Is search humanising marketing? How brands can extract value from consumers' relationship with information

By Harriet Kingaby |



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November 3, 2015 | 7 min read

Search is no longer about keywords but concepts and semantics. What people search for reveals a lot about their behaviour, and in turn allows marketers to create more tailored experiences. So, how can brands extract value from search?

Android M launched at the end of September, complete with automatic integration with Google Now – a search engine that effectively knows what you want to search before you do. Search itself has come a long way since Ask Jeeves, and marketing strategies have evolved at lightening pace to accompany it.

This year’s IAB/PwC AdSpend survey showed that search marketing is worth £3.77bn, a rise of almost nine per cent year-on-year, which looks set to continue. However, even in a world where consumers are asking existential questions of their mobile phones, can we truly say that search is ‘humanising’ marketing?

The success of predictive is dependent on recreating the way humans think

A search no longer necessarily starts with typing keywords into Google and search marketing is not simply about matching ads with keywords. Mobile search means that more and more complex data overlays can be attributed to an anonymised ID, allowing marketers to build up increasingly sophisticated predictions about what the searcher wants to find and how ads can be served to help them meet that need.

As Cedric Chambaz, the European head of marketing at Bing Ads, tells us, search engines no longer navigate lists of documents but a web of people, videos and images sitting in a user specific context, both in terms of where they are in the real world and on the web.

Paul Mead, founder and managing director of VCCP Media, explains further: “In the early days of universal search, if you searched for M&S you would normally see the website. But if Google knows you’re travelling at 70mph, you’re probably looking for one at a train station.”

Or, as Chambaz describes: “I have different dimensions. I am Cedric the professional on LinkedIn, but on Facebook I am a father of two. These aspects all are me but depend on factors like time and location.”

In order for search to genuinely make the jump from demand to prediction based, it ups the ante on this data processing. It is no longer enough to understand key words but also the context in which these words are being searched for.

Mead sums up the scale of this ambition saying: “Mined and other companies are looking to do immense calculations, like the human brain, and Google’s trying to recreate the way you think to predict your needs. The more they understand about you and the context you’re searching in, the quicker and better search results will be.”

Indeed, understanding this context and serving the right information at the right time to the right incarnation of the user is vital to avoid negative reactions in an age where privacy issues are a hot topic. Many feel that, in the area of search marketing in particular, marketing theory is well ahead of reality.

Leo Ryan, global head of innovation and partnerships at Ogilvy, describes the imperative to get the experience right: “People are blocking ads that don’t add value. If I search for something, I’ve asked an explicit question and I want an explicit answer. If you walked into Tesco and asked for jam and got taken to the cold meat section, you’d be frustrated. All online experiences before, during and after sale should be as good as in shop.”

It’s making the way we search more natural

Tools such as Siri, Cortana and Google Now mean we can now initiate searches through voice activation, talking to those tools in the same way we would each other, often without stopping what we’re doing. A recent Google study found 55 per cent of teens (13 to 18-year-olds) use voice search every day, and voice queries tend to be longer and more conversational, using questions. Plus, according to Mead, around 25 per cent of search queries every day are completely new.

Matt Bush, head of performance at Google, says that, as search queries change from the functional to existential, this is likely to impact on brands.

“Often we don’t know where or who to ask. Ads now have to think about how to engage with users when we’re asking bigger questions. I’m a runner and if you look for searches for brands like Nike or products like running shoes, search numbers have just grown normally, whereas searches for marathons have grown. If a user has searched for ‘marathon’, they’re likely to be looking for shoes, so marketers need to be there at this point in their search journey.”

This changing relationship with search allows marketers to develop a deeper and longer lasting connection with their user, enabling them to predict needs and behaviours before they happen.

It’s cementing the need for humans in the marketing mix

As search becomes less about automation and key words and more about semantics, it also cements the role of humans in the marketing mix. Vincent Potier, chief operating officer at Captify, sums it up: “The digital media industry used to be a world of numbers. Years ago marketing was all about concepts, then media planning then digital, which was all about numbers. The introduction of semantics brings humans back into play. Semantic technology allows us to understand meaning, but we need analysts to help us spot patterns. It’s the interaction between people that gives real insights.”

Indeed, it is well documented that the insights brought about by data tracking and automation have changed the role of a search marketer from mere buyer to strategist. More time and human brainpower must be spent on managing the increasingly sophisticated interactions between keywords, audiences and contexts. The need for more tailored experiences that add value to consumers in real-time can only be facilitated through human input. Even the smartest of machines is not yet capable of empathy or predicting an emotional reaction.

So, is search really humanising marketing? It certainly seems to be enabling the kind of personalisation that can add value to the relationship between marketers and consumers. “Search marketing is no longer about searches, it’s about the searcher,” says Chambaz.

Bush takes it one step further, describing how advertising is developing into a service: “Ads should be playing a key role in helping people get what they need. It’s not just about pushing product, but adding value to people’s lives. As you build a relationship with a user, it’s more likely you’ll have a sale in the long term.”

However, many, such as Ogilvy’s Ryan, are not comfortable with the word ‘humanising’ when describing a tech-based system, instead suggesting that developments should make marketing more relevant and welcome, with advertisers moving from a broadcast approach to a service based one.

This service based approach creates endless opportunities for creativity, according to Mead. He explains: “Agencies are now starting to think: ‘Is this an experience I can enhance?’ ‘Can I delight and surprise rather than interrupt and annoy?’ That’s a richer territory for creatives than just a static box.”

Whether or not humanising is the right term to describe developments in search marketing, it is clear that, if used well, it can fundamentally change the relationship between advertiser and consumer. As search marketing evolves to become more of a service and advertisers start to think in terms of developing long term, mutually beneficial relationships with their customers, we are likely to see stronger value exchanges and longer term interactions between the two.

This feature was first published in The Drum's 28 October issue.

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