Waking the giant: The evolution of search marketing

Tribune originally posted on The Drum.

Search is the single largest source of web traffic and the gateway today for digital information. It is little surprise that the role of search in the marketing mix is an ever evolving beast.

Today, search marketing is no longer confined to the technicality of SEO, linkages and keywords. More importantly, it drives increased brand share of voice and has the ability to provide better understanding of intent and context than any other marketing tool.

Search offers a unique wealth of insights to significantly impact brand marketing strategies. Last year over half of the brands surveyed by Bing Ads used search marketing to achieve branding goals. Research showed that advertisers who bid on their brand name as a key word received more clicks (27 per cent in travel sector and 32 per cent in retail sector), with fewer clicks going to their competitors (27 per cent less in travel sector and 30 per cent less in retail sector).

Of course, it isn’t news that search provides a wealth of data for advertisers. Understanding triggers to direct action, ROI per purchase, and demographic insights have always been of use to search marketers – avoiding wastage and proving value to each campaign. The difference today is in the intelligence and breath of information captured and the ability to drive insights into other marketing components across the ecosystem.

Mobile usage is playing a huge role in awakening the search giant. As consumers use mobiles to search and discover content more and more, the data captured becomes more intuitive, personal and contextualised than ever before. Research proves that the average internet user searches online 129 times each month.

Multi-screening also creates a new layer of behavioural insight for search marketers. The 2014 IAB ‘Changing TV Experience’ study revealed 78 per cent of consumers use another device when watching TV – and for 69 per cent of those, mobile was the dominant device when second-screening.

As consumer search experiences across devices become more varied, the data captured expands and its correlated learnings get enriched. Think for instance about voice-activated search – artificial intelligent assistant such as Cortana uses Bing to listen, learn and serve relevant experiences. This opens search marketers up to new opportunities and new behavioural data – longer, more local queries, different semantic, more conversational engagement. And as other platforms such as Windows 10, Amazon’s Kindle or Echo, with Bing integrated in the heart of the user experience, means the exposure to search-supported experiences are increasingly varied.

Search is worth more than the clicks it measures. Today’s marketers need to leverage the insights captured from evolving consumer behaviour across the increasing numbers of touch points to help support broader brand strategies.

Beyond providing marketers with a wealth of information on what consumers are searching for, responding to, and engaging with, the future lies in platforms such as Bing learning intent and understanding context to the point it can predict future behaviour. This will not only allow marketers to anticipate, optimise and develop more efficient search marketing campaigns, but the understanding of intent can be leveraged to drive through-the-line marketing campaigns. As a first step in that direction, Bing Ads has recently released a new feature that enables brands to predict the impact of any change to their search campaigns in terms of reach and engagement.

Campaigns that truly utilise search as a strategic tool to inform decisions and enable personal, valuable, brand experiences to be created, will reap the rewards.Search is ubiquitous, its power expanding and its prominence in the marketing mix evolving. The latest IAB/ PwC AdSpend survey showed that search marketing is worth £3.77 billion – a rise of almost 9 per cent year on year, and expected to keep growing.

Marketers that understand the potential of search to shape and accelerate campaigns will win. Brands need to embrace the giant with open arms and stay close to the industry-changing opportunities search will continue to provide.


Is search data the new crystal ball?

Blog post originally published on State of Digital as part of a monthly column.

The more ubiquitous, pervasive and natural search is, the more intelligent it becomes. No longer is it a magnifying glass surfacing content from the depths of the web. Search is starting to look more and more like a crystal ball capable to predict the flight of flu epidemics, match winners and presidential election outcomes.

Not many technologies are capable of processing as much data, as frequently and actually make sense of it all. Search was fed on big data, grew with artificial intelligence and, if some say it is not rocket science, it is verging towards science fiction.

Brains in a box.

Historically search engines were indexing a web of documents to point searchers in the most relevant direction when they tapped a couple of keywords in a search box. Coping with the expansion and diversification of that universe was no small task, neither was the treatment of the ever increasingly more complex queries. So the technology had to gain in sophistication.

Algorithms started to extrapolate the strings of characters that were inputted. It became less about finding a specific phrase, and more about understanding its meaning. It was an evolution dictated by necessity. First, human beings are so prone to mistyping that machines could not rely on us ; second a same need can be expressed by different synonyms; and third, words have several meanings based on their context (e.g. from a PC, searching for “coffee” may relate to coffee harvesting whilst the same person using the same keyword on his smartphone may be after a caffeine shot).

This led to new functionality like query suggestions, auto-correction, auto-fill, semantic search… but also drastic evolutions of the algorithms with the integration of social, geographical or device signals. Search was no longer literal; it had become contextual.

From smart to intelligent
Cortana_Traffic_Prediction_Cedric_ChambazHowever, searchers still require to proactively engage with a user interface in order to trigger queries. These interactions remain contrived, even if you consider the conversational nature of voiced queries. Search will only truly become intelligent when the engine can anticipate what I need, even before I verbalise that intent. That is one of the promises of digital personal assistant like Cortana who relies on Bing information architecture and machine-learning to anticipate your needs. One of my favourites is her ability to urge me when to leave for my next appointment by making sense of my current location and the traffic conditions to my destination.

So could we take anticipation to the next level and predict the future.
Search engines are a database of intent where millions of people converge to look for information of what is top of mind for them. At the same time, social networks are the depository of sentiments. If you have developed the ability to process, analyse and understand these two humongous, historical and real-time information sets you have the opportunity to discover user sentiment for certain events or entities, estimate popularity trends, as well as predict outcomes of future events.

Bing Predict explored that concept with popularity-based contests like American Idol, for which web and social signals can highly correlate with popularity voting patterns and thus allows the engine to accurately project who will be eliminated each week and who the eventual winner will be. At the other end of the spectrum, predicting the outcome of the World Cup, Tour de France or the Premier League requires the incorporation of player/team stats, tournament trends and game history, location, and data from social channels.

The data from social channels provides the Bing model with the “wisdom of the crowd.” This approach is different from predictions for popularity-based contests. That model is able to interpret specific data as priority information such as team strengths, as popularity alone doesn’t dramatically help a team win or lose (some fans may object to this assertion but it’s largely true).

This machine-learned approach proved to be more reliable than traditional statistical methods on several occasions. Bing predicted accurately the Scottish Independence Referendum  outcome from the very first day whilst the official statistic was oscillating between the Yes and the No. Our predictions for each of the men’s and women’s Wimbledon matches had an average accuracy of 71 percent, and got the winners from the first serve. We also predicted Froome’s victory in the Tour de France.

What can brands learn from these forward-looking experiments?

Machine learning models are already making their way to the advertiser toolset. Bing Ads for instance includes an opportunity tab which allows brands to evaluate the future impact of actions taken on their search marketing campaigns based on auction and competitive behaviours. That is just a first step.

I have already written about how brands should think outside the (search) box , and harness the full potential of the search data to inform their marketing strategy. Think for instance about the evolution of the geographic spectrum of your search queries to inform your stock strategy for the next holiday season.

Next, businesses can enrich their own data with real-world, publically available data sets to identify further correlations. It can be a small collection of manually curated convention centre calendars which infer future influx of visitors to a city, or richer data sets from Open Data sites around the world .

It might take some creative thinking on your part to reveal true insights, but ignoring this resource means missing out on a big opportunity to create value for your company and customers. This is about modelling the real world in advertising campaigns with extra rigor and an opportunistic mind set thanks to the accessibility and democratisation of Business Intelligence tools, like PowerMap or Cortana Analytics .

Finally, I am convinced that soon enough new advertising models will come to fruition. Trajectory marketing, for instance, would consist in geo-targeting consumers based on the location they will be at rather than the location they are, by modelling their current position, their celerity, external factors like traffic, weather conditions, etc.  After all, marketing is about seeding the right message to the right audience, at the right time.

And that time is in the near future.


Olympic memories.

Mens sana in corpore sano

At a time when sports resonates in the media with bribery, scandals, big football transfers, and other big amounts of cash... It is critical to anchor ourselves in what sports are and should remain: a source of ecumenism, an ode to personal achievements and limits that are pushed always further by the human body and brain.

My older son is now almost six and as part of his school curriculum, he is exploring the origin of sports. What a better age and place to do so? He was only three when the Olympics hit London. Our town. Our sports. But he still has crystal clear images in his brain of that event, conscious that he took part in something unique, and that we expect to relive sooner rather than later, maybe in September with the Rugby World Cup.

London 2012 took place almost 3 years ago, and next summer the flame will ignite Brazil, and yet I cannot avoid watching these Olympic highlights without being moved to the tears. So here are my memories of a summer not so long ago...

Flashback on a backlash.

Flashback. I have a vivid memory of the exact moment. July 6, 2005. I am in a car and I cannot think of a better birthday present than hearing the IOC confirm that Paris would host the Games that it had been campaigning so hard for. The French capital, as much as the rest of the Hexagon, had dreamt of these 2012 Olympics which would put sports at the heart of the City Of Lights. Imagine that, athletes competing on the Champs de Mars with the Eiffel Tower as a backdrop… The radio is crackling. Singapore is far away. And then, the verdict. Paris did not manage to fully convince the committee and it's Chiswick running hero, Sebastian Coe, who bags yet another victory. Paris is bitter, London exhilarated. The city will host its third Olympic games. Unfortunately the joy would not last as the following day a terror attack tears apart London with a series of bombing. What if Paris had won?

London 2012 - Center of the world

A few months later, a career opportunity leads me to cross the Channel. As Paul Feval once wrote it, « if the Games are not coming to me, I will be coming to the Games ». Fast forward seven years, and here we are. System failure after system failure, the District Line has been renovated. East London has found a new dynamism with the influx of investments made to the Olympic Park. The Londoners have volunteered en mass. And finally the streets started to be populated with new styles. Forget the buttoned-up suits from the City, the Shoreditch hipsters or Camden's goths. For a full fortnight the trendiest outfit was track suits… designed by Stella McCartney, but still.

At the heart of the games

Some had fled the city for the Cotswolds - no appetite for them to share the city with a million of plebeian visitors. Personally, this was purely unconceivable. My parents had told me so many stories about the 1968 winter games in my home town of Grenoble, stories about Jean-Claude Killy or Marielle Goitschel, stories of how they were moved to the tears when they heard on loudspeakers the heart beat of the last flame bearer walking up the stairs to light up the cauldron. Bam-bam, bam-bam, bam-bam. I wanted to live on that very same rhythm. Bam-bam, bam-bam, bam-bam. I wanted to embrace fully the promise of the games, and today I am sharing some of these heart beats with my sons (and you at the same time) with the ambition that one day we may have the joy to resonate in unison. Bam-bam, bam-bam, bam-bam. Here is my recollection of the games, an open-hearted memory if you wish.

Olympics are memorable. We all have in a corner of our mind a moment or an image from one of these competitions. For instance, I clearly remember being stunned by French Judo hero and flag bearer David Douillet's pragmatism when he declared to journalists before the Sydney games that his games would be over on day #1 and that he was hoping to carry another gold medal on that opening day. Funny enough my first real life encounter with Olympians was on the very first morning of the games where I was to grasp the depth of this declaration. Bright and early, I had gone to the ExCel Arena, only a few hours after Her Majesty the Queen jumped in a parachute over London with James Bond by her side. My agenda was to watch a few judokas fight for glory on tatamis… Or, as my son best describes it, two people in pyjamas pushing each other.

Judo: hard sport, hard facts.

Imagine that a second: you step into the arena, bow to the referee and to your opponent who in a jiffy grabs your kimono and throws you to the ground. 4 seconds, and the Games are over. Literally swept under your feet. You have not even have taken part in the opening ceremony the night before because you wanted to be fully fit for your big day. I let you reflect on the distress that the competitors face in such a moment. "What matters is to take part" may be hard to swallow at that very moment. I was touched by the abyss that the athletes were facing, and even today I remember word for word what Team GB Euan Burton uncompromisingly declared after being beaten: "I cannot think of anything positive right now. I have the feeling to have failed myself. I failed my coaches and everyone with whom I trained. I failed my mom, my dad, my brother. I worked very hard for a quarter of a century to reach that point, so no, I don't think of anything positive to take away." All is said.


London 2012 - beachvolley arena

Just like the Parisians dreamt their games, the London Olympic committee had managed to present the competitions in that jewel box that London can be. As a sneak peek to what the Brazilian games may be in 2016, the Horseguard Parade square got enhanced with a gigantic sandbox for the Beach volleyball tournament. In spite of occasional showers, St James Park had never looked more like a seaside resort where a colourful crowd could cheer and dance on the instructions of a passionate commentator. This is also that the Modern Games.

It's coming home.

England is home to football. But if beach volleyball carries along the scents of Copacabana and its coconut trees, the Beautiful Game still smells nowadays like outdated sexism and machismo. I was therefore delighted to see Wembley, the temple of this local religion, filled with 80.000 enthusiasts cheering the sporting performances of the women football teams. That was a victory in itself.

London 2012 - The women football medallists

But it was topped by the privileged opportunity to stay in the stadium long after the last kick and to see the athletes walk around this mythic location with their medals around the neck. As the stewards were pulling down the nets and the spectators were exiting the arena, the US players walked the pitch one more time, to make the moment last just a little more. Tobin Heath, the pious, stood still, her arms outstretched, her eyes closed, as if she wanted to absorb every vibration.

La Marseillaise as a finale.

And since I speak about unforgettable moments, how could I skip the performance by the Experts? The French handball team, who had failed during the preceding European championships, were not ready to give up on their Olympic title. I had the honour to watch the final from the same stand as the players' family and other members of the French delegation. It was extremely moving to see their wives in tears as their husband were reaching the highest step of the podium… You could think that this is strange as if anyone should be used to victories and celebrations it would be them: this handball team has indeed been nick-named The Experts following their surgical double world champion titles, two European championships and two Olympic gold medals in just 6 years… This proves that one never really gets accustomed to glory. And to support my point even further, I witnessed this surreal scene when Renaud Lavillenie, himself Olympic champion of Pole Vaulting since the previous night, asking Jérôme Fernandez, the team skipper, for his autograph. Just like any other spectator... except that he received a little comment in return: « now it's your turn to get a second one! » (note: Renaud Lavillenie has since broken the world record a few times and is obviously tipped to fulfil that prophecy in Rio).
London 2012 - French handball supporter

As a French in London, my emotions reached their paramount on that last night of the Olympic fortnight. As I wrote it already on this blog, you may question sometimes your attachment to your home country, especially if like me you consider yourself as a citizen of the world, a privileged migrant. On that night the answer was unequivocal and can be checked with this little test: can you listen to this Marseillaise, sung by a whole stadium, without having a shiver in your back? I can't! This epidermal reaction is worth any pledge of allegiance:
In the end, I would say that during these Games, London has never been as welcoming and smiling. I was proud of MY town, of MY countries... I was proud to have been one of the many heart beats.


The unbearable lightness of having

Ouch! I just walked yet on a lingering Lego bricks kindly left behind by one of my two boys as a token to their gratitude. Re-ouch! What did I trip over this time? Oh, just one of my wife's precious items from her impressive plastic bag collection (including this very special vintage edition by Tesco from 2007)...

Organised mess?

Many new parents will certainly sympathise, so yes I confess, I live in a flat that is cluttered... Books, toys, plastic and handbags, stilettos, pens and a few devices here and there (because the geek that I am does contribute to that mayhem, of course). No matter how creative you get with storage, they always seem to overflow. So the problem may not be the storage, but the content. Of course it is.

In fact, after having sold us alternatively the dreams that as the ultimate luxury was space or that some Swedish wizardry could help make more out of our jam-packed spaces, a more recent trend has emerged from the media. It is no longer about expanding or optimising micro-inches of cramped living space: it is now a matter of decluttering. If in the past, there was a relatively basic dichotomy between the have's and the have-not's, there is now amongst the upper-middle class a third category: the don't-want-to-have's. For them, it becomes a decision not to possess.

Inspired by Japanese Zen and Feng-Shui philosophies, this phenomenon is trending far and large in the press, as more and more books are released about how to tidy and clear out. You must admit this is in itself a bit schizophrenic... After all, avid fans may end up cluttering their house with books on decluttering!

Spring cleaning

Fad or trend? We are now in the very last days of Spring, and many of us have felt the almost therapeutic feeling of emptying cupboards and other hidden boxes from the junk we had been accumulating over the previous twelve months. Off with that candle holder in terracotta. To the bin the piles of Time Out magazines you have been promising your self to catch up on in order to be up to speed with what is hot... or, well, what was hot in June 2013 by the look of the cover of the edition you hold in your hand.

It feels good to reclaim some ground over the mess. It feels even better when you clear your conscious when you hand over your definitely too tight jeans to a charity on the high street. But it would be interesting to see how this trend evolves once the dust has settled. Nevertheless this phenomenon struck a cord with me (and not only because I have a profound admiration for Japan and obsessed by the necessity to bring order to chaos). It led me to another very contemporary divergence: possession versus materialism.

Is digitalisation cheating?

For years the concept of possession was necessarily associated to physical object. Wealth was measured by the ground you owned, the serfs ploughing your fields, the pile of gold you could put on the table... And then came the banks, and money got dematerialised. You had no more trinkets but access to money, an abstract concept. It was still your sweat and tears (or your servants), but it was no longer your very own treasure. There was no more attachment to the object itself, rather to its value.

Similarly, information which was once captured in pages, books and bookshelves was first digitised but still remained visible. It was on that floppy disk or in that server that was buzzing in the corner of the office. It was not looking like a good old book anymore, but it was still there. This changed with the rise of Cloud computing. With it, the virtualisation accelerates and objects further dematerialise. Like the golden nuggets an jewels which were replaced by bank statements, books, disks, CD, cassettes, external hard drives, servers... are disappearing from the local premises to see their quintessence hosted somewhere in the cloud.

Slowly the reticence of not being able to touch-to-own is fading. People are perceiving the value of virtualisation: easy and ubiquitous access; lower costs as you pay only for the storage you actually need; security of having your assets backed up in several locations... Of course there are hackers, like there were bank robbers, and there are still people who don't trust the cloud like many did not trust bankers and preferred to sleep with money under their matrass. But there are also genuine enthusiasts who are seeing in technology the opportunity to live the above-described trend to its fullest. 

Technologically-enhanced lives

I indeed recently met that technophile whose job was to educate businesses about the latest evolutions and what they entail in terms of opportunity. As a technologist, he had decided to explore how far he could go in adopting technologies which could help him get rid of the unnecessary. He got a chip inserted under the skin, a bit of code here and there, and off he went to dematerialise his home. Sensors capture his presence and switches on and off the wifi, the lights, the heating system, etc. automatically based on agreed gestures, rules and orders passed through his phone. The keys to his flat were rapidly gone too, as his unique identifier emitted by his chip could open the door lock through NFC. Whilst many of us switch between different screens, he opted to retain only one, acknowledging that smartphones nowadays are sufficiently powerful to be a TV, a PC, a watch and even a phone. Why having a fridge if you could get his daily food intake delivered fresh to his door, prepared to meet his dietary requirements? One by one, he went through his inventory and tried to get rid of what was not really needed. He wanted to go back to the basics... Connected basics. 

This leads to some interesting points of reflection: the digitalisation of the world implies the rise of a new paradigm where you can own without possessing. You still own information, tunes, photos... but they do not materially exist any more. This means that the renunciation to physical ownership does not necessarily jeopardise the codes of our Western societies. Pushed to the extreme, wealth could materialise in absence of physical possession whilst the poorest would be the ones anchored in a material world, unable to digitised... Internet behind a social walled garden, so to speak.

In that hypothetical, yet plausible world, Maslow's pyramid of needs may see "wifi access" being added to its lower, more basic needs. This is one of the scenarios that the Singularity University explores during their curriculum: "how to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges" with a democratised access to the internet as a prerequisite to avoid a new social rupture between the connected and the disconnected. This is also why companies like Google are exploring ways to give access to the internet in creative ways like the Loon project (and not to expand the reach of their advertising audience of course).

Tidying my thoughts

Personally, I am enthused by what new technologies can offer, and as a humanist, I believe in our ability to keep the potential demons at bay. Without going to the extreme of my technologist, I am slowly decluttering my flat, saving one foot nail at a time my physical integrity, my sanity, and hopefully a tiny bit of the planet by not consuming beyond what I really need. I am from the Generation X, that generation who has come to the world amidst the recession after years of prosperity. Because of that, I am more than ever convinced that we are therefore a transitional breed, and probably better suited than anyone to help facilitate and educate the change without being blinded by optimism or pessimism. We are an agent of change. For the better.


Marketers should think outside the (search) box

Blog post originally published on Bing Ads Blog.

Picture that emotion.

Advertising is all about creating an emotional bond between a brand and consumers. And since the infancy of this discipline, both marketers and agencies have been trying to visualise this connection. Focus groups, vox pop, surveys, research… They all had a go at it. But personally I never got fully satisfied by them. As a matter of fact, I am not convinced that people give you access to their intrinsic beliefs when prompted over the phone or in the street.
Then Social Media arose. And you must admit that they are simply great for that corollary use. After all, what are these platforms but the depository of our intimate emotions?

So obviously you can have a quick peek at Facebook and look up for the fan pages for your brands. That is straightforward as people are overtly expressing their sentiment towards the brand through these pages. They revive dormant products and reenergise old brands. They also virtually stone others to death.

But what if you are interested in emotions more deeply engrained in consumer minds? And looking at visualising them? Personally I used to visit photo sites like Flickr and run a query on a given brand. Type Bailey’s for instance and you will get hundreds of pictures showing up. The resulting mosaic is fantastically enriching. You may well have pictures of people sipping their favourite liquor but also loads of pictures of dogs and cats named after that brand. What a better proof of brand engagement than to name your beloved pet after a trademark? Or to tattoo the swoosh on your hip?

Think outside the (search) box.

The reason why I made this digression is because I am convinced that we can find consumer insights everywhere. You just need to be a bit creative. I remember discovering Bing Ads Intelligence tool, and having one of these ah-ah moments.
This tool is by essence a brilliant search marketing tool that enables search marketers to make more informed choices when creating a campaign: based on historical and forecasted data from Bing search queries, it provides you for any keyword with traffic volumes, demographical and geographical information about the searchers, even indicative CPC for the different positions in the auction… And it is free!

If you have not downloaded it yet, I would strongly recommend you do. Even if you are not working in search marketing. In fact, I should say “especially if you are not working in search”.
This little freeware can indeed help a lot of marketers out there, especially in smaller businesses. As a matter of fact, in the current economic climate, when costs are cut to their bare minimum, can you afford to research what your audience's actual demographic profile is and where they live? Are your pockets deep enough to run a regular research to audit your brand awareness against this audience?

Search engines are for finding.

Digital expert and author John Battelle once qualified search engines as the database of intents. With more than 24m unique users in the UK alone, Bing offers you a statistically relevant sample of these intentions. So why not use the Bing Ads Intelligence to run your own piece of research? It provides you access to actual logs, so you can use them as proxy for your consumer intents. How many consumer have searched for your brand in the last month, and how many have for your competitors? That will provide you with a good indication of your brand awareness. Did they search on a PC or from a mobile device? Have queries increased after your latest local TV campaign? Was your regional billboard campaign efficient? Where are visitors searching from? London, Liverpool, outside the UK?

A lot of these questions can be answered and visualised by pressing a button in Excel. Two actually.

Two tools to make your data click

The first click should be on Bing Ads Intelligence. As said, you just have to enter a word (a brand for instance) and choose what you want to know: demographics, device usage… And since you are in Excel you can rapidly turn the data into a compelling visualisation like this:
My second click would also be on another Excel free tool, PowerMap. Power Map is a 3D visualisation add-in for Excel for mapping, exploring, and interacting with geographical and temporal data, enabling people to discover and share new insights. You can therefore chart the search data to see where the customers who are searching for you are located, where your revenue is generated, where prospects are congregating, etc. I particularly like that if you have your data points for several periods, you can turn your map into a little video which will illustrate the evolution of your chosen KPI over time.
Of course, neither tool will ever replace a full professional research or extensive monitoring application, but these are valuable indicators and visualisations for a superior desk research. Personally I find these free tools simply brilliant for Small and Medium Businesses who are always looking for innovative ways to increase cost-efficiently their agility, identify new opportunities and niches. 


Happy new world

Australia: tick. Austria: tick. China, Germany, Ireland: tick, tick, tick. Norway, Netherlands, Singapore, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, USA and even this exotic country called France. Tick, tick and tick again...

2014 has definitely been a prolific year in terms of (re) discoveries. It indeed took me back on some fondly loved paths across the continents. And 2015 looks as much exciting, if not more. No wonder my little ones get thrilled to their next flight!

I wish you all a happy new year, full of encounters and explorations.