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?