A brand’s online presence (whether or not it will be visible to a potential future client who doesn’t yet know them) largely depends on its ability to understand how content is displayed based on users’ online searches. First of all, let’s examine the key players: according to 2019 data from gstatcounter, tech giant Google takes the lion’s share with a 92.86% search engine market share across all devices (desktop, tablets, mobiles), followed by Bing (2.41%) and Yahoo! (1.82%)
Online searches: a competitive environment with a logic of its own
Nowadays, consumers’ default reflex is to ask a search engine to find a solution to their problems and help them fulfil their desires. A 2018 study conducted by digital engagement platform BrightEdge reveals that 60% of internet searches are performed on a mobile or a tablet. It follows that in order to survive in such a competitive environment, brands need to be visible from the very beginning of this search phase. Most importantly, both content and format need to be adjusted to these platforms, starting from content length and screen formats.
This is not, strictly speaking, a purely technical issue. The traditional, ‘qualitative’, strategic marketing pillars remain relevant: identifying a need, defining a target audience, positioning the brand, differentiating it from its competitors. There are, however, more technical, tactical and ‘quantitative’ factors at play. Effectively, the system that presides over the interplay of online demand and supply is based on a bidding infrastructure that distributes market shares based on the perceived relevance of a service or product relative to a user’s search. In order for its digital marketing strategy to have the desired impact, it is therefore essential for a brand to understand how the algorithms making these choices work.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) relies precisely on a careful balance of content and technical factors, which essentially revolve around choosing and competing for a set of keywords. What are the keywords a brand needs to preempt based on its product, positioning and audience? How can a brand improve its ranking on these keywords to increase impressions? Are there other, less competitive keywords that could yield market share at a lower cost? These are the tactical questions businesses are faced with when defining their digital marketing strategy.
Digital marketing: strategic necessity and competitive advantage
2017 was the watershed year: for the first time, brands spent more on online advertising than on traditional TV advertising. According Magna’s annual report (the research arm of media buying group IPG Mediabrands), overall digital spend reached $208bn worldwide (41% of all advertising spend), while TV spend accounted for 35% of the total at $178bn. Magna also indicates that in 2018, more than 50% of all digital spend went towards paid search. Online visibility is, by now, a strategic imperative for brands, and when effectively managed, it becomes a powerful way to stand out from competitors.
All brands are aware of this revolution and of the strategic importance of their online brand identity, yet their degree of maturity in terms of the tactical implications of digital marketing varies greatly. We went from a model of large-scale and big-budget broadcasting of a single message, to a brand new world where it is possible to convey several messages to different audiences to sell the same product, design a specific product aimed at a specific target audience, and manage advertising spend in real time. These are but a few implications of the real paradigm shift we witnessed in the transition from traditional to digital marketing. Digital marketing brought about a double revolution, both in terms of content and of measurable impact.
The content marketing revolution
In order to survive in an extremely competitive environment, and specifically in order to top search rankings, a site must be regarded by search engines as:
- Having an easily readable architecture
- Providing quality information that is appreciated by users
These are, by and large, the two axes around which brands’ SEO strategies revolve.
The first level (readability) translates into simple technical considerations: the site architecture must be easily readable by the search engine for it to be awarded a good ‘score’. In order to maximise its ranking chances, content in each page must then be structured around primary and secondary keywords, as well as around a specific information hierarchy (SEO title, meta-description, primary and secondary headers).
With the second level (quality) however, we enter a more complex dimension. The key factors here are user behaviour and user feedback on the brand’s site, the perceived value of external links to other websites that are already considered a good reference, but also the production of content that could generate interest from our user community and therefore increase traffic to the site and strengthen brand visibility. Businesses and brands must now become publishers and media channels in their own right, implementing a strong editorial strategy in order to stand out from the large volumes of content that can be accessed on the internet.
The content and services offered must also reflect users’ expectations. This can be evaluated by examining the amount of time each user category spends on the site, or the number of pages they visit. Landing pages must therefore be closely monitored to ensure they convey an easily understandable message in line with users’ expectations, so as to entice them to progress further in their customer journey.
Brand awarness through Search Engine Advertising
In parallel with SEO, brands have also been making use of SEA (Search Engine Advertising) in order to maximise their online visibility and strengthen their brand image. The key difference is that instead of optimizing content for ranking, businesses pay for their content to be displayed in a more prominent position by search engines (what is known as ‘paid search’, as opposed to ‘organic search’ or natural rankings determined by the algorithms).
Even paid search, however, is governed by an incredibly technical set of parameters that need to be factored in, the message itself and the bidding system being but two in a long list. Because digital marketing allows real-time performance monitoring, it functions on a constant compare-and-contrast framework. This is reflected in the so-called A/B testing, which consists in producing several versions of the same message/content by introducing small variations in order to identify the best performing content in terms of impressions, clicks or conversions: it depends on which metric was previously identified as generating more value (subscribing to a newsletter, visiting a product page, registering online for a service, adding items to a shopping basket, purchasing items, etc.).
Towards a hyper-personalized digital marketing strategy with AI
Today, these tasks are increasingly being automated. Applied to digital marketing, AI allows brands to better understand customer behaviour, analyse their habits, the sites they visit more often, etc. This enables businesses to make sense of the massive volume of data produced by our internet browsing and harnessed by cookies. There are obvious, immediate applications: touchpoints can be optimised to convey the right message at the right time and on the right channel to an existing or potential customer. For instance, customers looking at their phone could receive a push notification about a promotion in line with an event that might interest them, or inspired by a particular stage in their life (marriage, graduation, etc.). Crucially, this highly personalized experience can be automated thanks to machine learning algorithms.
All this can be made possible by AI on a large scale, and that is why AI represents a new frontier for brands and their digital marketing strategy: by delivering hyper-personalized messages in a constantly quantifiable process, it reconciles the two ‘souls’ of digital marketing, content and measurable impact.