the search engine from Mountain View no longer differs all that much from its commercial competitors – the price comparison and shopping platforms – when it comes to certain structured search requests, such as for flights, hotels or cinema listings.

The hearings before Congress and investigations reportedly launched by the US Department of Justice are therefore coming at the right time. Google must decide whether it wants to be a search engine or an omniscient universal portal. The diversification of its business model should not come at a cost to other market players.

It is a case in point that brand managers and consumers – but also marketing and advertising managers – all have their sights on the same goal: to come into contact with one another at the right time, in the right place and with the right message. The problem is that they all take widely different approaches and that companies rarely carry out real-time evaluations of the data necessary for this.

Consumers looking for specific products or services expect treatment to be as personalised as possible – and, of course, for this to be available at all times, on all available devices and all possible channels. The proverbial “customer journey” has not been following a straight path for some time now. After all, there are endless possibilities for customers to strike up contact with the various companies. They can approach the brands directly or do so indirectly, for example via performance marketing channels such as price comparisons or social media platforms. The upshot of this is that the labyrinthine customer journey throws up more and more purchase process-related data. Marketers, on the other hand, want to understand and reach digital customers but naturally always have their own ROI in the back of their minds. Accordingly, they pursue a strategy that makes the most of their marketing budget. To do so, however, they must first find their way through the data jungle. And the ever-growing volume of data is making it more and more difficult for them to find the right information at the right time.

The golden growth years are over

For the most part, the vast bulk of the constantly collected data ends up gathering dust in a virtual drawer somewhere. Particularly in marketing, endless amounts of user data are collected with a view to tailoring a personal marketing campaign geared as closely as possible towards each individual shop or website visitor. At present, however, many marketing departments are still failing to apply any coherent strategy to this data and only analyse and contextualise it on rare occasions. Which in turn means that the data rarely points the way to clear optimisation measures and follow-ups. Before you start amassing data without any clear plan in mind, you should ask yourself a few questions:

  • Do I really need a constant supply of new data to run successful marketing campaigns?
  • At what point should I start collecting data and at what point should I stop again?
  • How can data be used in decision-making?
  • And what data is actually needed to manage campaigns successfully?

To begin with, the somewhat sobering answer to all these questions is that data collection will never stop. It is more a question of making better use of the (available) data. Which means that marketers should realise that the golden years of online retailing are over and that they need to come up with a decent data strategy. When it first emerged, the online market was able to chalk up rapid growth. In most cases, however, this was generated automatically given that a new market was effectively created, with consumer behaviour shifting online. These days, online sales are still on the rise, but growth is nothing like it was in the early days. This is because users are already online and the market is becoming increasingly saturated. And now everyone is vying for a slice of the pie! Accordingly, online players who want to remain at the head of the pack need to have more than creative campaigns in their box of tricks. After all, market saturation essentially means that all market participants currently have the same starting position. Which, above all, means that a clever data strategy can give players a significant competitive edge.

Data collection will never stop. It is more a question of making better use of the (available) data.

Sharing data across departments

And the good news? The first step towards a successful data strategy can be taken with an initial inventory of available data. Existing customer data is particularly valuable because it provides important information about purchase behaviour, frequency of visits and/or shopping, and the contents of customers’ shopping carts.

For companies, data that already exists forms the basis for targeting consumers with individualised advertising at a later stage. Here, it is important to compare existing data with other departments and to identify any overlaps. Regrettably, it is often the case that a company’s left hand doesn’t know what its right hand is up to. More often than not, this gives rise to data silos that will smother any usefulness the data might have had. Which means that it is all the more essential for all departments – from IT to sales and marketing – to communicate with one another and to pool their data in a common SSOT (“Single Source Of Truth”) solution. For this to work, the importance of the data must be communicated clearly across all departments. Ideally, each company should have its own data manager acting as an interface between the individual departments. This manager must have a clear idea of who constitutes the target group for marketing and sales and, with this in mind, collect, prepare and condense the right data accordingly.

The data manager is also in charge of determining the right format for storing data so that it is available via the SSOT afterwards. Product silos frequently end up being created, particularly in the case of large retailers and corporate groups. The data manager must ensure that data is linked in such a way that it can be used to create campaigns for different products.

Changing focus: meeting needs rather than making sales

A very important structural change in the market is the shift of focus from transaction perspective to customer lifetime perspective, i.e. that the customer now takes centre stage instead of the purchase transaction. Accordingly, it is increasingly important to find out how much individual customers are worth when they can be targeted directly. Consumers looking for specific products or services expect personalised communication complete with relevant offers. Well-informed customers research extensively and shop around, thereby leaving more and more data trails relating to the purchase process. Apart from the transaction focus, which only gears the data evaluation and direct communication towards the purchase itself, the customer lifetime perspective takes into account the customer’s long-term value. It aims to leave behind a satisfied customer who will come back again, who will recommend a service to others – and who might come back and purchase a product after deciding against it three or four months previously.

This gives rise to completely new approaches and questions that marketers must ask themselves:

  • What does the customer think?
  • What really interests them?

Right now, however, the most important question is:

  • How can I be sure of reaching the customer via all channels?

After all, customers move from channel to channel, sometimes going online to find out about a new product, other times approaching a sales assistant at the POS or calling up data on their smartphone or desktop PC.

Marketing managers must be able to bring together all this data from the various contact points and assign them to a specific customer. After all, brand managers and consumers – but also marketing and advertising managers – all have their sights on the same goal: to come into contact with one another at the right time, in the right place and with the right message. The company should be aiming to communicate suitable content to the customer on a regular basis, thus forging a lasting bond with the brand or the company. Without this bond, long-term objectives are not possible, and the company is left with its hastily set short-term goals.

The labyrinthine customer journey throws up more and more purchase process-related data that often remains unanalysed. (Source: Tradedoubler)

BI solutions call for fast marketing decisions

To provide customers with individualised offers, it is essential to be able to harmonise the available data. Its inherent value must be determined and analysed. Given the mountains of data that cannot possibly be dealt with manually, suitable business intelligence (BI) solutions are virtually a necessity for companies and their marketing infrastructure. After all, it is not just a question of automating marketing processes but of interpreting the data correctly. Because if marketing management only includes pieces of the big picture, some decisions have to be made based on “gut feeling” instead. In this case, marketing decision-makers run the risk of making wrong decisions. Or, worse still, they are snowed under with data and can’t make any decisions at all.

What marketing managers need is a tool that allows them to process large amounts of data and to visualise the information needed for business decisions – in the form of easily grasped graphics and diagrams. (Source: Tradedoubler)

As far as the infrastructure is concerned, it is also important to have a central data repository, i.e. customer and campaign data linked and summarised in the SSOT. In this way, the data from all marketing activities – be it search engine optimisation, affiliate marketing, display marketing or social media – all comes together centrally. Ideally, the marketing team would be shown the evaluated data in real time via the corresponding BI solution and would determine optimisation potential based on this. Remembering, of course, to bear in mind the customer journey at all times. This is the only way for the shift towards customer lifetime value to work. Today, we can already see the trend for forward-looking companies to bundle extensive expertise internally, to be highly specialised and for their work to be data-driven and/or IT-supported to a great extent.

The customer journey must always be kept in mind. Only then can the shift towards the customer lifetime value (CLV) work.

From big data to smart data

It is fair to say that companies today have unmanageable quantities of data at their disposal. Only with the help of suitable software is it still possible for them to track online user behaviour completely over a wide cross-section of channels and end devices. This renders the data analysable, giving marketers insight into the extent to which individual platforms, channels, business models and publishers have influenced the purchase decision. Only with the aid of this information can they optimise all digital marketing measures and personalised advertising at the right time, at the right place, for the right person and on a suitable device. The message in a nutshell: successful decisions in online marketing are not possible without smart data.

Successful decisions in online marketing are not possible without smart data.

Five steps to better decisions

These five steps allow online marketing managers to keep track of their data:

1. Break open your internal departmental and channel silos! It is all too often the case that marketing managers seek out direct success in their own silo rather than focusing on the customer. Instead of this, you should embrace the customer’s cross-channel user journey.

2. If you want to go one step further, set up a dedicated BI team for analysing and classifying the data. For the best possible results, this should consist of a healthy mixture of people from marketing, IT, data management and sales.

3. The data strategy needs to be based on and geared towards a clear objective. For the BI team, that means only requesting data that serves a clearly defined purpose. A structured approach geared towards a specific objective avoids data simply being collected for its own sake.

4. The number of different software solutions in use should be kept to an absolute minimum. The more individual solutions are used, the greater the data chaos.

5. Make sure that you choose a business intelligence tool that offers uniform reporting and systematic analyses. This is the key to a successful data strategy – only in this way will the data be readable, analysable and capable of helping you make the right decision.

Ahead of the elections to the European Parliament, intense discussions are underway concerning the increase in global conflicts and confrontations. The Internet also has a history of great confrontations. Whether or not the next war of platforms is looming between Amazon and Google, is a topic we will be discussing in SEO News for the month of May.

Voice-controlled assistants: The new competition among market criers

The competition for intelligent, voice-controlled assistants is now in full swing. After the initial commotion about the possibilities of the new voice technology has subsided, the value of these new companions is now no longer measured by the amount of hype they are given by the press. Instead, Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant must now prove their worth in the face of tough competition. The starting situation could hardly be more different: After the demise of the browser and console wars, are we once again on the brink of a battle of platforms?

The question of who will set the standards for the future with their market power is far from being answered. When it comes to hardware, Amazon is apparently in the lead. Although both companies do not like to show their hands, the online shipping giant has confirmed figures which suggest that by the end of 2018, Amazon had sold around 100 million devices with the virtual assistant Alexa – mostly smart speakers, such as the popular “Echo”, in countless variants. According to a study by the consulting firm RBC, Google sold around 50 million smart speakers worldwide by the same point in time.

It is not quantity, but added value that is decisive

Yet, the number of activated devices represents only half the truth: At its developer conference “Google IO”, the company from Mountain View recently announced that, while it is lagging behind its rival Amazon in terms of smart speakers, the software of its in-house Google Assistant, on the other hand, is already available on more than 1 billion devices. This primarily includes smartphones on which the Google Assistant can be used as an app; the function is already pre-installed on Android mobile phones, for instance. Although Alexa is increasingly tucked away in microwaves, toilets or synthesizers, we have to ask ourselves what added value the voice assistant, designed as a shopping and entertainment device, has to offer here.

Google has a much more favourable starting position in terms of usage scenarios. Embedded in a comprehensive range of services and functions from email to shopping, navigation and the appointment calendar, the search engine giant can offer an altogether different range of services. On its way to becoming a comprehensive and ubiquitous orientation, solution and comfort machine, the Assistant is a pivotal tool for Google.

Google is blowing its horn for the attack – but it is not going to war

This also explains the announcement that the display of search results in the Assistant will now be successively adapted to the appearance of the mobile search result pages (SERPs). This will mean that the semantic marking and structuring of content will also pay off for the Google Assistant. In addition, non-structured information fragments are now also displayed in formats similar to the well-known rich snippets (small excerpts of website content on the search results pages), knowledge graphs or direct answers. This observation also seems to confirm the theory of the “fraggles” that have already been discussed here, according to which Google’s Artificial Intelligence will in future increasingly combine small pieces of information freely without any reference to a URL and compile them into an individual search result. Google is also pushing forward in terms of monetization and now wants to target its ad campaigns on Android devices within the Assistant.

The development of virtual assistants is therefore not necessarily resulting in a direct confrontation, and we will probably not be faced with a new platform war. The question of which provider can unite more third-party applications on its platform is no longer as important as it was with the mobile operating system. Rather, it will be up to us, the users, to answer the question of whether voice search in combination with artificial intelligence will produce individual solutions for a multitude of narrowly defined usage scenarios, such as Amazon’s shopping service and music service, or whether the large-scale Google solution with its comprehensive technical infrastructure will assert itself to support human existence in all of life’s circumstances.