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These days, it’s hard to shake the feeling that everything is changing. Unfortunately, we cannot provide much more stability – because things are about change. This edition of SEO News for the month of October asks the question of whether the Internet as we know it will still exist in ten years, and explores what Google has planned for the next 20 years.

1) The Brave New World of Google

Major birthdays are a welcome occasion to take stock and look ahead. It’s no different for companies and institutions. The search engine Google is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary. Consequently, the Head of Search, Ben Gomes, who was promoted just a few months ago, has attempted to construct a grand narrative in the form of a blog post. Gomes’ story begins with his childhood in India, when his only access to information was a public library, a remnant of Britain’s long-vanished colonial power, and finishes with the modern search engine. Gomes suggests that personalisation, automation and relevance are the cornerstones of a quality product that, according to him, still follows the original vision: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. But is this goal being sacrificed globally on the altar of proportionality? SEO news will take up this question again below, with regard to the double standards in dealing with China.

An interesting issue for everyday SEO work, however, is a paradigm shift which Gomes believes will be groundbreaking for Google over the next 20 years. The Head of Search confirms the vision of an invisible and omnipresent information, solutions and convenience machine. According to Google, the transformation to this ubiquitous service is to be followed by three fundamental processes of change. First, it’s about even stronger personalisation. At this level, Google wants to try to evolve from a situation-dependent provider of answers, into a constant companion. According to Gomes, users’ recurring information deficits and ongoing research projects will be recognised, taken up and handled. This is to be achieved, above all, by a restructuring of the user experience on the Google results page. All sorts of personalised elements will be found here in the near future to help users make their journey through the infinite information universe more efficient. The user not only gets to know themself in this process, more importantly, the search engine gets to know the user – that goes without saying.

But before any criticisms can arise, we move swiftly on to the second paradigm shift: The answer before the question.

Google has set out to identify and prepare information relevant to the individual user, even before they have formulated a search query at all. The key element here is technological. Following “Artificial Intelligence” and “Deep Learning”, a technique called “Neural Matching” should be especially helpful: It links the representation expressed by text, language or image with the higher-level object or concept. This represents the continuation of the concept of semantic searches and entities with new technological concepts, and is exceptionally consistent from a business perspective.

The third pillar of the change should be a greater openness to visual information in the search systems. The visual search has great potential for users and advertisers, as we have already discussed several times before. Google is immediately taking action, introducing a complete overhaul of its image search, as well as the integration of its AI-driven image recognition technology “Lens” into the new generation of in-house “Pixel” smartphones. The interesting thing about Google’s anniversary publication is what it doesn’t mention: The voice assistant Google Home. This is a good sign that, despite all market constraints, Google is not distancing itself from its technological DNA and allowing itself to be pushed into a competition with the voice market leader Amazon. Contrary to the publicised hype, voice software is yet to create a huge stir in the search world.

2) The end of the networked world

Oh, how everything is connected: The individual, the world, technology and democracy. More and more aspects of our existence are digitised or transmitted via digital channels. In this process, it always comes back to bias. The well-known tech companies are acting as the pacesetters of this upheaval with their platforms. It may not be too long before Facebook, Amazon or Google establish themselves as the quasi-institutionalised cornerstones of our social and economic systems. Even today, the real creative power of these companies often exceeds the capabilities of existing state regulations. And search engines are at the centre of this development as a human-machine interface and mediation platform. The most relevant shopping search engine Amazon, for example, is changing not only our personal consumption habits but also the appearance of our cities and landscapes, with its radical change in the retail sector. The convenience for the consumer has resulted in empty shops in the inner cities and miles of faceless logistics loading bays in the provinces. Meanwhile, global populism has cleverly used social and informational search systems to accurately position and reinforce its messages. Facebook and Google have contributed at least partially to the sudden and massive political upheaval in one of the largest democracies in the world. Maintaining their self-image as pure technology companies, Google, Facebook and the like, however, have so far persistently refused to accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Apart from public repentance and the vague announcement that they are looking for “technical solutions”, they have shown little openness to adapting their strategies to the intrinsic systemic dangers. So the interesting question is: do global technology companies have to represent those values of freedom and democracy that have laid the foundation for their own rise and success in the US and Western Europe? Or can companies such as Google or Facebook be flexible depending on the market situation, and utilise their technological advantage in dubious cases in the context of censorship and repression? Currently, the state of this debate can be seen in Google’s project “Dragonfly”. Since Mountain View has refused to censor its product content, the global leader has been denied access to the world’s largest and fastest-growing market. When Google ceased all activities in China in 2010, the People’s Republic was forced to do without it, and managed pretty well. China has managed just fine without competition for its own flagships Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba. According to consistent media reports, Google has been working for several months to restart involvement in the Middle Kingdom, with the blessing of the government in Beijing. Under the working title “Dragonfly”, Google is reportedly planning to launch a Search app and a Maps app. Working closely with the Chinese authorities, and under state control and censorship, these apps are expected to pave the way for future, widespread activities for Mountain View in the People’s Republic. It just goes to show that Google is prepared to play the game, if the price is right. This approach can be seen as pragmatically and economically motivated. Particularly in light of the fact that the Chinese authorities recently granted Google’s competitor Facebook company approval, then withdrew it after only one day. Rampant discord in the West and cooperative subordination in Asia: former Google CEO Eric Schmidt outlined the consequences of this double standard a few days ago in San Francisco. Schmidt told US news channel CNBC that he expects the Internet to divide over the next decade. He predicts a split into a Chinese-dominated and a US-dominated Internet by 2028 at the latest. Apparently, Silicon Valley has already given up on the vision of a global and open network for the world. However, the consequences of this development will be felt by every individual.

Out with the cookie cutter approach and into the customer’s head

You have created award-worthy advertising and invested heavily in media – and then your customer gets stuck on an incompetent hotline for over half an hour. You have sent out a perfectly personalised e-mail newsletter – but unfortunately your customer is redirected to a general category page of your online shop when they click on it. You start a limited sales promotion, but even weeks after it’s ended the retargeting banners follow your users everywhere. Marketing is a bit like dating: sometimes it’s the small things that can ruin a good first impression.

When customers gain experience with brands or products today, they do so in many places: in store, online, via social media, on the phone and on the street. In the best case, this customer experience results in a coherent overall picture. But in reality this is often not the case. Why? Because companies have structures that can often make it difficult for the focus to lie on the customer experience as a central element of their actions. And this is despite more and more companies being aware of how important this aspect is.

A consistent customer experience needs new structures

In times of increasing price transparency and decreasing brand loyalty, a coherent customer experience is an important differentiating feature. If you can’t find AND retain your customers, you’re in trouble. For brands this means concentrating on giving the customer reasons to become and remain a customer. And because the platform economy of the digital world is making (price) comparisons easier and lowering exchange hurdles, it often no longer comes down to ONE reason – a great product, an unbeatable price, a good brand image people like to show off and so on. The key to success and sustainability in the digital age is a coherent and above all relevant customer experience.

A further challenge is that digitalisation affects many, if not almost all, areas of a company, from product development to management, marketing and services. If companies really want to put the customer at the centre of their activities, they have to tackle this task across departments. This means breaking down the barriers between areas and/or promoting a different form of cooperation within the company. Admittedly, this is a complex and far from easy task. Let’s take marketing and communication as an example: traditional advertising, digital marketing, CRM or dialogue marketing, PR/corporate communication and social media often exist side by side in historically separate silos.

Utility and usability are what make the difference

Relevance is a decisive factor in determining customer experience. Relevance is determined by the customer’s subjective experience. Does the customer like the advertising? Was the person on the hotline friendly? Did the customer find what they were looking for on the website quickly? Every customer makes their own judgement. If you summarise the evaluation criteria, they can be divided into two general categories: First is utility and second, usability.

Utility describes how valuable the experience and the received content were for the user. How well does my experience correspond to my particular requirements? Does the content answer my questions? Does it solve my problems? Does it meet my expectations or even surpass them?

Usability is an overarching term for the user-friendliness of customer experiences. It’s not about the content, but about how easy it is to use, control and operate products or services. And of course the experiences at the different touch points must also result in a suitable overall picture and has to be very well networked.

Experience from many projects shows that utility and usability only form a coherent picture if companies enable their different experts inside and outside the company to work together on a relevant customer experience.

Lufthansa Personalisation Example: 500 million newsletter

In a digitalised world of brands, people expect meaningful personalised content. Every year a company like Lufthansa, for example, sends out 500 million newsletters to different target groups, in different locations, featuring a wide variety of services. The keyword “personalisation” encompasses an extremely complex and elaborate communication architecture designed to ensure a coherent digital user journey, starting from the user’s inspiration to fly long before take-off, all the way to when they land back at home. Plan.Net built its own newsletter cockpit for the airline for the sole purpose of personalising their newsletter. A shared platform for Lufthansa Marketing and its service providers with an intuitive interface, a modular system for content and a real-time preview. Dialogue communication via e-mail is also synchronised across the board with banners, apps and social media platforms. This is just one example of a project that could be realised with cross-departmental work coordinated between the brand and the service provider.

Audible, the subsidiary wholly-owned by Amazon, takes a different approach. The market leader in the digital distribution of audiobooks follows a 360-degree approach that combines communication, media, research and tracking. A wide variety of content is prepared and controlled via media placements in order to address the users in the right way – depending on their interests and needs, as well as what stage of the user journey they are at. The cost-per-lead can be significantly reduced by using content marketing tailored to the user experience like this.

There are many ways to ensure a coherent user experience, and each one is often unique to the company and products. I would therefore advise focusing first and foremost on relevant customer experience, and therefore on your existing customers themselves, when redesigning your marketing strategy. To do this you should ask yourself five questions:

  1. Who are my customers?
    This may sound banal, but in many companies the available data and information is not evaluated as comprehensively as it could be, nor used across departments to the extent that could be possible.
  2. What moves my customers?
    It is not only social media that gives you the opportunity to learn what people think about you and what their needs are. Take advantage of these opportunities and always think from the user’s perspective when creating your products and services.
  3. Where do I reach my customers?
    Which media and non-media points of contact do my customers use in which phase of their relationship and what are their intentions?
  4. What added value can help me to be more customer-centric?
    Product enhancements, services – there are many ways to expand a service in a customer-centric way. Use solutions from partners as needed – you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time.
  5. How can I personalise my offers?
    Communication, websites, services and products – almost everything can be personalised nowadays. Use this opportunity to create the highest possible relevance.

If you have answered these questions honestly and comprehensively, you will have created a very good basis for the best possible success today, and for the sustainability of your marketing tomorrow.

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.

Digitisation, progressing ever more quickly, offers fascinating new possibilities for marketing. Never before has it been possible to get so close to customers outside the POS and reach them without any wastage. But this new digital proximity also requires a change of approach if it is to work. Less promotional, but more appreciative. If you want to reach the final click for a decision, you have to communicate at eye level, take the person addressed seriously and speak their language. That’s why, in addition to smart technology, we also need smart storytellers and visual magicians who, with what they create, hit the emotional bullseye dead on. You can also fall in love with brands at the first click. Whether anything more comes of this is decided by a content strategy that always feels as though it had been developed just for you alone.

Back to the future

When we hear the term content marketing, we tend to think of Red Bull and its stratospheric leap, the Michelin Gourmet Guide, or the John Deere DIY Magazine. Yet do these excellent and all-eclipsing examples of good communication not have a rather abstract effect on our current marketing reality, which is characterised by tight budgets, performance goals and technology? Can we replicate such success under our everyday conditions? Hardly, which is why we have to redefine content marketing, if it ever was defined in the first place.

Content marketing today

Content marketing is an umbrella discipline for a variety of specialist marketing disciplines that are not always so easy to differentiate from one another. Content marketing concerns creative experts, editors and copywriters, performance and e-mail marketing specialists, sales experts, developers and a host of other disciplines too. Each of these disciplines interprets content marketing in its own way, yet all stakeholders agree on the following principles:

  • Content marketing should achieve a return on investment.
  • Users take centre stage in content marketing since their ultimate transaction is what allows a return on investment to be achieved.
  • Content marketing therefore serves to activate users and motivate them to interact with the content producer so they are converted in terms of perspective to customers and disseminators for the producer.
  • Valuable, user-centred contents are therefore produced in content marketing so they can be conveyed to the distribution channel with the highest conversion rates at the most appropriate time.

Content marketing is therefore first and foremost a strategic approach to achieving corporate objectives. Entrepreneurs plan, forecast, validate, optimise and seek to scale. This is precisely where marketing automation comes into play, since it can do all of this and much more.

Marketing automation: The Swiss army knife

A marketing automation platform is a modular system that integrates a variety of different individual solutions, where Asset Management (the collection of all content assets needed in the marketing process), Distribution Management (control of distribution channels such as SEO, content, e-mail, social, paid and mobile), Data Management (the aggregation of continually generated user data) as well as Analytics (the cross-channel evaluation of all aggregated data at user level) come together in a uniform working environment. Depending on the stage of development, content management systems or testing suites then also come into play. The critical factor here is that the aggregated data describes the individual user behaviour and provides us with information on how we can satisfy the current information needs of the individual user in the best possible way in each case.

Personalisation “to scale”

In keeping with the principles we formulated at the outset, content marketing is therefore a sales-driven communications process in which the individual content is the currency. Because the individual user is the centrepiece of this process, the personalised content is the life force of content marketing. Regardless of whether the user is addressed by name in an e-mail or the website adapts to the individual needs of the visitor through dynamic content: personalising the content is critical if the measure is to succeed. The effort this requires can only be mastered by using automatable environments.

ROI-driven content marketing

The sales process can start in the earliest phase of the customer journey in future thanks to the opportunities afforded by scalable content architectures as well as the holistic analysis of the individual user’s digital footprint – namely when users communicate their individual challenge for the first time and we provide the right solution. The seller becomes a partner. Any company set on achieving a return on investment with its content marketing endeavours will in future have to unify three areas that frequently act as silos: communication, sales and IT. If a company can do this, then sustainable business success is guaranteed.

This article was first published by onetoone.de.

Personalisation is currently one of the mega trends in marketing. In less than two years, the market has developed to the point where there is no avoiding it. For business clients and solution providers as well. On the provider side, almost all industry giants, such as Adobe, Oracle, Salesforce, Microsoft, and IBM are building out their cloud marketing solutions. On the client side, they are increasingly looking for answers on how to use these new opportunities for profit. Finally, as a private user, most individuals have experienced how impressive personalisation and automation can be when scrolling through recommendations on Amazon, or when their own smartphone calculates, unasked, the time it will take to get from work to home. And new capabilities promise that this is just the beginning. It’s high time to use this potential for your own customers. Many of the mentioned cloud solutions now provide hitherto unimagined possibilities. Customers can now find more relevant information and be more quickly and efficiently served and supported, whether it is before or after they make a purchase.

Nevertheless, individual companies should be cautious. Experience shows that, over time, personalisation cannot remain a marketing trick. The decision to adopt these technical solutions is only the beginning. True personalisation means the desire or intention to distinguish one client from another. And you must be willing! This is not just a task for systems and machines, but rather it is a task for people, and, finally, the whole organisation. When companies take the route towards personalisation, they quickly realise where the opportunities lie, as well as the risks. Departmental structures, which for years guaranteed successful business management, now prevent many companies from truly understanding customers’ interests and using that knowledge effectively. It seems logical and paradoxical at the same time: to serve and support customers individually with relevant information, more people and departments in the company must work together without barriers.

This means creating horizontals that include departments such as sales, marketing, customer service etc. When a customer has just signed a mobile phone contract, it doesn’t make sense to them to continue seeing incompatible products from the same brand. Or if the customer is inconvenienced with answering further questions to supplement an online profile, but they’ve been a valued customer in retail stores for a long time. Vertical integration is required as well: areas such as procurement, IT, legal, etc., need to implement the necessary infrastructure, data and systems, as well ensure legal compliance. How should an IT department know which system is the best fit for a certain marketing strategy? The consulting market to prepare companies for the age of personalisation is booming right now. From a conceptual standpoint, but as well from the organisational perspective, removing barriers across departments makes companies more capable of acting.

But the challenge goes even deeper, who says that personalisation is a good fit for every organisation? Who says that it will be the decisive competitive advantage for a company within a sector? Companies should truly consider whether this is a mega trend they need to follow, and if so, how they can differentiate themselves from competitors. Is the desire to serve clients on a more personal level really in the DNA of the company, and therefore a competitive advantage, or is the competition ultimately superior? In the digital age, personalisation and automation mean an extremely fast pace and the ability to interact, which must be overcome in the long run. And this is a question not only for “old” competitors: this isn’t the first time a mega trend brought new players to the field who understand little of the traditional performance-related competitive advantages of an industry. However, recent factors, such as a consistent focus on personalisation as a key success indicator, have made attacks on established industries…