Space Rocket

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

1. Viable brands are defined in three dimensions

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

2. Viable brands offer a real benefit

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

3. Viable brands are user-friendly

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

4. Viable brands communicate personally and in personalised fashion

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

5. Viable brands offer a consistent, coherent customer experience

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

SEO News

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

1) Google liberates stories format from confines of an app

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

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

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

3) Bing in favour of a balanced argument

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


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

Digitisation has arrived in society

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

The perennial favourites: VR, AR & AI

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

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

Blockchain self-awareness

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

Gaming & eSports

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

Problem children start-ups & disrupting dystopia

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

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

Away from the lectures

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

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

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

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

When the fridge suddenly starts surfing the net

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

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

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

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

“Things” become touchpoints

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

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

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

Challenges and opportunities

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

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

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

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

1. Learning more, faster

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

2. Taking on responsibility fast

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

3. Climbing the ranks faster

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

4. First movers, influencers, checkers

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

5. Integrated, overarching work

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

6. Variety as the rule

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

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

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

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

2) Voice search ranking: new study reveals first figures

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

3) Visual search on the rise

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

4) Alexa gets her own opinion

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

The quiet period before the start of a new year helps us to find peace of mind and to reflect on the fundamental questions in life before embarking on a new year full of surprises and changes. As always, there are also surprises and changes in store for the SEO landscape. Here are the SEO news for January.

1) SEO at its limit: Is there still any organic traffic growth?

Using extensive data, SEO expert Rand Fishkin has been searching for an answer to the question of whether search engines can still honour their promise to act as inexhaustible traffic sources with huge growth potential more than 20 years after the launch of Infoseek, Altavista and Lycos. Fishkin explores in detail the questions of a) whether the number of queries on Google is still growing and b) whether the volume of queries asked on landing pages outside of Google has decreased. The answer: Both. On the one hand, Google traffic is still increasing by 10 percent per year on average despite seasonal fluctuations and the increasing importance of Amazon as a starting point for transactional searches. On the other hand, the new Google search result features, such as instant answers, featured snippets and interactive knowledge panels, have ensured that approximately 23 percent less traffic found its way from Google to other websites in comparison to the same time the previous year. According to Fishkin, so far the traffic growth has still been able to make up for the loss of clicks. But even the SEO master Fishkin did not expect the results to be so revealing.

2) Google Analytics examines individual users

The free online tracking suite “Google Analytics” has had a real success story since its launch in November 2005. It is currently used by more than half of the world’s websites. The continuous development of measuring technology and graphical user interfaces were always prerequisites for Google in order for them to keep up with transforming digital marketing channels and to represent the constantly changing consumer decision journey in all its forms in the best possible way. Since mid-December, Google Analytics has expanded its features to place individual users at the centre of its analysis. This is news that will make every SEO manager happy because over the past five years, optimisation of user-related added value and the increase in relevance to the target group have caught up with the old, empirical benchmarks such as backlinks or keywords. Google Analytics is now taking this development into account by providing information on the behaviour of individual, anonymised users over the entire lifetime of their cookie. This includes all sessions, the session duration and sales or transactions. In conjunction with the now more extensively applicable target group analysis, valuable data can be gathered to create and verify search persona and demand patterns that can be used as the basis for sustainable and content-related optimisations.

3) Bing: New search features with artificial intelligence

When you think about the news on artificial intelligence and its possible applications in search engines and voice-operated assistants, Google and Amazon have dominated the headlines up to now and have demonstrated their technological capabilities in the best possible PR light. Microsoft has been relatively quiet on this front except for a few bizarre mishaps from its AI-controlled voice-operated assistant. But this is about to change. The old giant from Redmond has announced that users of the search engine Bing will get to experience an entirely new range of features in 2018 that are based on the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning. The new image search feature which recognises and categorises objects automatically has already been live since December. This should burst the much-discussed “filter bubble” in the news search feature. With the “machine reading” system, texts will not only be recognised and understood, but aspects such as the political perspective will be identified, which means that Microsoft will be able to ensure balance in their search results. According to Microsoft, another new feature will be the improved auto-complete function on the search screen in order to achieve higher search result relevance. The Windows veterans don’t want to limit the use of artificial search intelligence to Bing. Microsoft has announced their intention to implement corresponding features soon in Office products OneDrive, SharePoint and Excel. This is a route that is not available to competitor Google, and so we are anxious to see how it works.

4) Welcome! Yandex has given us Alice

If your active circle of friends becomes smaller and smaller as you get older, the prospect of virtual acquaintances is even more exciting. Over the last few years, we’ve been able to get to know Alexa (Amazon), Allo (Google), Bixby (Samsung) and Cortana (Microsoft). If you were thinking that the next voice-operated assistant would have a name starting with “D”, you’d be wrong. The Russian search engine giant Yandex has named its youngest daughter Alice (Russian: Алиса). Since the end of 2017, Alice has been providing Yandex search results, weather reports, games and nursery rhymes. Of course, Skills can also be developed for her platform. In her own words, Alice provides the most reliable recognition of the Russian language and thanks to artificial intelligence, she can automatically identify the user’s search intention. So far, however, we have only been able to meet Alice in the Yandex app, but according to the company, further products are already being planned.

By Björn Portillo, Managing Partner at hmmh

Several years ago, experts predicted the end of over-the-counter trade. That is to say, it would not be able to exist alongside online trade in this new digital world. However, this viewpoint has once again shifted as connected commerce concepts are slowly but surely taking hold. Previous online “pure players” such as or mymuesli have even set up stationary concept stores, and now find themselves in the product ranges of large retail chains. But what are the reasons behind this change, and which innovations are bringing retail back into the game?

In order to understand the “how” and “why” of this paradigm shift, we are embarking on an economic and cultural journey that will take us to the USA and China, before returning to Germany.

Packing our bags in Germany

Many companies and agencies have worked hard to promote technical development and harness innovations to simplify our day-to-day lives. Concepts for interactive consultancy solutions, as well as mobile consulting via smartphone, mobile payment or augmented and virtual reality, are well-developed enough for implementation in stores. But these opportunities are often not exploited in this country. Why is this? Is it down to retailers who ignore the potential due to traditional reasons? Or perhaps it is a scepticism of all things new and a distrust of technology itself? Are German store owners, their customers, or even both, wary of innovation?

The risk-averse, conventional German likes to carry out research and product comparisons, particularly online. The product and the context then determine where they make purchases – sometimes online, sometimes offline. A decisive factor is that they feel well-advised and well-informed, and that they are able to closely examine their desired product.

Technical hurdles and a lack of acceptance

Not only do traditional retailers need to offer a range of products that is varied and constantly available – they must also provide the right setting for brands and products in order to present these to each customer. However, attempts to implement connected commerce concepts often fall at the first hurdle – Internet access for the customers. Furthermore, the use of different systems that cannot be easily combined is another reason why retailers are often faced with such great challenges. That makes it difficult for retailers to recognise their customers, and impossible to collect relevant data, offer comprehensive advice or provide a quick and simple payment process. Except for a few individual examples.

A further challenge: although German consumers place great importance on being able to test their desired product – ideally even trying it out in a private setting – and also expect comprehensive individual consultation, they are often not willing to share their personal information.

Off to the USA

The land of opportunity – is this also the case when it comes to store innovations? If so, which developments have already taken hold? With a significantly higher population across a land area 25 times the size of Germany, it is difficult for us to sum up the average US citizen. What we can say, however, is that the average citizen is open to new things, thinks practically and is always on the lookout for a bargain. They like to use their credit card at the small business around the corner, and their thick coupon booklet is the most valuable companion when it comes to the weekly shop. Perhaps the most important drivers of innovation are the thriftiness and desire for convenience of the American people.

Ideas are tested and optimised

Every day, new concepts emerge that are aimed at giving US citizens the shopping experience that they want. At the end of 2016, Internet giant Amazon opened its Amazon Go grocery store in Seattle, where customers do not need to wait in queues or make physical payments. All thanks to a motion detection system installed in the store – the so-called “Just walk out technology”. Payments are via PayPal and the account. However, the store is closed for the time being due to technical issues with the motion detection and tracking of more than 20 customers at the same time.

Amazon Go

Amazon Go – Shopping without having to queue up at the checkout: just walk into the store, put the item in your bag and then leave. Source: Amazon

This example shows that not everything needs to go to plan first time round for innovative companies. Whereas in Germany it is frowned upon to make mistakes – which means that attempts are not even made to try and establish new concepts – the successful principle of “trial and error” applies over in the USA. Courage is rewarded.

US retailers know what their customers need

In contrast to the cautious mentality of German offline retailers, the US market offers numerous examples of its digital transformation. For example, the retail giant Walmart is buying up online shops and start-ups, and in doing so is making strides towards e-commerce. The other big player in the stationary retail sector, Target, offers its customers a practical app that not only allows them to manage coupons easily using their smartphone, but also provides them with in-store navigation to show the direct route to the desired product. Other concepts are already being tested. Unrestricted data allowances in mobile phone contracts are making it much easier to use these services.

“Whether it be artificial intelligence in the form of multiple interfaces, robots in the store, speech assistance through in-ear consultants or delivery to your front door without you even needing to be in: these trends in the US market are not necessarily compatible with the German market due to the differing mentality of consumers”, explains Nicolas Roemer, Chief Business Development Officer at Serviceplan US.

Moving onto China

Anyone who has visited China will be aware of the people’s affinity for technology, and their group-oriented way of thinking. They will also have an image of the typical urban landscape before their eyes: millions of people on the streets with their smartphones out enjoying unlimited data volumes. Driven by progress and further development, new concepts catch on quickly in this society.

A step ahead when it comes to innovations

For years, retailers that have also enjoyed success with e-commerce have been looking for ways to combine the online and offline worlds with one another. Pioneers on the market such as recognised the unfolding “mobile boom” in China, and came up with concepts to match the mentality and the new purchasing behaviour of the Chinese people. The result was futuristic stores with sophisticated technology. For example, a self-service store called “BingoBox” was opened in China’s Guangdong province. Although nowhere near as complex and extensive as the Amazon Go store, it was adapted to the demand for mobile shopping. As the Amazon Go store was being trialled in the USA, was already introducing a sophisticated variant of the fully-automated store concept in China: the “Tao Cafe”. Here, customers can log in with their smartphones and pay at the checkout cash-free thanks to facial recognition.

Tao Cafe

Tao Cafe – purchasing through facial recognition: The cash-free café combines automatic optical sensors and facial recognition for quick payment. Source: VCG Photo or CNR

The era of staff-free shopping

Cash-free stores and automated services have become part of everyday life in Chinese shopping centres, as quick payment via smartphone continues to boom: 6 in 10 customers now pay for their shopping using their phone. This represents great potential for Chinese retailers. Payment service providers have a good understanding of Chinese social interaction, and combine the popular payment method with social media functions. For example, users of WeChat Pay can follow the official WeChat account of the respective retailer in order to get advice or ask questions. Users can also exchange information with one another and provide recommendations. The way we see it, the retailers there seem to act like private individuals. They know that customers identify much more strongly with brands and connect a lot more emotion to them than people in Germany.

The hype surrounding mobile payment in China has been a strong driver behind the development towards connected commerce. For retailers, this method of payment not only drives revenue, but is also a new form of communication and interaction – both online and offline. A prime example of an optimal, integrated user journey.

Back to Germany with our bags full

When it comes to implementing connected commerce concepts, the Americans and Chinese in particular show us how it’s done. Apple Pay and Samsung Pay are essential for this, as are large mobile data packages at low rates, which allow 360°retailers to offer integrated services in the store via smartphone. However, German retailers still find it difficult to take this step. The seamless customer journey still has clear barriers, and customers themselves have played a part in creating these. The cautiousness of the German people, the data protection barriers and the inhibitions regarding the use of existing technology need to be dismantled. “Many German retailers feel that their hands are tied and that they are trying to perform a difficult balancing act”, reveals Björn Portillo, Managing Partner at hmmh. Here, it is important that they have the right partner by their side. They can then develop options and methods that offer consumers added value, and in return consumers will be happy to make their data available.

Whereas Germans still worry about making mistakes and therefore often act too late, a different error culture dominates in the USA. “Test, optimise, then test again – these steps are part of the innovation process and are ingrained in the mentality there”, says Nicolas Roemer, Chief Business Development Officer at Serviceplan US. “Even if a concept doesn’t quite work out and needs to be scrapped, it doesn’t mean the brand is doomed. Quite the opposite – bravery pays off.”

In China, it is the urge for progress that drives the digitalisation of over-the-counter retail. However, it does not make sense to simply copy innovations and force ourselves to apply them. “Together with retailers, we must first determine which problems of the target group we want to solve. Only then should we look at which innovations we use and how we use them, so that they actually catch on”, says Björn Portillo.

We are aware of the needs and fears of German customers, as well as the technical challenges faced by retailers, and already have approaches for individual solutions. Experienced international agencies are just waiting to be given the go-ahead.

An important key to success and future viability in the digital age is the perceived relevance of a company’s offering in the eyes of the users. This can be increased through added value such as product enhancements and services. It is a strategic option to open the own offer to partners and to integrate their solutions according to the actual needs and potential. That way, it is possible to flexibly design the own offering in the sense of a modular system and to significantly increase the relevance in the eyes of the users. The requirement for this is to exactly know the customers and their demands, to observe the competition intensively, and to look for appropriate partners in order to constantly increase the added value of the own offering.

Examples of such platform strategies can currently be found a lot in the financial sector, where established financial service providers are being attacked from different sides. FinTechs particularly, but also nonfinancial providers such as telecommunications and technology companies take over individual parts of the bank’s value chain and develop separate business models for this purpose. The new players offer products and services that are easy to understand, easy to use, and often even fun. What distinguishes the traditional players are above all their broad customer base, decades of tradition and experience, brand strength, customer confidence, market knowledge, human and financial resources, as well as existing structures and networks. In order to prepare for the future, start-ups and banks have to cooperate with each other – finding and networking with the right partner from both worlds becomes a decisive success factor for the own future viability. And this is certainly not only true for the financial industry.

Data-based marketing is the wave on which marketing and communication professionals, technology providers and agencies are riding and talking to each other. Due to people’s constantly changing, digitising media consumption, target groups have to be profiled more precisely.

They have to be addressed in the right time window and environment in a needs-oriented manner and converted to customers as efficiently as possible.
The plan is good and right. And at best, it ends the unnecessary media channel discussions between “classic” vs.”digital” supporters.

However, companies and their communication service providers must first of all face the challenge of being able to adequately meet these channel-neutral requirements.

My trend for 2018 is therefore to look at data-based marketing from a new perspective: Many marketing decision-makers should aim for and initiate a strategic change of direction towards new data-based marketing compared to the tried and tested.

In this way, we can generate data for you, process it in a meaningful way, and then control needs-oriented content at the right time and in the right place.