The evolution of search through a modern consumer journey

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

The IAB UK has just released their digital advertising spend report for 2016 and announced that digital advertising grew at its fastest rate for nine years – up 17.3% to £10.3 billion. The last time annual growth was higher was in 2007 (+38%), when Apple released the iPhone leading to the accelerated adoption of smartphones, the emergence of the app paradigm, etc. The reason I call out that historical reference is because I genuinely believe we are at an equivalently critical inflexion point with the rise of AI: it grew out of search and is about to transform marketing as a whole.

As a matter of fact, the historical powerhouse of the digital landscape, Search, has continued to grow by +15% to £4.99 billion, which reflects two major trends:
  • First advertisers have (finally) realised that search plays a role throughout the customer decision journey and not just at the final conversion step
  • Second, search is, in itself, evolving drastically to offer new capabilities and surfaces of engagement for advertisers to capture new intents, new behaviours, new usages
Following a modern consumer journey and its query paths

As disruptive technologies reshape the digital marketing landscape, brands are investing time and effort to remain relevant and top-of-mind with consumers. For years, search marketers have obsessed over bottom of the funnel activity for its seemingly higher CTRs and conversion rates, in part fuelled by last click attribution models. But most marketers today agree that it is essential for a brand to appear across all stages of the funnel to drive brand affinity and recall.

Research at Bing Ads now allows us to quantify and better understand the customers behind the clicks and where they stand on the customer decision journey (CDJ). Consumers tend to go through five distinct stages, which vary depending on the type of purchase: initiation, research, comparison, transaction and experience. Consumers are subject to these same five CDJ stages, although each step will vary in length and importance depending on the cost of failure, frequency, cost and complexity of the task, and the shopper type.

Modern Consumer Journey and Search

As consumers go through a given decision journey, search plays a pivotal role and different types of queries will be used throughout:
  • Category searches: Include broad search terms that are not product or brand specific, such as shoes, running shoes, hiking shoes. These usually appear during the initiation, research and comparison stages but can also take part during transaction
  • Tangential searches include queries that are related to a given journey, but not in the exact same category. For instance, if I am searching for running shoes, a tangential search could be about preparing for a half marathon, running training program or running equipment. These are similar to category searches in that they usually get searched on before a transaction
  • Competitor brand searches: Include your competitors’ brands or products. This is an opportunity for your brand to appear through conquest advertising. For Nike, these terms could include Under Armour, Adidas, etc. As consumers get further along their decision journey they begin to hone in on their purchase and more specific searches occur
  • Brand searches: Include a specific brand or product name. Nike is the brand and product searches could include Nike Pegasus or Nike Running shoes. Brand terms are often the best performing keywords helping drive the most transactions
Search drives awareness

Traditionally search has placed a premium on brand keywords. The Bing Ads research team has found new insights on the role of non-brand search terms within today’s journeys. Brand Impact Study on usage data from a major US auto retailer determined that 72% of brand ad clicks (which includes category, competitor and tangential searches) had a non-brand keyword precede the brand click. In other words, retailers who do not run non-brand keywords throughout multiple stages of decision journeys are missing out on a majority of relevant searches and leaving gaps for their competitors.

Additionally, consumers who are exposed to a brand ad on a category or competitor query were 30% more likely to do a branded search. On average they had a 15% higher conversion rate compared to consumers who were not exposed to the brand ad. Having a branded ad appear in category and competitor brand queries improved brand affinity and recall, and increased the propensity for future brand searches.

Another Bing Ads research completed in Q3 2016 with a leader in the automotive insurance vertical measured brand awareness and perception based on exposure to ads within the search results pages. The key learning from this study was that searchers on Bing who saw a branded ad for non-branded search queries showed a statistically significant increase in brand awareness, perception and purchase intent. After being exposed to a branded ad, searchers indicated a 24% lift in unaided awareness, 28% lift in purchase intent and a 30% lift in viewing the retailer as a market leader. Brand awareness further improved when searchers clicked through on the ad and were taken to the brand’s landing page. In the study, consumers who were merely exposed to an ad without clicking on it, self-reported as more likely to take an action or next step

Although search marketers have long assumed some level of brand awareness in search, it is the amount of brand awareness shown here that proves impressive and indicates the importance of staying present throughout each stage of a journey

Search informs and educates

As consumers go through the initiation phase of the consumer journey and begin to do more research and consider purchasing, search can help with the decision-making process.

A Forrester Consumer Technographics study called out that 60% of consumers will use a search engine to find the product they want and 61% will read product reviews before making a purchase. And one of the most trustworthy sources in this research and comparison phase is none other than search engines. Furthermore, consumers consistently rely on search engines, more than any other source, as a reliable place to research about brands, products, or services that they are considering buying. According to Forrester, 49% of consumers reported that they rely on search to inform purchase decisions, and 19% of respondents identified search engines as the most influential source in driving their decisions.

New search experiences, new marketing expectations

The evolution of the consumer behaviours outlined above and the reaction from marketers by investing throughout the different stages of the consumer journeys are a sign of maturation for a discipline that is merely 15 years old. And yet, new search experiences powered by AI are coming to the fore, and are likely to further disrupt the model.

It has been well documented that search is no longer just a search box on a webpage with a list of links. It is literally breaking out of the box; it is changing in some dramatic and exciting ways. Once a function that used to be limited to a text box on a specific site has slowly been integrated into more and more of the technologies/devices, apps and sites we use every day, from phones to gaming consoles. As such, Search becomes more pervasive, but also more personal and predictive.

consumer journey predictionConversations as a Platform is a great embodiment of how the Future of Search makes sense of these 3P (personal, predictive and pervasive). The rise of messaging apps where consumers now spend most of their time and technological advancements in NLP, AI and machine learning are creating rupture that is similar to what we have seen in decades past with the App paradigm. Conversations as a platform unlock a more human, personal way to discover, search for, access and interact with information. This new platform will enable us to interact with devices more intuitively, using natural language conversations, evolving us from mechanical keyboard and mouse to touch and beyond.

Search will never again be a constrained to writing in a search box. Instead, search will be a partner that can listen and communicate in dialogue with a consumer on any platform and any device. Thanks to new, more natural interfaces, voice search is becoming increasingly possible and accurate. We imagine a rich ecosystem of conversations, ones that include: people to people, people to your personal digital assistant, people to bots, and even personal digital assistants calling on bots on your behalf. That’s the world that you’re going to get to see in the years to come.

We have already covered the current rise of voice search as a result of mobile search adoption, but it is likely to further accelerate as search becomes more pervasive and turns your TV Set, you fridge or your car into a search box. ComScore predicts that by 2020, over 40% of the queries will be voiced rather than typed. It is worth noting that these experiences are often screenless which further disrupt the preconceptions that too many marketers have when they think they have nailed their search strategy.

How do you optimise your web presence for voice search? How do you market to chatbots? How will we see consumer intent evolve in these new experiences? We already seeing that 16% of searches every month had never searched for before. We also see that 25% of the clicks on the Bing Network are from searches not happening on Google… So, the versatility of the above-mentioned consumer journey is likely to continue to increase. And what an exhilarating evolution it is!

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