Connected cows and the greener pastures of big data

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

cedric chambaz bing microsoft connected cows
Remember the cringing router sound that accompanied your early internet connections? Being a 40-year old father of two, when I hear that screeeeeeeechhhhhhhhhh I can’t avoid feeling a smile pop on my face. That sound reminds me, with a touch of nostalgia, of the cry of a newborn. It makes me smile as fond memories have overshadowed the dirty nappies and sleepless nights.

To a certain extent, that sound was indeed the cry of a baby internet, when browsing was a commitment and a flaming logo the pinnacle of creativity. The worldwide web has since grown up. A lot.

Small steps towards big data

Looking back, that dial-up buzz was literally the first signal in our digital footprint. We signed on. And in that very moment big data spun to life.
What were we learning from those early signals? Not much. We knew how many people were online and roughly where they were. But as the web of documents developed, search engines arose and our ability to understand people increased. We started to know what you wanted. Think about it: you probably tell search engines things you wouldn’t tell your closest friends. We understood that your inputs into a search engine were, on a personal level, an expression of your desire, and on a global level, an expression of the world’s consciousness. The so-called Zeitgeist.

Although I have spent the last 10 years in the realm of online advertising, in today’s article I will focus less on search marketing, and more on the information infrastructure and machine learning that Bing is part of, looking at how this is influencing our future. What are we doing with our data footprint? Over the course of the last year I have asked many people across Europe how the idea of data collection made them feel. By large, the response was discomfort and hesitance. Until provided with more perspective.

The heights of data complexity

So let’s get back to our story. In order to understand the complexity and depth of the data infrastructure that we are part of, let’s contemplate what has changed since the emergence of the first search engines. With each of these four changes and associated amount of data surge that came with it, you need to visualize a growing mountain.
First is your search habit. From a few searches per day to multiple searches per hour, we are now searching constantly, and not just you but also the billions of people who got online in the recent decade.

Second is your search access. Most of us had access to a desktop computer 20 years ago. But just one. A grey, cold box, sealed to a desk. We certainly couldn’t put it in our pocket and take it with us to a party. It is not just computers, think about all the devices you own which are harnessing computing power: laptop, tablet, smartphones, TV, but also your car and now your fridge.

The third big change is your search expression. You have gone from using basic computer commands, with amp signs and inverted commas, to using more human a language. You’ve gone from asking “what” to asking “why…” and “how to…”. In fact we have seen the growth of queries starting by Why being three-fold the growth of What queries, which means we are no longer looking for information, we are looking for answers. You’ve layered sequential searches on top of these, in a complex web of intents.

Finally, the integration of search with other infrastructures has also changed. A search engine used to be an isolated service. Now it’s plugged into the social graph. This means that several points of contact are linked and with them a flurry of new signals, millions of them that only a few super-computers are able to capture, organize, model and render. Search engines are the database of intents, and social networks are the depository of sentiments. We have developed the ability to process, analyze and understand these two humongous, historical and real-time information sets together.

The search crystal ball

We can understand your sentiment for certain events or entities, estimate popularity trends, as well as predict outcomes of future events. Microsoft has developed a program called Bing Predicts which combines and models all the data signals we can find, and comes up with incredibly accurate predictions. We initially explored popularity-based contests like American Idol, for which the web and social signals are very strong and highly correlate with popularity voting patterns. Bing Predicts could accurately project who would be eliminated each week during American Idol and who the eventual winner would be. Just by using all of the signals that are out there.

Getting more complex, we turned to sporting events and even world political challenges. During the World Cup in Brazil, our team predicted accurately with 100% accuracy the winners of the final elimination round. During the last year Rugby World cup, we had 80% accuracy across the tournament. Surprised? In order to successfully predict a sporting event outcome, the number and type of signals we incorporated quadrupled from what we used to predict a basic popularity event like American Idol. This is because we recognize that popularity alone does not predict whether a team will win – Sorry for the fans. A fan base has however special insights into the abilities of their teams, and those fans are having constant discussions about their team. This is called the Insider Knowledge. We up-weighted their knowledge against player and team stats, tournament trends, game history, location and even weather conditions. This is how we were successful in our predictions.

We finally turned our attention to political events, and in particular the Scottish referendum two years ago. The process and results were presented at TEDxSuzhou.

We were and are predicting the future. Can you imagine a business need that this kind of prediction can answer? Of course you can! We’re experimenting right now with predicting the upcoming trends in fashion, in automobile, in technology – so we can help our advertisers make smarter business decisions.

So we saw how predictions can play a role in entertainment, sport or business, fine. Fine, until we find a way to make this kind of data infrastructure even more meaningful, at a society and mankind level. What can we do with this capability that goes beyond entertainment and the novelty factor? Can we use our big data to make a meaningful impact on society?

Up close

All of this is exciting on a global or country level. When we’re talking about millions of inputs, it’s no wonder you can make predictions and have an impact like this. It is just a massive sample size. What about bringing this big data infrastructure to a personal level? Is it possible for a machine to learn so much about you that it can accurately predict your next move? Or predict when you will need something, and provide it? That is the promise behind digital personal assistant like Cortana.
Cortana is not only on Windows Phone but also Android and iPhone. And since the release of Windows 10, she’s even on your desktop. As outlined in a previous article, you set up Cortana with some basic info about yourself, then use her to help you with things like scheduling and reminders and web searches. Before you know it, Cortana is spontaneously sending you an alert to inform you that you should leave the office now to be on time for your next appointment in Farringdon, because she found some congestion on your normal route. It doesn’t take Cortana long to learn so much about you that she can predict your next move and offer assistance.

A new layer of data in your coat

While our mobile phones aren’t exactly wearables, we sometimes behave as if they are, keeping them on our body no matter where we go. With wearables, two important things converge: big data infrastructure and your expectations.

When you hear “wearables”, you probably think of a smart watch or one of these fitness bands. But to go back to my introductory analogy, these are just the first baby steps towards the full potential of wearable and how that technology will be able to enhance our capabilities, as individuals or as professionals. Think about it: wearables can capture and communicate signals about your location, your manner of travel – whether you’re on foot or in a car – time of day, most recent queries, usual route home from work, the weather, your physiological state, etc.

So for instance, if your wearable identifies that your hydration is low, it could prompt a notification that factors in your location, whether you’re moving, what time of day it is and therefore whether the nearby branch of your favourite coffee shop is open. It could even cross-reference this with your earlier interest in gingerbread lattes, and the fact that it is raining, and direct you to the nearest open coffee shop with plenty of indoor seating and gingerbread lattes on the holiday menu. Your wearable might even send you an alert for a coupon the coffee shop is offering.

Greener pastures ahead

As the wearable technology grows, your expectations for your experience with technology in general will change. And that is for the better. After all what the point accumulating data points like hoarders unless you do something greater about it. And if I have learned something about the internet, is that it is a fertile ground for creative usage of untapped opportunities.
Bing Cedric Chambaz Connected Cows
I am from the French Alps where I spent most of my summers walking the mountains with my grandmother. She used to herd cattle in these alpine pastures and she was telling me stories about how much each of her cows were almost like members of her family. They had names, and she could tell when something was wrong with any of them.
These days are gone. Nowadays a farm is no longer taking care of a small dozens of cows, but hundreds. The personal relationship of each animal is no longer an option. The story of the connected cows started with a farmer in Japan who was exhausted with the effort of figuring out the exact time his cows were fertile – because it is a very short window, only 12-18 hours every 21 days, and it happens usually between 10pm and 8am. Of course knowing this precise time of estrus would give farmers a chance to successfully inseminate the cows.

These are farms with hundreds of cows – you can image what a nightmare this would be to keep track. Could technology help? A farmer in Japan asked Fujitsu for help. Fujitsu consulted with some university researchers and they came up with this idea of putting wearables – pedometers – on the cows, and providing the data to Microsoft Azure, in the cloud, for analysis and alerts that go straight to the farmer’s smartphone.

It turns out that when a cow is in estrus, she paces. The number of steps she is taking increases tremendously, and this data alerts the farmer to the right moment for fertilization. The connected cow project has been 95% accurate – and that 5% where it misses the mark turns out to be when the cow actually skips the farm and goes missing.
Not only is this wearable incredibly accurate, it also helped the researches discover that there is an optimum window for fertilization if you’d like a female or if you’d like a male. With 70% probability, a farmer should fertilize in the first half of the estrus window if he needs more milk cows or if he needs more bulls. But it does not stop there… The Fujitsu researchers were able to also correlate pacing patterns with increased risks of genetic diseases and pathology.

It is amazing what data can tell you, if you know how to look at it. Sometimes creatively! This is the joy of data infrastructure. We can do wonderful things in the world when we collect, analyze and render the data that’s available to us. Microsoft is on the leading edge of this, with products like Power BI, Azure, our cloud platform but also Bing our search engine and its machine learning capabilities which can make sense of the millions other data points that come together to make big data smart, useful, creative and – yes – joyful. And you, what was the last time you found a creative inspiration in your data set?


The cycle of cliched cliches

The core essence of this blog has been, from its inception, the desire to speak to the cultural differences that would strike me in my daily encounters. It was also meant to bust, if not combat, cliches that so often minimise the enrichment inherent to cultural differences. Over time, the number of articles has reduced, because alterity became slowly normality, and it was getting harder to get surprised. That assimilation did not prevent me from being torn by a Franco-British Paradox, and from sometimes being reminded at my core where my roots were. 

Back to the roots.

Every now and then you may be tempted to go back to your origins and to embrace the stereotypes associated to your homeland. Only to toy with them with tongue-in-cheek references, that turns cliches on their head. I have had my eyes for years, 7 years in fact, on talented Scottish rider Danny MacAskill. I have always found that this athlete was capable of bringing a touch of intellectual poesy in his performance. He is in control of the image that his films convey, and there is always more to the jumps and rail slides.

In his latest release, A wee day out, Danny gives us again that perfect twist... He dives into the cliches of a dated country life, with its lot of high tea, scones, hay bales, green pastures, steam trains, stone walls, small crowds and deserted stations. You could almost expect Postman Pat to pop by with his cat and his red van. But the heights of Britishness in this setting is also creating a perfect stage for taking mountain biking to new heights. But rather than dwelling too much on it, how about taking a ride in that delightful Great Britain:

More from Danny MacAskill:


Lifting the lid of the search box: Excel tips for search marketers

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

The motivational quote encourages us to “think outside the box”… But for once, I want you to think behind the box. Have you ever thought about the cogs, bots, artificial intelligence and other algorithms that are getting in motion every time someone hits the “search” button? The computing forces in motion are staggering and the amount of data that is crunched and produced is even more. Lines and lines of data, with in each of them a little piece of insight that could make all the difference in your marketing strategy. If only… If only you could overcome the spreadsheet blindness and see them.

Several of my posts in State of Digital are about visionary topics: the rise of AI, predictive modelling applied to individuals, digital transformation and the lessons that search engines could give to other businesses… This month, I was keen to be more tactical, and explore a little bit further the capabilities of the beloved Excel when it comes to making sense of large amount of data.

Picture that emotion

Advertising is all about creating an emotional bond between a brand and consumers. And since the infancy of our discipline, both marketers and agencies have been trying to visualize 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 don’t believe that people give you access to their core 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 sentiment?

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 re-energize 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 visualizing them? Personally I used to visit photo sites like Flickr or Instagram and run a query on a given brand. Type Bailey’s and you will get hundreds of pictures showing up. The resulting mosaic is fantastically enriching. You will of course see people sipping their favorite liquor but also loads of pictures of dogs and cats named after that brand. What a better proof of brand advocacy than to name your beloved pet after a trademark? Or to tattoo the swoosh on your hip or a Harley Davidson eagle on your shoulder?

Think outside the (search) box

This digression meant to make a point: we can find consumer insights everywhere. You just need to be a bit creative to see them. 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. 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 over than 28m 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 visualized by pressing a button in Excel. Three actually.

Three Excel features 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 visualization like this:

cedric chambaz excel for search marketers

cedric chambaz excel for search marketersNow knowing more about who searched, my second click would be on another Excel free tool, PowerMap. If you are running Office 365, this is a native feature in your ribbon. If you are using an earlier version, you can download that add-on for free. Power Map is a 3D visualization add-on for Excel for mapping, exploring, and interacting with geographical and temporal data, enabling people to discover and share new insights. It allows Excel to automatically 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. The brilliant thing in this feature? Excel does all the work for you. Leveraging Bing technology, it recognizes the geo-information present in your spreadsheet and plots the relevant data points on a map accordingly.

Of course, neither tool will ever replace a full professional research or extensive monitoring application, but these are valuable indicators and visualizations for a superior desk research. Personally I find these free tools simply brilliant for those who are always looking for innovative ways to increase cost-efficiently their agility, identify new opportunities and niches.

Who, where and now when?

My third click would be to dig into the question of time and create a day parting heat map using the conditional formatting of Excel to rapidly identify when is my marketing sweet spot. How do you do that? Conditional formatting is a brilliant function that allows you to automatically change the format of a cell, based on values and parameters that you dictate. So let’s say that you have a search account report that you downloaded from Bing Ads with Hour of Day as the unit of time. It would originally look something like this (painful to watch you would reckon):

cedric chambaz excel for search marketers
Highlight each column individually and use conditional formatting. We then see a picture of account performance by time of day, and a heat map emerge. I’ve left the Clicks, Impressions, Cost, and Converted Clicks columns untouched right now, as I prefer to display those with a different formatting.  The red vs. green distinction is a little too arbitrary for these numbers, so I go with a bar graph to show them instead.

cedric chambaz excel for search marketers

Now this chart tells us a story. It portrays the ebb and flow of our daily traffic, and it clearly shows us both where we can pull back on our bids with day-parting modifiers – early morning from midnight to 4 AM – and where to be more aggressive. We have a real lost opportunity here starting at 4 PM to 8 PM to increase our bid modifier and gather even more traffic. Our Average Position and Average CPC metrics let us know exactly when our competitors are ramping up their spend, and the hours in which we should do the same… until about 10 PM, when our conversion rate drops again.

This report takes less than five minutes to pull, and no custom modifications were made to these rules aside from highlighting each column individually and selecting the right formatting.  Day-parting is the easy and obvious use for this kind of analysis, but it can also assist in ad reviews, geographic performance… really, in any case that leaves you staring at a spreadsheet for hours on end, mining for insights.

To go further

So you’ve manipulated and made your data more digestible. It has worked and you have identified some interesting data points but now you want to tie this in with the rest of your company’s data sources and tell a story. That is when tools like Power BI become handy. It indeed allows you to connect your data with a wide variety of data sources, from local on-premises databases to Excel worksheets to cloud services. Currently, over 59 different cloud services such as Facebook and Marketo have specific connectors, and you can connect to generic sources through XML, CSV, text, and ODBC. Data.gov for instance is a great base of public domain data set that you can mash with your own.

So what can this mean? How about comparing the demographic profile of your audience with the latest census? Identify the correlation between your customer engagement and the weather variations? There is so much data out there, it is really just about letting your creativity unleash the power of insights. Or when data becomes clear, and actionable.


(Super)human nature

On your marks...

The 31st Olympiads have started, and I am ecstatic. I indeed have a personal relationship with this global event since I was born in an Olympian city, Grenoble, just like my kids who saw the light in London. I have particularly fond memories of London 2012, and wish to my Carioca friends to experience the same exhilarations we had back then.

The Olympics are a fantastic platform to see human nature at its best: physical exploits, determination, team work, perfection, apolitical statements and some more loaded, the highest degrees of emotions like happiness and despair, intertwined and simultaneous. You simply cannot remain unmoved by this competition. When tears blend with sweat. Why cries of joy cohabit with cries of distress. When pain is the path to pleasure.

However something which gives me even more goose bump is what Paralympians achieve. It is close to superhuman. At least that is what Channel 4, the Paralympic official broadcaster, claims:

Enabling abilities

It is incredible what these so-called "disabled" athletes are actually able to achieve. In many ways they are more capable than many of us. Actually, Oscar Pistorius did compete in the London 400m race against "able" athletes...

His participation raised some questions at the time, because observers wondered if his handicap was an unfair advantage over the other competitors. Actually, to be precise the debate was not exactly on the handicap itself, but rather on the technology used to address it: the blades. Would the blades provide extra spring and pace that human legs would not be able to provide?

More interestingly, it raised an ethical debate which tells a lot about human nature: it was less about diversity and inclusion of disable athletes amongst able competitors, but would Pistorius' participation set a precedent and open the door to technology-enhanced bodies? After all, if some are ready to inject some illegal chemical in their metabolism to enhance their performances, would some be ready to deliberately alter their body to integrate some technology that would multiply their capabilities? What is disability? Could some weirdoes mutilate themselves to compete? Scary, but plausible.

Technology opening doors.

Debate aside, I am amazed by how some technologies are enabling people to live up to the Olympic motto: faster, higher, stronger. More capable in other words. I find this exciting, don't you? And not just in sport... I already wrote about how technology helps with the virtualisation and dematerialisation of our lives. But technology is capable of such grand things, like allowing deaf people to hear or colour blind people to discover the chromatic gamut.

Let me introduce you to Neil Harbisson, a Catalan-raised but British-born artist and cyborg activist who has made the headlines for having an antenna implanted in his skull and for being officially recognised as a cyborg by a government. The antenna allows him to perceive visible and invisible colours such as infrareds and ultraviolets via sound waves. In other words, he does not see colours... He hears them. Each colour is associated to a sound, and with each sounds comes associated emotions.

What I like about this last example is that it redefines entirely the notion of ability. Technically, Neil is not able to see colours, but he has invented a new way to perceive them and in fact this new ability is richer than the classical sight because it spans beyond the human visible spectrum. Just like these athletes are not just emulating able athletes, they are defining new performances in totally new categories. They are shifting the battle ground to places where they are not disable... To places where they thrive. For that and for everything they do, they have my unconditional respect and admiration.


Digital transformation, what the search evolution can teach marketers

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

If I were to deliver a sales pitch I would want to leave you with one figure; it would be 18%. But I am not a sales person and these pages are not meant to be commercially minded. I am the Head of Marketing in Europe for Microsoft search advertising, and that number made me realise how much transformation the search industry has undergone, and how rich a lesson it could teach marketers.
According to comScore, 18% is the number of searches performed monthly on Bing in the UK. This represents 756M queries per month, 3Bn across Europe and this is a fast growing number since Windows 10 users tend to search 30% more on Bing after their upgrade. Three billion, that is already a lot of queries, and a lot of words typed in a search box.

Keywords have been king in the search marketing business for years. But we do not advertise to numbers or words: we market to people.

The evolution of search: from searches to searchers

For years, search engines have proved themselves as the gateway to the web, an entry point to the content of web pages people wanted to read. However people don’t want to just read anymore, they want to publish, play, share, watch, exchange, etc. The way they search has evolved too: they have gone from asking “what” to asking “why…” and “how to…”. We have seen a three-fold growth of queries starting by “Why” compared to “What” queries. This means people are no longer looking for information, they are looking for answers. These expectations have increased with the rise of new search experiences like Cortana. This personal assistant makes sense of your search history, your personal preferences, your location, the instruction you give her vocally, to identify what is the most relevant information for you to action upon, right here, right now… And sometimes without having to even ask her explicitly.Evolution of search - Cedric Chambaz

To address these new expectations, it was critical to evolve the way we considered search. We needed to move away from simply indexing documents and comprehend that the internet had become a connective fabric between entities such as People, Places or Things. We also needed to develop machine learning capabilities to start making sense of the world in which we live. The final layer was artificial intelligence which stitched together the fabric to the model, and can start taking us to new possibilities like recognizing faces and even feeling, predicting the future

The first stage on our evolution was understanding variant meaning in words. That when you type in “Chicago” you could look for the Musical, the Band or a trip to the City. Patterns were gathered but that was actually the extent of relevancy: what did they actually mean when they typed that word?

Then social networks came to the fore, and people starting to express their feelings, their personality. This new set of signals meant that a bunch of connections between people for a variety of reasons were in scope. Bing was one of the first to understand those connections with its Facebook partnership, and our combined graph search. Relevancy now integrated a notion of individualisation. We could factor who typed that word.

Devices took off, led by the iPhone and the smartphone democratisation that followed. This changed the game again because actually on top of “what” and “who”, there was now the context of “where”. The fact that it’s in your back pocket adds immense potential to what you could mean. The same me can search for “coffee” in the street to look for a cuppa, and use the same word at my desk to help my son with his expose on coffee harvesting. Same me, same word, but different geospatial context and therefore intent.

Nowadays more data goes through Bing every day than went through the entire internet pre-1997. And now we’re in a place where we don’t just use keywords, and text inputs but increasingly voice and Natural User Interfaces. That opens even more possibilities to refine the relevancy of the results. For instance, as signals from wearables get integrated, how about taking into consideration physiological state to provide always more relevant information. A high heart rate, sweaty hands, high-pitched voice could very much infer a high level of stress for someone searching for CPR. The searcher may well be in front of a case of cardiac arrest. A very different state than someone searching for a first aid class.

By taking into consideration this growing amount of signals, and with the computing power behind our machine learning and artificial intelligence, we are capable to not only understand but even anticipate what people truly want. It allowed us to create search experiences that are truly personal and relevant.

Marketing transformation. At last.

What happened to search as a service is currently transpiring across the entire digital industry. It is putting back the customer at the centre of everything.

Great marketing starts with the customer. The brand-centric approach of yesterday is quickly being replaced by customer-driven everything, where customers are dictating the style, quantity and mediums that marketers must use to reach them and win their business and loyalty. As modern marketers we need to recognize that every customer is unique. They are technologically savvier than ever and are connecting with brands across a number of channels. They expect brands to connect with them personally and understand their distinctive needs and desires.

For years, however, we have been negating that uniqueness, defaulting to segmentation, customer profiling and other persona-based strategies to compensate our limited computing and data processing capabilities. We needed proxies to make good enough decisions fast enough. As eluded, these days are long gone. Online and offline customer experiences may be producing even greater amounts of data for which, we now have the computing power required to stitch, but also to analyse and interpret. By bringing these data sets to the cloud, unaltered or pre-filtered, pooling them in a data lake for instance, we can then plug them to advanced machine learning capabilities we have sharpened in search to identify the true commonalities and uniqueness of the individuals without compromising on timing.

Marketers can now innovate more than ever and bringing marketing to its essence: people. Thanks to technology platforms we can understand customers changing needs and connect with customers across different devices, at home or on the go. Information is moving to the cloud to help marketers quickly access and take action on key customer initiatives. Ultimately, throughout analytics, operations and marketing outreach, one thing remains a priority: delivering consistent customer experiences. The customer experience is now at the centre of the business strategy and marketers are responsible for infusing a customer-centric culture into their organisation. To do this, marketers are connecting with customers along every step of the customer journey, collecting and responding to information to deliver campaigns that resonate. They are driving the innovative digital and physical campaigns that inspire customers and turn them into loyal brand advocates.

In conclusion, you will have understood that I wanted to go beyond the figures. I wanted to encourage you to re-evaluate whether your marketing strategy had evolved with your customers, and whether that strategy was using technology to fulfil the needs and expectations of the people behind the numbers. So, what have you learned from search?


What makes Paid Search so damn sexy?

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

In the world of marketing and advertising, Paid Search may sometimes lack the sizzle of social, the zing of video and the visual impact of display. But what happens when we look for beauty that’s more than skin-deep? When a French guy like me looks beyond the blue links of paid search, I see a marketing channel that’s sexy as hell for all the right reasons. Voila!

Search is powerful. This is because it’s at the heart of online activity. Everything starts with search. What is the first page you go to when opening a web session? Award-winning Super Bowl commercials get discovered through search. Social content is discovered by search. Your audience might see your brand in a social context, but they’ll find your site when they do a search for you. And getting your audience to your site is the gold – because you can control their experience there. They find you with search, whether they look for you at home or on the go, by typing or by speaking… Search is already ubiquitous but it is just the beginning: search continues to evolve to meet new needs, new usages, new form factors, new ways to consume the internet.

Search is the most popular kid in the room. About 766 million searches happen every day across all search platforms in the U.S. only. That’s 32 million per hour. That’s 9 thousand searches per second (comScore qSearch August 2015). And I preferred not to look at the worldwide figures as they are mind-blowing. No other marketing medium can put up reach numbers like this. Search has become such an innate, ingrained habit that sometimes we, as consumers, are not even aware of it as a separate step in our discovery process; it’s just what we do… even when we do something else. 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.

Search: the popular kid in the room
Credit: photo by Thomas Bayer

It’s effing brilliant. Data collected from search behaviour is a window into intent on an individual level and on a societal level. The database of intent is getting richer every day as we add geo-location abilities, mode of transport (walking versus riding the tube, for example), deeper context (she searched for watches yesterday and party supplies today – connected?) and as we connect search data to other technology like fitness bands. You have heard of the Internet of Things? Search and its information architecture are foundational to the successful delivery and understanding of IoT. You have heard of the Future? Once put to the task to understand badly typed or poorly expressed intents, search and its machine learning capabilities are now capable to actually anticipate our intents, to predict our future even.

Search has integrity. Remember John Wanamaker’s old statement about half of his marketing budget being wasted but having no idea which half? Well, modern reporting tools don’t lie. You can measure search marketing results to the penny, the minute and the neighborhood. Not many channels can provide such a level of granularity and immediacy. Take a tool like Bing Ads Intelligence for instance: it plugs you directly into the search algorithm history revealing, for any keyword, the demographic profile of the searchers, the device they used, their location… It also informs you on the cost of a click for the different match cases and ad positions. And it’s free, accessible to all via Excel and works in a couple clicks. There’s a transparency with paid search that reassures and makes the guessing game of broadcast or display almost comical. Is there anything sexier than integrity?

It gets the job done. Paid search marketing drives buyers to sellers. It gives buyers what they want. Sellers get customers they would otherwise have no way of finding. Search does everybody a solid.

It’s getting prettier. Image extensions let advertisers add a photo to their paid search ad. Same with Shopping Campaigns, which are a retail advertiser’s dream come true. Bing’s much-discussed native ads rolled out this autumn with even prettier options to get in front of searchers in a context that makes a lot of sense.

So much control. A sense of control is a real turn on. One reason paid search marketing is perfect for smaller businesses is the absolute control over budget that search delivers. Control over targeting (men, women, time of day, day of week, seasonal, geographical, mobile, desktop), keywords and extensions makes things even more exciting and endlessly variable.

What paid search marketing lacks in sizzle, it more than makes up for with the meat. Paid search continues to innovate with new formats, targeting options and ad features. As search matures into its mid-20s, we have both a deeper database and broader search intelligence to mine. The data nerds have now morphed into marketing geeks, and paid search marketing is sexier than it’s ever been.

And so much more potential remains untapped. We commissioned a market research last summer in the UK, and the results revealed that although search marketing is reaching a maturing phase, it remains misunderstood, misused or even ignored by these very small businesses who could do so well in this channel. Some say small is beautiful, but it seems that SMB could be sexier and not even know it.

What do you love most about paid search? Tell us in the comments!