Yext CMO Jeffrey Rohrs on digital knowledge and everywhere brands

Yext CMO Jeffrey Rohrs talks about local search.

As the universe in which consumers seek out and find information expands – think voice search, Facebook check-ins and Google Maps, to name a few - brands are suddenly responsible for managing infinitely more data about themselves. Yext calls this data “digital knowledge” and the management thereof the art of becoming an “everywhere brand.”

Yext chief marketing officer Jeffrey Rohrs recently sat down with The Drum to discuss these concepts, as well as to talk about why every search is a local search and why brands should view the management of digital knowledge as a customer service:

What exactly does Yext do? What does “put your business on the map” mean?

The easiest way to say it is we help put companies in control of their digital knowledge everywhere – the granular facts about location, products, people, events [and] menus – and have that granular information accurate across the universe of assets, owned and not. A prime example is a restaurant like Arby’s…which happens to be a customer, [and] just opened new location on 23rd Street a few months ago. It used to be Chinese restaurant and a Subway, so it’s about how to let people using the universe of search – [whether that’s] Facebook, Yelp, Cortana, [etc.] – know that you are now in business and attract those people looking for the food you serve, whether that’s a branded [search] or someone jonesing for roast beef. We’re the ones that help them do that with our Knowledge Engine. [Brands like] Denny’s and Marriott use it to manage their digital knowledge…[including] address, menu items, calories, hours [and] pictures…anything you can think of around that business…they use the platform to keep [it] updated across all different locations…[as well as for specific] professionals in the case of healthcare, which includes doctor information, and financial services, which includes mortgage brokers. They use the platform to publish to third parties like Google, Yahoo, Bing, Siri, etc., but also to publish to their own webpages, websites, apps and integrations with other software services like HubSpot that also consume that data. When we say we put companies in control of digital knowledge, it is to ensure accuracy, to ensure control and to ensure efficiency. Instead of updating 100 or 1000 times across all those endpoints, they update it once and publish everywhere.

Where did the name Yext come from?

There’s the original origin story and then where we are today – we pivoted into our current business six years ago and Yext took on a new meaning. It’s a “yes” and “next” hybridization, being an innovative product-driven culture and thinking of the next thing consumers need to aid discovery and eliminate the frustration of mobile/digital discovery, the idea of “yes” and “next” has really taken hold to be that origin story for us and propel us forward to say, “Okay, we have a centralized depository – a source of truth for digital knowledge – with AI and other things that are building upon facts…” [and that’s where it] gets interesting.

Your website says every search is a local search – why is that?

Back in 2014-2015…Google came out with a stat that there was something like a 146% increase in near me searches over the last 12 months – people are putting in a search plus “near me” to discover things in proximity to do immediately, [whether that’s a] restaurant near them [or a] hotel near them. What’s interesting is Google said it’s still growing, but it’s not growing as fast because consumers now assume when they run a search on mobile that “near me” is cooked into the result set. Google and intelligent services understand mobile and search for proximity…the services that deliver are more intelligent, contextual, personal…and [services] are constantly working on becoming more intelligent [because they] want to retain usage…[and offer] more content and rich suggestions. I can put it in search terms – this weekend, I was looking for an archery range and looked in Google Maps and it gave me all the archery ranges within a 50-mile radius. The concept of search has transformed – it is not always a traditional white box. Sometimes it is in the context of maps [or] other directories [or] voice services. Doing a Siri search, asking Siri a question, she will try to give an answer. All of these things have a degree of locality that services are trying to figure out.

And what happens with big businesses – is it up to each location to manage its local presence? And what does that local presence include?

This is a new responsibility of the brand to manage. Five or ten years ago, it was enough to get the GPS point right and the name of the location…now because these services have become more intelligent and are working to present granular data to the end user, there is a responsibility for the business to actively manage the digital knowledge – we call this becoming an everywhere brand. I wrote [an ebook about] this with [marketing expert] Jay Baer – the notion of the everywhere brand is this new responsibility to actively manage this across the digital universe because if they don’t actively manage it, then they are deferring to third party services and often those intelligent services are out of date. The best source of information is the business itself…our firm belief is every brand needs to actively manage digital knowledge about the business…many of us have had the experience in which we go to a place that said it’s open and it’s closed and the frustration isn’t with Google, Apple or Facebook, it’s with that brand because we tugged on their door and as consumers become more dependent on these services, it’s important brands manage all these granular facts to make sure they’re right at all times.

How else can brands tap into local search to capture consumer attention?

I think the question gets at the point that we have to think beyond search – it’s not just search, it’s what services are triggering engagement with consumers based on proximity or the type of information that consumer is seeking. You can look at Snapchat and the type of geofilters that are location-based filters – that’s a way to interact socially based on proximity…another example of location data and digital knowledge being used in a non-search way, but it does foster discovery, is if you look at something like Uber – you can manage up to six dropoff/pickup points on the service, but you have to work with a platform like ours to do it. Think about a large superstore that has multiple points of entry and departure – a delivery dock for shipping, one entrance for grocery, [one for a] restaurant – there’s a level of complexity [and an] Uber driver can drop you off far away from where you want to be. You begin to think about the idea of location and digital knowledge as customer service, which will only increase in time with self-driving cars and drone delivery. All these things that seem far off are approaching quick and depend on accurate information in the moment of need. Yes, they are human-triggered, but inevitably, there is a consumer behind it who wants to have a great experience. I think it transcends search – there is just so much more that’s happening that’s discovery-oriented. On Yelp, you open up to see the best-rated restaurants, but you’re there and browsing, which is not necessarily search. Another thing, getting back to more search, is the additional granularity consumers are demanding. Google came out with a stat – 70% of hotel searches on mobile now also include an amenity strain, like “hotel near me that is pet friendly” or “…has a Jacuzzi in the room.” …As consumers get trained to do that in one channel, they will start to do it in other channels, too, and expect that level of service.

We know consumers are searching for information in “near me” moments – how else are the ways they interact with businesses changing?

You can look at it really in the differences you have in user interfaces…moving from a keyboard and a touchscreen in the form of a smartphone to voice activation…to even visual UIs, so if you think about VR or in terms of Google and its Lens application…you can hold up a smartphone in the real world and can get a bunch of information about it that is visually triggered with the camera. If you think about that and voice, I do a voice search where I ask Siri, Cortana [or] Google a question and they try to give an answer, there’s a change on both the UI and output…now it’s voice search. That’s a world in which it is not ten blue links, it’s an answer, or a carousel of the menu, or in the case of Google Lens – it’s a data set about that particular business that is superimposed over the front of that business. These innovations make the future much more intuitive and seamless, so I’m not intentionally going in and running a search – I’m using services that are adding information that is relevant and helpful in context in the world around me…which is both a pretty exciting future to think about, but also difficult to navigate. Businesses have to be always on and right with the information they’re presenting in different worlds…that’s why we advocate for the knowledge base to come from the business. You...have to invest in people, processes and technology to ensure they are constantly surfacing the best, most accurate information about people, products and places.

In a conversation with Yext’s Duane Forrester recently, he said discovery offers opportunities in “near me” moments…how so? What are some examples?

I would say this: My advice to businesses that are trying to be more discoverable is to think like customers. Some customers are familiar with the brand [and] have established brand loyalty, but the vast majority are doing unbranded inquiries of their world. I [am] jonesing right now for a great burger, so I search for “great burgers near me” or “best burger near me” – those are highly competitive terms. When you get into a more local proximity-based search, you have a greater chance to show up for those things. It’s not just managing for brand terms, you need to serve and optimize for the consumer perspective so you can find and attract those folks in proximity. There’s a great new restaurant in Madison Square Park called Black Barn. One of our folks went over there and ran a tool to see how it was running on intelligent services and got in a conversation with the owner. It has a great brunch, but [he] was able to show it was not showing up on searches for brunch in Madison Square Park, so [Black Barn] was able to get on board using our service and it’s not the average, but it’s a great story in which in less than two weeks, it went from no visibility to showing up in the Map Pack on Google for brunch around this area. It’s a simple exercise making sure information is accurate and putting in a menu and including what they offer, but we were surprised how many businesses don’t have that information out there. We live in a universe in which we expect to build a website and everything under the sun and we hope the search engine spiders will index it and that’s how we’ll rank…and we optimize the pages for higher rankings. But we’ve discovered 2.7x more engagements happen offsite…than happen onsite. The website is still important, but there’s a new universe of apps and services generating more engagement…

It seems like we’re hearing a lot about both voice and visual search lately – how do you help brands increase discoverability for voice and images?

Really it is going back to that part of the conversation about making sure digital knowledge is entered, managed and published…Google, Google Home and Google Assistant draw from the Google knowledge base, so feeding Google with the appropriate information and updating it when things change or when things are added and then serving the voice search community is a different world to optimizing for a single answer…so what you’re really doing is optimizing the business to be found in the moment of voice search relative to space. It’s the same thing with visual search – there are different companies that are providing visual search that crawl the living/breathing world and associate that storefront with your business. They will draw from your digital knowledge…it’s just a different UI to access that knowledge base.

Our clients also manage videos and images, [including] things relative to locations and people on the platform. You want to keep that as fresh as you would your other digital knowledge because of seasonality. If I’m looking up a restaurant, I’ll have a greater affinity to go if the images are from the same season…and I want to have current information and pictures of my location if I’ve undergone a remodel or if I’ve rebranded and the logo has changed. You have to keep the imagery about the business fresh…it becomes a part of the digital knowledge.

One of the most contentious questions from the recent search panel was whether search advertising can exist in a world of voice-enabled search…what’s your take on that?

We don’t play in that ad space, but, putting on my CMO hat and thinking about it, the answer is where there is an audience, there will be advertising. They will find a way – [perhaps by] underwriting the device. You see this right now in a lot of podcasting and streaming channels. It’s a free subscription, but you have to listen to ads. And, putting on my recovering attorney hat…I think you’re going to have an interesting question about vertical integration – Amazon and Google have certain vertical-integrated product offerings, which could raise red flags from a regulatory standpoint.

But I have no doubt they will find a way – pure advertising will push limits. There will be backlash on the first wave and then we’ll settle into something acceptable for the majority. Those who don’t like it will pay a premium.

I saw one of your colleagues, Jon Buss, recently wrote a post about social search – in which platforms like Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram are enhancing search functionality, which he said helps generate natural traffic for businesses. How do you enhance discoverability there?

Social environments are places to be managed as well. Facebook has a lot of discovery – friends are checking in to places…and so you have to think of Facebook and social endpoints as being intelligent services in their own rights – and you need to manage that digital knowledge. It’s just expressed in a different way instead of coming because of their own overt search, it’s a request…the consumption of the news feed is what generates new discovery – discovery through friends rather than overt action on the consumer’s part.

Is there anything else we should know?

We think will see rise of new role within brands that have a large volume of this information to manage – the digital knowledge manager. If you think of someone who does the SEO, someone who is a brand manager, a social manager, there are all kind of touch pieces and parts. This digital knowledge manager sits in organizations as a liaison between marketing, legal, operations, production and other parts of the enterprise that are the source of truth of information and what they’re trying to do is be the source of the best place for the most accurate information of each little piece of granular data…groups have different information and conflict about what’s accurate. The reason we think this will arise is intelligent services are getting more intelligent and demanding more granular data. Google just came out with several LGBT-friendly attributes – you can mark yourself as friendly and if you don’t have a digital knowledge manager assessing this to the team…it never gets used and a business opportunity is lost…that digital knowledge manager will be a really interesting role that is like the glue between intelligent services and what the brand needs to produce, maintain, control and constantly update.