It was back in 1992 when Herbert F. Barber came up with the term VUCA – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity – but it also happens to be a near-perfect description of how things are right now. Although initially introduced by Barber as a concept for strategic company management, VUCA also reflects the problems currently facing managers – including outside of their respective organisations. Today, it describes the influences that global dependencies, political controversies, technologisation and changing consumer behaviour are having on companies and entire sections of society – and therefore keeping 21st-century managers on their toes.
However, hardly any of these influences has brought about such far-reaching changes as the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been hanging over us since March 2020. It has led to events that many people had previously thought impossible: e-commerce penetration in the US grew from 16% to approximately 34% within the space of three months (by way of comparison, it took about ten years to increase from 5% to 16%); internal projects for which a timescale of around three years had initially been planned were launched over a single weekend; and entire industries were turned on their heads – restaurants, healthcare and traditional retail being cases in point. The coronavirus has led to longstanding certainties losing their currency and being replaced by a new normality – meaning that VUCA has taken on a whole new importance.

Digitalisation: the constant factor in the new normal

In the ensuing uncertainty, digitalisation is now a central instrument on the agenda of all company bosses as it allows them to respond more flexibly to these volatile influences and to introduce countermeasures. Although it had already been quite a challenge for many companies to take their company processes to the next (digital) level, the advent of the coronavirus now means that this has become a survival factor that will determine each company’s future. Whether it’s a question of expanding the online area to include offline sales, implementing projects entirely by digital means or managing teams via digital channels – digital services and platforms facilitate these initiatives in only a fraction of the originally intended time and are therefore a central component of company management. And one that is here to stay.

The challenges for managers involve overcoming the physical distance to individual colleagues brought about by the need to work from home and, in spite of largely decentralised teams, to create digital interactions with a view to implementing project processes and encouraging team spirit. As a result, the pandemic has increased the urgency of implementing digital solutions as this is the only way to counter the crisis adequately and to respond more swiftly to the impact that it is having. So it’s no wonder, then, that – according to a DMEXCO trend study – approximately 70% of managers based in the DACH region indicated that the pandemic will speed up their planned digital transformation projects to enable them to meet the new requirements.

Adaptability will determine future company success

Managers are currently being given a crash course not only in digitalisation, but also in change management and New Work. Here, one of the main critical success factors will be how individual managers practise ‘remote leadership’ in companies – this is because the agility and flexibility of the predominantly cross-functional and decentralised team members must be ensured continually. One fundamental aspect for companies is therefore how skilfully and quickly they can respond to crises and changes in their organisational environment and adapt their organisation accordingly.

VUCA 2.0 – an antidote for the current state of uncertainty

Driven by external influences, managers feel forced to explore new avenues and acquire new skills so they are in a position to face up to increasingly pressing questions. This is why it is necessary to have a clear understanding of the organisation’s common orientation and to be able to convey this successfully within the company and tackle the challenge together.

This is done by communicating a Vision, by Understanding the context, by presenting these with Clarity and implementing them with the necessary Agility – or, in short, with VUCA 2.0. This can be seen as the antidote to the VUCA term introduced by Herbert F. Barber. VUCA 2.0 gives managers guidelines that they need to apply in their operational management functions in order to keep on top of current and future challenges:

V ision:

More than ever before, managers need to be able to provide continual orientation in the context of changes and to put forward a vision that the organisation can gear itself towards. This not only requires the definition of a ‘guiding star’ but also the necessary degree of transparency that will allow each and every employee to devote themselves to the mission at hand. At the same time, it is important to create a common understanding of values and the organisation’s strategy so that managers are in a position to make relevant company decisions, thereby enabling their teams to take the same route.

U nderstanding:

As well as defining a common vision, a far-reaching understanding of structures and processes is important in order to be able to apply skills that exist within the company quickly and effectively. At the same time, an in-depth understanding of the company context must exist – this is necessary for adapting flexibly to dynamic requirements from customers, competitors and changes in the political climate. To this end, transparent communication and networking need to be established throughout the company so that any volatile influences can be nipped in the bud. Only in this way is it possible to respond flexibly to external changes, to minimise risks and encourage resilience.

C larity:

One way to deal with the complex internal and external organisational environment is with focused and clearly formulated company management. This will bring clarity to the existing fog of chaos, enabling effective countermeasures to be defined and implemented. As a result, processes can be structured more clearly, communication channels used more efficiently and company decisions conveyed quickly and resolutely so that, in spite of the existing complexity, they can be communicated transparently to employees and continually made visible.

A gility:

In order to remain viable for the future, companies need to be agile enough to adapt to external requirements and flexible enough to respond to a changing environment. This means that agility not only needs to be reflected in the company structures and processes – at the same time, it constitutes a leadership quality that is evident when managers demonstrate an agile mindset. This is why initiating a cultural shift and establishing flexible processes and cross-functional cooperation models is a central function for managers today. To do so, they must be able to communicate openly within the organisation and find suitable solutions for external changes quickly – without losing sight of the aforementioned ‘guiding star’.

Digitalisation is central to the success of VUCA 2.0

VUCA 2.0 offers managers an approach that can guide them in times of mounting uncertainty. However, this also means that suitable technologies need to be used, digital platforms set up and internal knowledge transfer geared in such a way that relevant information, data and transparency can be exchanged quickly and flexibly with regard to the changing situations. To this end, organisations should do away with siloed thinking, encourage integration and collaboration between different areas and establish mechanisms that motivate self-reflection. In addition, companies have to create an environment for ongoing learning and a values-based culture in order to provide employees with the tools they will need to deal with sudden, unforeseen events. This empowers individual teams and employees – through personal responsibility and reflection – to counter the combination of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity that is set to be the norm for the foreseeable future. Such an approach ultimately enables employees and managers alike to make use of the necessary information strategically and in the interests of the company – all with a view to optimising resource distribution and avoiding inefficiency.

VUCA 2.0 as a core skill of today’s organisations

Implementing the guidelines of VUCA 2.0 is ultimately a critical factor for managers when it comes to withstanding the challenges posed by the VUCA influences today and in the future – and emerging stronger than ever. By defining a vision, understanding their own organisation and ensuring clarity in their communication and agility in their actions, it is possible to take the edge off uncertainty and, in turn, to follow a common vision together. Changing management and employee conduct in line with VUCA 2.0 will well and truly bear fruit once it has been aligned with the right tools, platforms and technologies. However, intended change only occurs when its wheels are set in motion – and what better time for change than right now?

This article first appeared in TWELVE, the Serviceplan Group’s magazine for brands, media and communication. In the seventh issue, you will find further inspiring articles, essays and interviews by and with prominent guest authors and renowned experts centred around the magazine’s theme “Rethink!”. The e-paper is available here.

Over the past few weeks, as I reread the excellent book Supercade [1] published by MIT Press almost 20 years ago, I got to thinking about technology and our relationship with it…

🎵 A video game arcade. Eighties atmosphere. Fire up the Stranger Things soundtrack as you read this blog post…

But first, if you haven’t read the book, here’s a bit of background about Supercade. This fully illustrated book is a potted history of video games, and covers the period between 1971 and 1984. Its focus is mainly on the small world of video game arcades. The very American soul of Supercade will bring whiffs of nostalgia to anyone who has ever spent their money on Galaxian while waiting for their parents at the supermarket checkout or been caught daydreaming in front of Space Ace at a local fairground. It harks back to childhoods packed with pixels, to a time when videogaming had yet to invade the home, and children hadn’t begun to spend their days in lockdown on their Nintendo Switch or PS4 consoles until their parents told them to finish their homework. A time when video games were consumed outside the home. The good old days.

The book also traces a path back to the very first developments of on-screen games, in the study halls of American universities: Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1958 and MIT in 1962. In both cases, these initial experiments were carried out by enthusiasts.

Tennis for Two Tennis for Two on the left of the photo.
The tiny round screen with the two joysticks just below.

Tennis for Two was created in 1958 in Brookhaven for one of the laboratory’s public exhibitions [2]. The idea was to show visitors the power and appeal of technology monsters that occupied several rooms in the buildings. The best way to show people what they could do was … to design an interactive demonstration on a screen. In other words, a game. Tennis for Two was an instant hit. It was a simplistic simulation of a tennis game using an oscilloscope (no more complicated than good old Pong), and turned out to be the highlight of the visit for many people.

A frenzied game of Spacewar! in the MIT buildings during the 1960s.
You can’t even see the line of other gamers waiting their turn!

Another glorious veteran is Spacewar! The game was created at MIT in 1962 under slightly different circumstances [3]. The “culprits” this time were the young students of the laboratory’s Tech Model Railroad Club [4], who would use the tools they found lying around to improve their miniature railway network. They fell instantly in love with a new computer model, and set themselves the challenge of seeing just how far it could go, helped along by a complex technological demonstration. What better solution than making an interactive application into a game? Spacewar!, which involves two vessels in combat around a black hole was a genuine technological challenge. Designed by researchers and engineers, the game set out to respect the laws of gravity and the constellations of stars as closely as possible. It required technological and digital optimisation before it could be presented to a wider audience, but the game was a resounding success at universities.

Then came the businesspeople, the development of home consoles by American television manufacturers – with Magnavox in pole position – and the creation of the first company entirely dedicated to video games: Atari. But that is another story [5].

🎵 A computer room in the 1950s.
This time throw on a little Pierre Henry to get you in the mood.

The opening pages of Supercade remind readers that video games were invented by technophiles and enthusiasts. Computers were still the stuff of dreams and had only recently emerged in a few gigantic metal cupboards. Digital technology had not yet invaded people’s daily lives and was still a vast and unexplored landscape. Data belonging to thousands of people had not yet been tapped by the first IBM systems and had not yet raised any questions about our reliance on bytes and the impact of databases on our society and our daily lives [6].

Supercade also recalls that these precursors were the first in a line of enthusiasts who founded the entire video game industry: coders, for the most part, learning to master all the mysteries of a processor. Learning to optimise displays and sometimes seeing video games as art more than a source of business: a technological challenge and sometimes a new form of expression.

Come on out from the mists of time, let’s get back to the present!

We are now living in a time of both techno-hysteria and techno-skepticism.

If there were just one symbolic image of the technological boom at play in our society right now, wouldn’t it be this 5G antenna?

Techno-hysteria because the issue we have is that we’re putting technology everywhere. Our love affair with technology is all about digital-solutionism. There are digital solutions for everything: managing certificates [7], composting waste [8], reporting uncivil behaviour [9], turning on your boiler [10] and shortly, managing your driving in partnership with your insurance company [11]. Some of the field’s heavyweights are even studying the possibility of creating technology trees to absorb the excess CO₂ we produce [12], a ridiculous situation that shows we have come full circle.

“Yes, there is an app for that too!”

Techno-skepticism because, given the race towards the ultimate technology – which brings to mind the greatest inventions of the cyberpunk world [13] (in French) – criticism has never been so rife. And given the plethora of video surveillance and people-tracking schemes, given the influence of advertising agencies on our online lives [14] and given GAFA’s hold on our society as a whole [15], both economically and technologically, this criticism is often well founded. We are hearing more voices, our analysis is more refined and our thought processes are evolving in the face of what the 2010s sold us as the digital panacea. The wake-up call to techno-skepticism can be compared with the ecological wake-up call of the 1970s [16], but let’s hope that it has a much faster and more concrete impact.

Have you ever dreamt of endless multicoloured bouncing balls on a screen, just like the good old demos by Amiga?

However, this critical, pivotal and fascinating period raises a number of questions, including one that is particularly important: what happened to our dreams?

Proto-computer scientists of the 1950s dreamt about computers and how they could be used, just as Jules Verne dreamt about electricity and emerging modes of transport. They dreamt as artisans dream, concretely with their hands, and digitally by creating prototypes, experiments, demonstrations, monsters and artefacts. They weren’t dreaming of solutions. Neither Spacewar!, nor Pong nor Space Invaders were answers to any sort of problem. They simply imagined what might be possible. Once they had the technology, they tried to push it further – gratuitously, aimlessly – than it had already gone. Like many of today’s technological fantasies, video games have no goal. They were simply possible and got millions of people using their imaginations, shaking up the world of entertainment, the fledgling electronics and computer industry, and popular culture itself. It was like opening a door to a brave new world.

What has happened to those dreams?

It’s no longer fashionable to dream about technology. First of all because since the 1990s, the digital world has been infused with capitalism. People no longer explore technology just for the fun of it; we business plan, we analyse, we solutionize, we start up. The Silicon Valley Business Angels model and garage mythology have gone through this process, transforming any digital experience into a potential stumble. We’re living in the era of Start-up Nation and investments: explorers, poets, and volunteers in technology are scarce. What ever happened to ambition?

🎵 Could the Tyrell Corp building in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner from 1982 (check out the soundtrack) have been a prototype for the headquarters of Apple or Facebook?

Given the huge scale of these technical empires, you might be tempted to believe that digital technology is no longer a space for tinkerers, but a universe of gigantic corporations – think Tyrell Corp [17] and the cyberpunk universe of Blade Runner – and if there are still any geniuses out there who can design message boxes connected to Telegram [18] or magnetic jukeboxes [19], their digital hopes are soon to be dashed. Maybe because those digital dreams have exposed too many dark sides – societal, ecological, cognitive – and maybe after a period of enchantment there is always a period of disillusionment? Perhaps also because the digital world is an easy target in times of crisis – health, ecological, economic – and if we have to discourage children from dreaming of flying off in an aeroplane, why don’t we also stop them from dreaming of robots?

Are we still dreaming of electric sheep?

The technophiles of the sixties, the researchers and the industrialists who worked on and discovered the possibilities of gigantic computer systems in universities and state laboratories, created – not entirely in spite of themselves – a powerful counterculture which spread all around the world. More artistic, freer, and somewhat more responsible, the hippie wave of the 1970s emerged in part as a reaction to the American way of life and to the debauchery of screens – television screens this time – of middle America. And because nothing is ever simple, the wave used technology to share its principles, move boundaries and publicise its claims. The screens of established networks also became the megaphones for the counterculture and a medium used by the artists of the sixties and seventies to experiment and express themselves. Technology became a means for activism, a weapon for change. Of course, there is much more to it than that.

Could the next fad be anti-facial recognition make-up?

We now feed our dreams with other ideas. And these ideas, while not ruling out technological tools completely, are no longer dominated by digital. We talk about urban recycling [20] (in French), new ways of getting around; we talk about how to protect our anonymity on the internet [21] (in French), about revolutionising the world of clothing and making the ecologically disastrous concept of fast fashion a thing of the past [22]. We also, and most importantly, talk about how we can adapt our innovations to cope with the ecological and societal challenges we are now facing, without having to sacrifice our entire lives to technology.

It is difficult to shake off over 120 years of technology lauding. Let’s be clear, it’s not about becoming Amish – nobody is even considering that political caricature [23] (in French). But it’s tough to deny that our dreams are changing, and that the Covid-19 pandemic that has wreaked havoc within humanity for over a year has undoubtedly put some urgency into our readiness for something different.

It’s a tempting parallel. Twenty years after the first Internet bubble and after more than ten years of techno-worship, might we be building a new counterculture based on social media and open technology?

Is circular town planning the new community dream? Is our fight against surveillance a new way of refusing government control? Even though these issues now concern the whole world, and each of us individually, and even though the ecological emergency is far more pressing now than it was 50 years ago, the parallels are pretty disturbing, and the repetition of an action-reaction cycle is obvious. We might not be the new Amish, but we may well be the new hippies. But these hippies aren’t denying the contribution made by technology. They play around with it and know – sometimes – how to use it safely. And this time, rather than simply exploring what it can do, we want to find out its “human” limits and reflect on how it can contribute meaningfully to our society.

The creators of Tennis for Two and Spacewar! dreamt of pure technology and wanted to push machines to their limits. They saw themselves as explorers of a new technological world. The generation that built the internet of the 2000s is undoubtedly the last to have shared this purely technological dream.

The geodesic dome: a symbol of utopias in the sixties.
What symbol do we have today?

We now need to rethink our ideas and ambitions.

Over the last sixty years, we have witnessed exactly what technology can do, and the slippery slopes it can create. We have mastered computers, but we probably aren’t wise enough to master how we use them. The challenge facing the hippies of the modern world is how to stop creating technology for its own sake. How to recentre the digital revolution around human beings. How to give the Earth centre stage as well, and build tools and designs that will benefit this change of direction.

We no longer have the imaginations of explorers. We are drowning in technology, dreaming of a way to re-inhabit the world – and we’re right to seek help from machines when they are positive, responsible and non-alienating.

And there is still some good news in all this: we haven’t stopped dreaming.

// Translated from French by Ruth Simpson

COVID-19 has changed the world as we knew it and turned everything on its head. Uncertainty, fear and isolation, threats to health, unforeseeable economic developments as well as restrictions on our personal freedom and freedom of movement are just a few aspects that the global pandemic has had – and will continue to have in the foreseeable future. These far-reaching changes to our lives can also be observed in the way that media has been consumed over the past months, especially on the digital platforms: online shops and live streams have been positively booming and news portals have experienced the kind of traffic that they haven’t seen in a very long time. The global restrictions in the offline world sent people to the world wide web in their droves. COVID-19 has changed the world as we knew it and turned everything on its head. Uncertainty, fear and isolation, threats to health, unforeseeable economic developments as well as restrictions on our personal freedom and freedom of movement are just a few aspects that the global pandemic has had – and will continue to have in the foreseeable future. COVID-19 has changed the world as we knew it and turned everything on its head. Uncertainty, fear and isolation, threats to health, unforeseeable economic developments as well as restrictions on our personal freedom and freedom of movement are just a few aspects that the global pandemic has had – and will continue to have in the foreseeable future. These far-reaching changes to our lives can also be observed in the way that media has been consumed over the past months, especially on the digital platforms: online shops and live streams have been positively booming and news portals have experienced the kind of traffic that they haven’t seen in a very long time. The global restrictions in the offline world sent people to the world wide web in their droves.

And even though a lot of people spent the first few weeks and months mostly hunkering down in their own four walls, this crisis created a new sense of togetherness. A new ‘we’ that manifested itself not only but predominantly in the social media. And with that, Facebook, Instagram, etc., got back to doing what they had originally set out to do: bringing people all over the world together and giving them the opportunity to interact and network. A wonderful idea that seems to have fallen by the wayside in recent years in the relentless pursuit of clicks, likes and sales.

But due to coronavirus-related contact restrictions and the resulting social isolation of huge swathes of the global population, the intensity of social media use has risen sharply. In a survey, 18 percent of Germans over the age of 18 admitted that they were using Facebook more during lockdown; and Instagram saw even more of a significant growth among 48 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds.* People were increasingly turning to the social web to find out about and discuss the daily news and to keep in touch with others. And – in later phases of the lockdown – to seek distraction and diversion, to take care of others or to show solidarity.

But this new approach to using social media actively and passively was not the product of a smooth and gradual evolution. From the time the first cases were reported in Germany to the lockdown and the ‘new normal’, people’s usage behaviour changed – and can be divided into five phases:

Phase 1: News, news, news – what’s happening out there?

“Stay home, stay safe.” This slogan defined the first weeks of lockdown like no other. The police patrolled the streets of big cities, blaring warnings through loudspeakers and instructing citizens to stay inside their homes and only leave in urgent cases. The disconcerting feeling of an invisible threat began to spread – and raised a multitude of questions: Is my city also badly affected? Just how contagious is the virus really? Am I allowed to leave my home to go food shopping? What happens if I need to go for a test? Do I need a mask, or is it best not to wear one? In the initial phase of the lockdown, news websites and the accounts of official authorities experienced an unprecedented boom. Facebook – which has long since morphed from the original ‘book of friends’ into a digital newsfeed – also profited here. And what better place to post teasers on a situation that was changing by the hour than Twitter, where, for example, the German Ministry of Health’s account increased its number of followers to almost 200,000 – with no advertising or promotion at all.

Phase 2: In search of community

In phase 2, a lot of brands used the social web in a very different way, forcing classic advertising to take a back seat for the first time. Brands were putting more of a focus on content that either added value for people, promoted a sense of community or made lockdown life easier.

One example of this was the activities instigated by numerous health and fitness brands: regular live sessions with top trainers via Instagram brought the gym into our homes – and gave us a feeling that we were being active together, despite the many contact restrictions in place.**

And even celebrities were committed to getting fitter, despite being in lockdown. Under the hashtag #StayAtHomeChallenge, the internet community shared their most creative ideas for exercising at home – including famous football players like Jérôme Boateng and superstar Neymar.

German supermarket chain Penny***, on the other hand, chose to focus on solidarity and community. Facebook became a place to recruit fruit pickers to help fill the shortage of workers from abroad, to organise help and grocery shopping for elderly neighbours within apartment buildings and to call for applause for key workers, the “everyday heroes” of the pandemic.

Keine Fotobeschreibung verfügbar.

Many brands used this new field of action on the social web to raise their own brand profile and position themselves for the time after the pandemic. The tired notion of “creating purpose” is given a new lease of life in times of crisis. It’s all about attitude, about solidarity, about being part of the community as a brand – and using the power of your own reach for the common good. And anyone who acted smartly here stood themselves in good stead.

The brands’ actions were observed very closely by consumers. Companies that were only acting in their own interests, that were searching for legal loopholes in the new legislation, or that simply carried on advertising regardless were penalised without hesitation. Like several major retailers, for example, who announced their intention to defer rent payments for their store premises in order to remain solvent in spite of coronavirus-related closures. A decision that had serious consequences: customers appealed online for boycotts of their products and a huge backlash erupted on the brands’ social media profiles. This caused some of the companies to backtrack and announce that they would be paying their private landlords after all – but the damage to their image, on the social web in particular, was already done.

Phase 3: Escapism

“Can we talk about something else, please?” After a while, this sentence started cropping up more and more often in conversations. A completely normal reaction in times of crisis: people accept the things they cannot influence, and long for normality and some semblance of everyday life in a world gone strange. While at the beginning we devoured the news, reading every article on all relevant news portals and looking forward to the next applauding of frontline workers, phase 3 of the crisis was defined by a desire for distraction, which people hoped to find in their social media newsfeed. Amusing videos of dogs over the moon that their beloved owners were now at home with them all day proved particularly popular. Users were also taking photos of empty toilet roll shelves in supermarkets and collectively wondering why yeast was flying off the shelves. And something else was new: for the first time we were acknowledging the crisis with humour. Countless memes about piling on lockdown kilos or recipe tips for the best banana loaf started doing the rounds. The popular hashtag #coronahaircut showed the failed attempts at replacing a visit to the salon by reaching for the kitchen scissors at home****. In the first two months alone, there were more than 8,000 posts under the hashtag on Instagram.

Phase 4: Fake news on the rise

But this increased consumption of social media soon also revealed the dark underbelly of these platforms. Nowhere else can conspiracy theories be spread, distrust fuelled, or fake news proliferated better than on social media. Very early on, the spread of the global virus was accompanied by rumours and fake news, with the WHO even issuing warnings about an “infodemic” of misinformation.

Facebook announced that it was seeing a “significant rise in the number of forwarded messages, which could also contribute to the spread of misinformation”. As a response to this, they promptly limited WhatsApp’s forward function for frequently shared posts in chat groups. Users could also send news items to a kind of fact-checker organisation to determine how much truth they contained.

In May, Twitter also reacted, after the fake news reports started getting out of hand. “Tweets with contents that are deemed by experts to be misleading or factually incorrect and that could cause harm to people will be deleted*****,” announced the company. In the future, contents will have to be clearly identified with a trustworthy source in order to pass the test.

But the battle against fake news is far from being won: telling the difference between fake news and genuine news – even today, many months after the lockdown – is one of the most important challenges faced by platform operators, news portals, but also consumers of news.

Phase 5: The new sense of unity?

New forms of digital communities, cooperations and collaborations are popping up everywhere and giving us a warm and fuzzy feeling. We are organising Facebook groups to help people in the community, using WhatsApp groups to arrange music performances for the healthcare workers in hospitals and posting our own encouraging statements on Instagram while calling on our followers to do the same.

People living on a street of terraced houses in the German town of Bamberg released their own personal rendition of “Bella Ciao” to provide comfort and show solidarity to the people of Italy, who were hit especially hard by the pandemic. Under the hashtag #nachbarschaftschallenge (#neighbourhoodchallenge) on Twitter, users in Germany called on others to support the elderly or ill by doing their grocery shopping or running other errands for them.

And if we were to examine the number of times the phrase “thank you” cropped up in social media, we would see a significant increase from February to March. We have been thanking people in care professions, doctors and nurses, supermarket employees – or just the friendly neighbour who did our shopping for us.

So the new ‘we’ is all the rage right now. A social togetherness in a time in which everyone seems to have the same invisible enemy, an enemy that doesn’t differentiate between men and women, poor and rich, white and black. This is uniting us and making us feel a very strong sense of solidarity. But how sustainable is this new culture? Will this solidarity also remain after the acute crisis – once we have got used to the ‘new normal’ and have returned to our busy everyday lives?

If we take a well-known example from Jean-Paul Sartre’s work “Critique de la raison dialectique” (Critique of Dialectical Reason), there are justified doubts: the book tells the story of a group of people who wait for the same bus every day. Always the same people in the same place at the same time. They don’t speak to each other, each of them waiting on their own. They don’t even acknowledge each other. But then one day the bus doesn’t come. For the first time, the people have to reach out: they take action, get creative, offer help – and work together to find a solution. If we take this story a little further, we inevitably have to ask ourselves the question: what will happen when everything gets back to normal, when the bus departs at its regular time again the following day?

It is definitely possible that this sense of community will last, that the newfound bond with family, friends and neighbours will remain. And social media could play a significant role in maintaining some of that, or at least a friendly greeting at the bus stop in the morning or a helping hand getting on the bus. Because these media offer virtual spaces for interaction in a time when collective action in a traditional sense is not (yet) possible. Social media have a huge influence on how we experience our everyday life – they open up opportunities for shared experiences with people, regardless of whether we know them or not. And in times of crisis, such experiences take on an enormous significance. They stabilise us and give us support – and allow us to look more optimistically towards the future. So what are we waiting for? Let’s make the most of this opportunity!

This article first appeared in TWELVE, the Serviceplan Group’s magazine for brands, media and communication. In the seventh issue, you will find further inspiring articles, essays and interviews by and with prominent guest authors and renowned experts centred around the magazine’s theme “Rethink!”. The e-paper is available here.

* Source: MEDIAPLUS | Insights.​ Question text: To what extent has your media usage changed as a result of the coronavirus?

** Source: Foodspring on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/foodspring

*** Source: Penny on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/PennyDeutschland/

**** Source: #coronahaircut on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/explore/tags/coronahaircut

***** Source: https://blog.twitter.com/en_us/topics/product/2020/updating-our-approach-to-misleading-information.html

#RIP Flash (1996 - 2020)

Macromedia, oops sorry, Adobe Flash, took its leave from the digital scene at the very beginning of 2021 [1]. And nobody took much notice.

Since the release of the first iPhone in 2007, which couldn’t run websites using Flash, the software development platform began losing its appeal. Flash just never quite managed to join the mobile revolution. It was able to survive for 10 years on some professional interfaces and entertaining websites but was replaced by HTML 5.0 and the almost endless possibilities afforded by style sheets. Flash was like those ageing actors who – you’re surprised to learn – turn out not to be immortal after all [2]. Come to think of it, you hadn’t realised they were still alive anyway…

But its impact is hardly negligible. When it comes to the internet, there is clearly a pre- and a post-Flash. The exciting revolution sparked by Macromedia/Adobe (its creators) became a damp squib amid an online world gleaming with social media.

The Flash revolution

If you weren’t around during the dinosaur years, it might be useful to go over a potted history of the ways that Flash revolutionised the internet user’s experience. The original web – in the 1990s – was all about text. And even though the first HTML standards obviously provided the option of using images, it’s worth remembering – misty-eyed – that the logic of organising content and shapes was originally based more on typewriters rather than the works of the Old Masters, or even television. People wrote, inserted tables, included images to illustrate points and, with a little practice, made it all look slicker with style sheets. Interactivity on the Web 1.0 was about links leading from one page to another, sometimes with rollover animations popping up with the help of a burgeoning program known as JavaScript.

When Macromedia Flash arrived in 1996, and especially when it was developed further from 1999, it opened new horizons in web development. Flash brought content inspired by the world of educational and encyclopaedic CD-ROMs, rather than internet sites. With Flash, people started thinking in terms of screen layout rather than page layout. Graphics ruled supreme, information was visual, and interactivity extended to the development of simple game routines. Flash’s big brother was Macromedia Director [3], an essential software program used in many multimedia studios in the 1990s to show works from of the Louvre Museum [4], depict great battles from history or reveal the mysteries of Machu Picchu.

Flash liberated the internet from the shackles of linear progression. Images could be displayed on a wide screen, shapes were easy to shift, interactivity was the holy grail. Flash made using the internet into a game-changing multimedia experience. All this happened long before YouTube and cartoons were available online, you might even remember the Badgers [5], the Leekspin Song [6] or Viking Kittens [7]. The internet became a playground – Yetisports, a cruel parody of the Winter Olympic Games, has since been redeveloped in other formats [8] (in French).

Flash was groundbreaking for developers too. The internet was no longer restricted to a secret sect of coders and web developers; it began opening up to graphic designers and animators. A whole new caste of digital workers brought a graphic touch to the internet that it would not have had otherwise. It’s difficult to remember, but Flash went some way to turning the internet into a medium in its own right. No mean feat.

Where are the interfaces of yesteryear?

But revolutions don’t last forever. Flash – the emancipator of online narration and interactivity – was powerless in the face of the mighty mobile. Partly because ironically, Flash was slow going; its plug-ins were slow and maddening, but they were worth it! And partly for security reasons. Yes, Flash did have some flaws, and hackers had no qualms in copying how it worked to get into Internet users’ PCs. The other reasons for its failure were political.

Adobe Flash, which published Adobe software, bought Macromedia in 2005, and decided to kill Flash on 31 December 2020. And on 12 January 2021, all the browsers on the market – Chrome, Firefox and Safari in the lead – stopped supporting old versions of the system and doomed an entire chapter in the history of the internet to oblivion [9]. Of course, many development frameworks using a variety of different technologies now allow users to create web interfaces similar to those of yesteryear, as well as even faster, more stable and more standardised interfaces. But the taste for innovation and quirkiness that drove the growth of Adobe seems to have faded from our screens.

Social media have democratised scrolling, making the thumb scan almost the only interface available on mobile screens. From Instagram to Twitter, from Facebook to LinkedIn, we scroll endlessly [10]… and while the story format temporarily shook up editorial lines, it was soon picked up by one platform then another (Instagram, then Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, etc. [11]), which meant we were back to scrolling. In the end, stories simply made the vertical movement a horizontal action.

And on computer screens, the dominance of WordPress and other CMS – Shopify, Wix, Drupal [12]has led to the emergence of standardised graphics interfaces, with best practices in UX and digital performance.

A pessimist would perhaps claim that the latest ‘innovation’ in Web interfaces is the swipe [13], a way of accepting or refusing a contact that was pioneered by Tinder in 2012 – eight years ago already – and has now been replicated on media websites [14] (in French). Other than that, creativity seems to be a thing of the past.

Creativity has left the building

And yet, today’s internet provides creators with an opportunity to develop rich and complex interfaces, which are sometimes the only way of really presenting a subject in all its complexity. These experiments do exist, but they rarely seem to reach the public.

Over the past few years, the New York Times Lab has been developing advanced know-how on innovative interfaces and web documentaries. The most obvious and most popular example is undoubtedly the full analysis published in the summer of 2020 on the explosion in the port of Beirut [15]. On a single page, the American daily used techniques as diverse as video editing, time-lapse and 3D computer graphics to explain the causes and consequences of a major event to its readers. It created a media mix that the Flash developers of the 2000s would have admired. The New York Times is a pioneer in infographic representation and often publishes information on a specific website [16]. It uses photos, videos, and even virtual reality to great effect in what ideally will be one of the prototypes for the online future.

In France, the interfaces designed by L’Atelier, the intelligence and innovation unit at BNP Paribas [17] (in French), are more wonderful examples. In these spaces, form and substance come together to project internet users into a theme and teach them about the virtual economy [18] or the technological challenges of the future [19]. As with the New York Times, the message is perfectly tailored and presented. It undoubtedly testifies to the existence of a genuine cyberculture, an inventiveness and a creativity which draws inspiration from the digital world, cybernetics and science fiction.

These examples show that with Flash a thing of the past, we can still hope for a creative and multimedia-focused internet.

Getting innovation back online

While some people want to paint a picture of a digital future in which virtual reality and voice commands will have replaced computer screens, and – with the impact of lockdown – in which the internet and its various interfaces still play a key role in our lives, maybe it’s time to return some of Flash’s creativity onto our web pages.

Creativity that surprises, draws the eye to further content, contributes something more than endless social media threads and nourishes its audience with information in an alternative way.

Why don’t we bring innovation back online and make the web that bit more exciting?

— Translated from French by Ruth Simpson

Digital Sunrise, 2021, l'année du numérique positif

When January comes around, it’s time to take stock and make resolutions. Time to look back at what has happened over the past few months, what trends there have been, what aspirations. Time to start making resolutions for the coming year and drawing up a to-do list of ways to build what you hope will be a brighter future.

2020, a year of hysteria

We’re not going to go back over the year that brought us Covid-19. The pandemic affected the daily lives and habits of the entire world. The boundaries between home and work were whittled down to nothing, companies pushed digital to the extreme, and made click & collect and zoom party experts of us all. We had no choice: 2020 was a year of digital hysteria. Never has so much time been spent on Netflix, never have people sent so many messages, shared so many photos, broadcast so much data. Western societies have never been more connected, dependent on smartphones, screens and data. And the images beamed to us from Chinese experiments clearly announce that the journey to digitalisation is far from over.

There are some positives, and some not so positives about the hurtling momentum of digitalisation. Digital tools have allowed us to keep in touch with loved ones or colleagues during periods of isolation. They have enabled some people to keep working from home and maintain a stable income. They have also shown their increasingly important role in calling out injustice and raising hopes. Let’s not forget that after 2019’s #MeToo movement, 2020 was the year of #BlackLivesMatter, an initiative whose size and thrust would not have been possible without digital tools, cameras, social media channels and their ability to amplify voices [1]. But no clear success has been pinpointed as a result of this movement.

And 2020 was also an unfortunate year for digital tools. Social media – with Facebook in the lead – tightened its grip, and attempts to regulate the content and advertising monster continued to fail, clearing the path for extremism and manipulation. The immediacy of social media has continued to shape the landscape of other media as well, sometimes casting aside the reason and perspective that is required for life in a peaceful society. The rhetoric of technological solutionism is still relevant – including in politics [2] – despite the failures of the Smartcity models in Toronto and Songdo. And finally, the ecological footprint of digital tools in 2020 is larger than ever, while the climate issue is becoming more and more urgent.

Like other years of hysteria, 2020 forced us to swing back and forth between crises and hopes from month to month, finally leaving us with a complex takeaway: we won’t ever look back on this digital society, it will be with us for a long time to come; but right now people have no choice but to learn how it is abused, so that everyone – in their own way – can fight against it.

2021, a year of responsibility

Despite all that, 2021 didn’t start off too badly. The influx of news in recent weeks has been dominated by the pandemic and American politics. But in some speeches, we are starting to hear about the first actions that are going to be taken to fight the ambient hysteria.

These actions are both legal and political. In December, 46 US states filed a complaint against Facebook for its monopoly position [3]. The European Commission seems to want to toughen up on GAFA tax policies [4]. At the start of the year, Google workers founded the first union in the company’s history [5]. And finally, for the first time in four years, Facebook and Twitter suspended Donald Trump’s accounts following the events at the U.S. Capitol on 6 January.

The signs do point towards a responsible digital year for 2021. Responsible in terms of the impact of digital on our daily lives, our opinions and our relationships with others. Responsible in terms of the role these tools play in our lives. But the year will only be truly responsible if all digital professionals – and they are growing in number – also take action to promote digital positivity.

5 principles for digital positivity

Why talk about this issue when we’re a digital design agency? Being a stakeholder in the digital ecosystem now means being either an instrument for hysteria or a provider of solutions. Each agency, each digital player in 2021 will have to choose how it wants to create this positive digital world that we all want.

We know the impact of digital on our society and the world around us. As we develop digital tools, at Plan.Net we are committed to respecting 5 principles for digital positivity:

  1. Stop thinking in terms of users – faceless personas who have come to dominate our methodologies – but rather in terms of human beings who are exposed to and impacted, sometimes indirectly, by the tools we design.
  2. Consider and act upon the ecological impact of what we do and how we do it, and reduce that impact as soon as possible.
  3. Design an open, accessible and interoperable digital world, which considers the special ways in which each person uses it, and leaves space for freeware and offline alternatives for people who want them.
  4. Stop thinking that digital is the only solution to every problem and find ways of offering tools that fulfill a purpose and are sometimes simpler and less harmful to the environment.
  5. Never stop thinking positively about digital tools – in line with the desire to disseminate and build as professional internet pioneers – while remaining aware of its limits and harmful effects.

It is 2021, and we can still be proud that we work in a digital agency and make our – modest – contribution to building a fairer, more inclusive and truly useful digital world.

That’s what being a positive digital agency is all about.

Translated from French by Ruth Simpson

The global Coronavirus Pandemic has slowed the german economy down, which has been accompanied by massive sales losses for large parts of the retail trade. Even the slow easing of regulations will not lead to a short-term recovery in the economic situation of many companies. In this situation, online trade has not only been able to prove itself as an alternative sales channel, but has also emerged from its shadowy digital existence. The new circumstances continue to offer great opportunities for digital marketing.

Paid Media plays an outstanding role in addressing the right target groups. As experts in the field of performance marketing, we have identified the most important developments and trends for you by analysing our customer campaigns on the channels Google Search, Google Display Network (GDN) and YouTube. All statements refer to paid search, as they usually have a consumption-related background.

Our findings do not take place in a vacuum: In recent weeks, customers have already reacted to the altered situation by reducing or increasing their budgets; the same applies to the competition. These effects are reflected in the analysis as well as adapted user behavior.

Google Search:

With the start of the lockdown and consequent restrictions on leaving the house, impressions of paid search ads across our cross-industry client portfolio declined by an average of 29 percent. It was not until the first week of April that we saw a resurgence. One explanatory approach is that the consumer behaviour of consumers had clearly clouded over from the first days of the strict Coronavirus lockdown measures. This was because the volume of brand-related and transactional search queries in particular had fallen significantly. Informational searches on the nature and course of the pandemic have occupied people more than consumption.

After just under two weeks, however, an initial recovery in demand can be observed. The online search is thus also a good indicator of the increased need for information in society. As a result of the falling demand while competition remained the same or perhaps even increased, click prices rose significantly in mid/late March. In April, the CPC already dropped again significantly as some advertisers temporarily reduced their budgets. This dynamic will continue until the market situation is clarified. However, this will only delay the long-term trend towards rising click prices on Google.

Another special feature that we were able to observe in our analyses is that, although the majority of all searches are still generated from mobile devices, the share of desktop searches has risen significantly from February to March compared to February. This is probably related to the increased use of laptop and desktop devices in the home office. In our experience, desktop searches convert better than mobile requests, so here too is an advantage in terms of campaign success that should not be underestimated.

When considering demographic factors, it is noticeable that the aforementioned decline in search demand was significantly lower for women than for men. The female target group still has more consumer wishes, which are also in demand during the Coronavirus epidemic.

With regard to the age demographic, the picture is not very surprising: While young users aged between 18 and 24 years show practically no change in the intensity of use, demand in the oldest segment of users aged between 45 and 64 years has fallen by almost a third. As a rule of thumb, therefore, the higher the age of the target group, the more pronounced the fluctuations in search behaviour.

Google Display Network (GDN) / YouTube:

The development in the GDN stands in stark contrast to the development in wanted ads. Impressions on display ads in the Google Ad Universe have increased significantly with the beginning of the pandemic, by an average of 37 percent since mid-March. The still high interaction on GDN campaigns can be used very well for advertisers, since at the same time the prices in this channel fell clearly, partly by 50 per cent.

YouTube is also one of the big winners of the crisis. On the one hand, the audience has become larger and the time spent on the world’s second largest search engine has increased, while on the other hand, CPTs have fallen to new lows since mid-March.

Recommendation:

Search continues to distinguish itself as the medium through which users actively disclose their needs. It is therefore more relevant than ever before, and is as indispensable a channel during the crisis as it is afterwards. Many advertisers have already adapted to the decline in paid reach and changed their strategy accordingly. But often this happens on sight, campaigns are stopped, paused and restarted. If hard campaign targets such as sales or KUR can no longer be achieved, we recommend temporarily considering alternative targets. With a focus on lead generation, valuable data can be collected now and used at a later date. Vouchers are another option for securing future sales today. Now is also the right time to advertise products and services that require explanation and to offer comprehensive virtual advice. As a brand, you remain in a position to build up a portfolio effect, i.e. to pick up and inform consumers even without sales. Because demand is still there and wants to be served over the coming months of the new normality.

The coronavirus crisis not only creates losers, but also some winners: online retailers and delivery services in particular, as well as online platforms for tutoring, fitness or cooking are all currently experiencing a massive sales boost. Social distancing is shifting both shopping and communication even more towards digital, which offers great opportunities for providers of such online services. However, even German SMEs that have found themselves in crisis, should perceive this as a digitalization push and initiate the necessary, in some cases long overdue transformation processes.

What does that mean in concrete terms? What steps should companies now take to digitalize their product portfolio and compensate for lost sales? Both B2C and B2B companies have a range of e-commerce measures available to them that make sense in the current situation.

In the B2C sector, action must now be taken quickly.

1. Discounts as an effective means.

Massive discount battles can currently be observed in the B2C sector. In the fashion industry especially, suppliers are currently trying to get rid of their seasonal goods. In addition, price reductions are also ensuring the liquidity that is urgently needed at the moment. The highest possible surcharge can be achieved with the right support through special newsletters and an increased and effective use of social media.

2. Through interactive features directly at the customer.

Keyword: Social Media. If a certain type of customer communication has been given a major boost as a sales channel during the crisis, then it is interactive features such as live chats and sales via live streaming that are most effective. These should definitely be integrated into the e-commerce strategy. The case of the Chinese cosmetics brand Forest Cabin, whose sales had slumped by 90 percent, shows what a great opportunity this offers. After a radical change of strategy with live streaming as the central sales channel, not only were all previous losses made up for, but just two weeks after the initiative was launched, the daily sales of the previous year were exceeded.

3. Digitalising loyalty systems.

Another tool that can be easily digitized are the well-known loyalty systems. For example, a well-known German perfumery chain has over 44 million loyalty cards on the market. These are well suited for contacting and retaining customers during the crisis. This applies in particular to older customers, whose willingness to use digital loyalty programs is significantly higher due to the crisis.

4 Exploiting the online marketplaces boom.

It’s well-publicized that Amazon, Alibaba and Co. are the big winners of the crisis in terms of increased market share. And others can also profit from this. These marketplaces should now be used as (additional) sales channels to take advantage of the current boom in digital marketplaces for their own business.

The Crisis as Digitalization Excellorator

Typically, transformations in B2B business are somewhat slower and are not implemented as quickly as in B2C. However, due to the massive impact that the Coronavirus crisis is also having on B2B companies, rapid action is now also required. The following four points are particularly important and effective.

1. Move Customer Services personnel to Home Office.

Customer services such as call centers and sales services must be made fit for the home office in order to continue to offer all necessary customer services and to be able to generate new business digitally. The fastest possible implementation is crucial here, since such services are needed at all times and this transformation is complex and extensive.

2.Digitalization of the Customer Journey,

The entire customer journey is currently shifting to online business, also in the B2B sector. As a result, all companies whose business model was primarily or even exclusively offline now have to invest more than ever in building their own service platform. This is the only way they can absorb the losses in offline business through online trading.

3.Agile working methods are more efficient than ever.

The crisis requires faster action, and budgets are now only planned in the short term and screened several times. To meet these requirements, agile working methods are a very good tool. A joint sprint every 14 days to redefine what is important facilitates an effective response to all eventualities and developments.

4.Sufficient server capacity is the A&O.

However, implementing all these measures is of little use if the website or even the web shop collapses during a run on your own sales platform. It is therefore extremely important to ensure sufficient server capacity and performance, either in-house or with an external service provider.

Companies that have already implemented some of these measures before the crisis are currently finding it easier to master them. However, the crisis mode in which our economy is currently operating should be seen as an opportunity to make up for lost time or to build on the digitalization steps taken so far. It is now more important than ever to implement the above-mentioned measures and to perceive this crisis as a catalyst and accelerator, because those who take the right steps now can emerge stronger from it.

The Coronavirus crisis currently poses challenges to many areas of business, but also creates new opportunities. In the Serviceplan Group’s first live session of the webinar titled “Acting Successfully in the Corona Crisis”, Verena Letzner, Managing Director of Plan.Net NEO, presented her analysis of the effects of the crisis on social media. In her expert article, she looks at the current situation in Germany and explains what questions brands should ask themselves now, and why it is worthwhile to take a look at the situation in China.

The use of social media platforms, from Messenger and video platforms to classic social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and others, has risen significantly. Due to the lockdown and social contact restrictions in Germany and the resulting social distancing, people increasingly use the Social Web to inform themselves, discuss and get in touch with others – including brands. This creates opportunities for brands to strengthen their market position sustainably during the crisis, however the procedure brands follow in order to do so is important. Only those brands that make a helpful contribution now will become part of the conversation and have the ability to emerge from the crisis stronger.

1. Improve people’s situation

Brands should create an offering on the Social Web that adds value to the many people who currently must stay at home. Brands can support important areas of life such as sports, health and education through their offerings, or create alternatives for activities that are restricted or completely forbidden during the lockdown phase, such as eating out together, shopping and maintaining physical social contacts.

2. Have a purpose and radiate optimism

Currently, the “Time with brands” is in a peak phase, which means that users engage more with brands on the Social Web than usual. For brands, it is important to use this time to authentically place values such as solidarity, community, care, trust and optimism at the centre of their communication, thereby increasing their brand capital in the long term.

3. Benefit from changes in media usage

Due to the withdrawal of many advertisers from the paid social sector, the advertising pressure and the competition for placements is currently decreasing. Therefore, it can be especially useful for brands to buy cheap advertising space or to get more reach for the same budget.

Five questions that brands should ask themselves now

In order to exploit the potential of social media during the Coronavirus crisis, brands now have to urgently address the question of a strong and relevant social media strategy. The following five questions provide a guideline:

  1. What role can social media play for my brand in the communication mix during the Coronavirus crisis?
  2. How do I deal with my community in times of crises?
  3. Which channels are the right ones for me?
  4. How can I establish a performance-oriented social media approach and invest my budget effectively?
  5. How do I measure my success ­– during and after the crisis?

A look towards China – Looking ahead

An interesting question is certainly what happens as soon as the lockdown in Germany eases. It is worth looking at China, where the crisis and its effects are ahead of European countries. In China, too, the social media use of various services and platforms increased significantly during the lockdown, and the personal exchange that usually takes place in shops, such as product or purchasing advice, shifted to the Social Web.

And after the lockdown phase? Social media use in China has remained high, only the daily usage time has decreased slightly again. In a survey of Chinese marketers on how they would invest budgets in the future or which fields they would use more after the crisis, most of the respondents cited the social media sector.  This shows that long-term business opportunities are seen here.

Nothing motivates the advertising market quite like the search for purpose. Even the search segment, which has always been one of the central points of contact in online marketing, is now reacting to the ever-increasing demand from users for an overriding sense of purpose of the providers. In this edition of SEO News, we take a look at new search engines and why ‘search’ has always had a purpose.

A binary search for meaning with an after-taste

Purpose is the word of the hour. Artificial intelligence and voice search have been all but forgotten again, with meaning and purpose taking their place as the latest marketing vehicles. Now, therefore, a positive contribution to society should also be made in business life. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has been dealing with search engines for a while now.

Google has always wanted to organise the world’s information. Microsoft has made empowering people the mission of its Bing search engine from the very beginning. But even beyond these visions, the issue of search and purpose could not be simpler, because search engines basically have these functions: finding meaning, providing information, reducing fear, and facilitating decisions.

In return, people not only entrust their search bars, microphones and camera lenses with their innermost doubts, fears and worries, but a technologised society also transmits location and transaction data, as well as behaviour and movement patterns to tech companies in the East and West. Although data protection has also been a topic of growing attention in Germany since at least the 1987 census, paradoxically it is becoming an increasingly scarce commodity in the information society.

To put it bluntly, one could say that the digital economy, loaded with great expectations, has so far done no more than collect the personal data of billions of people by the petabyte, only to then market said data to increase the prosperity of a few.  Simply adding up the current sales of the performance advertising top dogs Google and Facebook, advertisers’ exposure to our privacy is worth around US$60 billion a quarter.

As a result, data is increasingly being privatised with private companies profiting from their sale and everyone having to take responsibility for their own protection. For this reason, the US telecommunications giant Verizon has now launched a search engine called Onesearch which, similarly to the privacy search engine DuckDuckGo, which has been established for years, is committed to special measures to protect the privacy of its users.

Meanwhile, we ignore the fact that Verizon’s corporate portfolio also includes Yahoo, the classic data-handling mother of all search engines. Besides ignoring cookies, retargeting and profiling, according to Verizon search queries are transmitted in encrypted form. As a special feature, links to search results that are stored in the browser history, for example, are deleted after an hour, and the personal search result is then no longer visible. It almost goes without saying that the search history is not saved.

While the birth of a new search engine is always a big event, despite all its well-meaning features, Onesearch will probably have already experienced the peak of its use with the press release for its launch. This is because data protection alone is not enough of a purpose for a search engine. Users are not only prepared to hand over their lives in Is and 0s to search companies, but they have learned over the past 20 years that hardly anything makes the symbiosis of humans and technology as immediately tangible as a search engine. We are fascinated by the comprehensive store of knowledge, but also surprised by helpful information about our own neighbourhood. In contrast to social networks, the negative effects of the algorithm economy on society play a secondary role in the universal search. As important as the protection of personal data is in the networked society, Google’s long-term vision of a convenience engine with comprehensively personalised information seems to be a logical response to users’ need for technological meaning.

Escaping the cold and out into the sun. Nowadays, it doesn’t matter whether you book your next winter break at the travel agency around the corner, or on your mobile phone. In January’s SEO News, we will discover how, with Google’s help, we will soon be sending ourselves jet-setting off into the distance, and why you should never underestimate supposedly harmless hoaxes.

Travel agencies – fasten your seatbelts

This column has often spoken about Google’s vision of an omnipresent machine that provides information, solutions, and comfort.  Measuring the world in entities, to provide the basis for a real-time classification of all individual sensibilities, is a project whose scope could hardly be larger. In order to be able to know and serve the needs of each and every individual, however, as a company you have to get pretty close to people.

It’s safe to say that 2019 was not an easy year for the travel industry. Not only did the insolvency of the British tour operator Thomas Cook send shock waves through the industry and cost many jobs, but “flight shame” and “overtourism” have been two social trends that have really put the brakes on growth within the sector, rather than strengthening it.

The traditional travel agency, which has for decades been the administrative headquarters of our holiday dreams, has experienced a small uptick, despite the adverse conditions. Although their numbers have been steadily declining for years, physical travel agencies have recorded a small but constant increase in turnover over the past 15 years. The reason for the success of travel agencies in the age of online bookings lies in the comprehensive, personal advice they provide and the transparency of prices and fees for customers. Both of these factors are forces that the online travel business has not yet been able to overcome. Against a background of changing travel behaviour, moving away from package tours to individual holidays, all market participants seemed to have settled down comfortably into their respective segments of the almost 800 billion US dollar global travel market.

This column has often spoken about Google’s vision of an omnipresent machine that provides information, solutions, and comfort.  Measuring the world in entities, to provide the basis for a real-time classification of all individual sensibilities, is a project whose scope could hardly be larger. In order to be able to know and serve the needs of each and every individual, however, as a company you have to get pretty close to people.

As humankind’s entirely natural digital partner, the Search channel is virtually predestined for such a venture. A large number of us think nothing of trusting the input field of a search engine with our most intimate secrets, greatest fears, and most hidden passions.  For companies, webmasters, and SEOs, though, the challenge of generating genuine value from this social potential is growing ever greater. Paid ads, answer boxes as featured snippets, and the beloved “People Also Ask” questions – each of these is displacing the classic, organic click result from the top spots on the search results page. This is the other side of Google’s metamorphosis from a gateway to a portal for all of life’s questions and situations.

Google Travel as the new gatekeeper

A golden exception to these current developments is local search. Freshly fortified with an algorithm update for better recognition of local queries, and thanks to its prominent display featuring area maps, a route planner, and user reviews, the so-called “Local Pack” is evolving into the most important piece of inventory that the search engine from Mountain View has to offer stationary trading so far. As an electronic business card, however, the Local Pack has much more to offer besides. Branch operators have the option of chatting directly with potential customers, submitting individual questions and answers, and publishing upcoming events and company news as so-called “posts”. The “Mybusiness” service continues to provide the interface for this. As time goes on, however, local interactions with real people are set to become more important for rankings, as even in local searches, spam isn’t uncommon.

But all that is about to change… After several acquisitions, iterations and experiments, Google is starting to expand its flight and hotel search into a comprehensive, personalised travel consultant and planner. The new travel search tool “Google Travel” has been live in the US since the start of the year and has received positive initial reactions  from both the press and users alike.

Bookings are still made on the travel providers’ own websites, but as a gatekeeper Google will certainly soon be monetising its dominance. Last spring, SEO veteran Rand Fishkin had alreadyexpressed his regret regarding this to the start-ups and online travel industry employees present at SMX Munich. A few months earlier, on the other side of the Atlantic, a small website called Touringbird, an individual travel planning provider, which could not even be found via organic search, was launched. As it turned out a year later, the supposed start-up was in fact an experiment by Google’s incubator, Area 120. The site, which has since been discontinued and merged with Google Travel, allowed the search giant to test the application of its wealth of data in combination with the use of artificial intelligence under market conditions.

A golden exception to these current developments is local search. Freshly fortified with an algorithm update for better recognition of local queries, and thanks to its prominent display featuring area maps, a route planner, and user reviews, the so-called “Local Pack” is evolving into the most important piece of inventory that the search engine from Mountain View has to offer stationary trading so far. As an electronic business card, however, the Local Pack has much more to offer besides. Branch operators have the option of chatting directly with potential customers, submitting individual questions and answers, and publishing upcoming events and company news as so-called “posts”. The “Mybusiness” service continues to provide the interface for this. As time goes on, however, local interactions with real people are set to become more important for rankings, as even in local searches, spam isn’t uncommon.

A recent patent shows that, in addition to online check-ins and reviews, Google also wants to incorporate offline user behaviour into its quality evaluation of local companies. According to the document, movement patterns of individual users or EXIF data from uploaded photos are to allow conclusions to be drawn about the quality and relevance of local listings. This leaves a lot of room for imagination as to how conventional SEO work at the computer may also shift into the real world in years to come. In addition to optimising website technology, structure, and content, clever strategies for obtaining good signals from offline searches are now set to be in demand as well. Before long, the free cup of coffee offered in exchange for a longer stay at the corner shop may very likely count among the modern search engine optimiser’s trusted tools.

Successful linking of different Google services

To be sure of ending the year with one more compelling overview, let’s round off the last SEO News of 2019 with a detailed look at the newest mobile phone camera to hit the market. Here we encounter a cold, electronic eye; behind it, no didactic supercomputer like the HAL 9000 of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, but instead the new addition of a search engine.   Already integrated into the current generation of Android mobile phones and driven by such enterprises as Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Pinterest, in the coming year we’ll see that the fastest connection between the user’s brain and their wallet isn’t the ear or mouth, but the eye.

Google actually laid the foundations for its development work a few years earlier with its app Google Trips, which has also now been discontinued. The result they are now presenting is a tool that combines personalised searches with historical and real-time data to offer the entire spectrum of individual travel inspiration and planning using three simple tabs.

Broken down into “Where to stay”, “When to visit” and “What you’ll pay”, at first glance all the basic questions relating to travel are presented in an easily accessible and comprehensive manner. The comprehensive and familiar information from Google’s local search for almost any location around the globe can not only be marketed within the immediate geographical area, but can now be directly monetised as added value in travel planning. The company deliberately places the transparency of the final price at the centre of its marketing communication in order to distinguish itself positively from the competition. According to a study by EMarketer, despite ecological and social headwinds, the global travel market will be reaching the trillion dollar mark in just two years’ time. This means that the pie is getting bigger, but who gets a slice is still up for grabs.

To be sure of ending the year with one more compelling overview, let’s round off the last SEO News of 2019 with a detailed look at the newest mobile phone camera to hit the market. Here we encounter a cold, electronic eye; behind it, no didactic supercomputer like the HAL 9000 of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, but instead the new addition of a search engine.   Already integrated into the current generation of Android mobile phones and driven by such enterprises as Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Pinterest, in the coming year we’ll see that the fastest connection between the user’s brain and their wallet isn’t the ear or mouth, but the eye.

The proliferation of technologies that enable open searching with the help of visual information is now also underway in Europe and North America, several years after Chinese search machines like Alibaba and Baidu first made important pioneering achievements in this area. Through advancement in the development of artificial intelligence and the gathering of ever more extensive volumes of data, it’s becoming increasingly easy for users to perform search queries that would be difficult to express assisted only by text or even speech.

The most important driver for visual search, however, will turn out to be that optimal searching is the ideal partner to e-commerce. With the launch of its visual search tool, US fashion chain Forever 21 has succeeded in increasing its average shopping cart value by approximately 20%. Inspiration portal Pinterest recently announced that around 80% of its users begin their shopping session with a visual search. The shortening of the customer journey in the young target group of 18 to 34 years is a powerful factor in the battle for online sales. Soon enough, the path from “I want” to “I have” will be just a camera click away.

From the point of view of search engine optimisation, this means it would be advisable to extend content strategies by a visual dimension, and to optimise technical deployment of picture and video files within digital assets. 2020 will not only see us experience the proliferation of visual searches, however, but also witness the first steps on the road to a multimodal search matrix consisting of text, speech, camera input, and (offline) context.  That’s why we advise you to stay on the ball, keep reading our little column, and, most importantly,  have an excellent start to the new year.

Duck Duck Go buys into Android

With almost 90% of the market share, Google’s Android dominates the smartphone operating system market worldwide. Hard-wiring your browser to your own search engine gives you quite a valuable asset. The EU’s competition watchdogs have now also realised this, imposing on Google a fine of around five billion US dollars in March 2019. In addition, the company was required to provide users with a choice of search provider when setting up their mobile device, much in the same way as Microsoft had to make alternatives to the Internet Explorer browser available in the Windows 7 operating system in 2009.

Google has now successfully fulfilled this obligation with the help of an auction, much to the disappointment of the search engines participating. Three selections were auctioned in a total of 31 EU markets. The bidding was on the click price that the third-party provider would be prepared to pay Google for each search action.

Duck Duck Go comes out on top

The result of these auctions now reflects neither the market position nor the quality of Google’s alternatives. For example, Microsoft’s successful search engine Bing was only used in the high-revenue UK. In Germany, new Android users will have the choice between the US providers Duck Duck Go, InfoSpace and GMX-Suche from Germany’s United Internet group. The search engine Duck Duck Go, which specialises in the data protection, was the biggest winner in the auction and was used immediately in all markets. Despite criticism from participating companies, this procedure has not yet been called into question by the EU. Even though the auction procedure is a proven method of ensuring fair access to a limited market, the demand for a permanent click price speaks volumes about our beloved monopolist’s understanding of the market.