All posts by Chris Camps

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What does visual search mean for ecommerce in 2017?

Since the early 2010s, visual search has been offering users a novel alternative to keyword-based search results.

But with the sophistication of visual search tools increasing, and tech giants like Google and Microsoft investing heavily in the space, what commercial opportunities does it offer brands today?

Visual search 101

There are two types of visual search. The first compares metadata keywords for similarities (such as when searching an image database like Shutterstock).

The second is known as ‘content-based image retrieval’. This takes the colour, shape and texture of the image and compares it to a database, displaying entries according to similarity.

From a user perspective, this massively simplifies the process of finding products they like the look of. Instead of trying to find the words to describe the object, users can simply take a photo and see relevant results.

Visual search engines: A (very) brief history

The first product to really make use of this technology was ‘Google Goggles’. Released in 2010, it offered some fairly basic image-recognition capabilities. It could register unique objects like books, barcodes, art and landmarks, and provide additional information about them.

It also had the ability to understand and store text in an image – such as a photo of a business card. However, it couldn’t recognize general instances of objects, like trees, animals or items of clothing.

CamFind took the next step, offering an app where users could take photos of any object and see additional information alongside shopping results. My tests (featuring our beautiful office plant) yielded impressively accurate related images and web results.

More importantly for brands, it offers advertising based on the content of the image. However, despite the early offering, the app has yet to achieve widespread adoption.

What does visual search mean for ecommerce in 2017?

A Pinterest-ing development

newer player in the visual search arena, image-focused platform Pinterest has what CamFind doesn’t – engaged users. In fact, it reached 150m monthly users in 2016, 70m of which are in the US with a 60:40 split women to men.

So what do people use Pinterest for? Ben Silbermann, its CEO and co-founder, summed it up in a recent blog post:

“As a Pinner once said to me, “Pinterest is for yourself, not your selfies”—I love that. Pinterest is more of a personal tool than a social one. People don’t come to see what their friends are doing. (There are lots of other great places out there for that!) Instead, they come to Pinterest to find ideas to try, figure out which ones they love, and learn a little bit about themselves in the process.”

In other words, Pinterest is designed for discovery. Users are there to look for products and ideas, not to socialize. Which makes it inherently brand-friendly. In fact, 93% of Pinners said they use Pinterest to plan for purchases, and 87% said they’d bought something because of interest. Adverts are therefore less disruptive in this context than platforms like Facebook and Twitter, where users are focused on socializing, not searching.

Pinterest took their search functionality to the next level in February 2017 with an update offering users three new features:

Shop the Look allowed users to pick just one part of an image they were interested in to explore – like a hat or a pair of shoes.

What does visual search mean for ecommerce in 2017?

Related Ideas gives users the ability to explore a tangent based on a single pin. For example, if I were interested in hideously garish jackets, I might click ‘more’ and see a collection of equally tasteless items.

What does visual search mean for ecommerce in 2017?

Pinterest Lens was the heavyweight feature of this release. Linking to the functionality displayed in Shop the Look, it allowed users to take photos on their smartphone and see Pins that looked similar to the object displayed.

In practice, this meant a user might see a chair they were interested in purchasing, take a photo, and find similar styles – in exactly the same way as CamFind.

What does visual search mean for ecommerce in 2017?

Pinterest Lens today

What does it mean for ecommerce brands?

Visual search engines have the potential to offer a butter-smooth customer journey – with just a few taps between snapping a picture of something and having it in a basket and checking out. Pinterest took a big step towards that in May this year, announcing they would be connecting their visual search functionality to Promoted Pins – allowing advertisers to get in front of users searching visually by surfacing adverts in the ‘Instant Ideas’ and the ‘More like this’ sections.

For retail brands with established Pinterest strategies like Target, Nordstrom, Walgreens and Lululemon, this is welcome news, as it presents a novel opportunity for brands to connect with users looking to purchase products.

What does visual search mean for ecommerce in 2017?

Product images can be featured in visual search results

Nearly 2 million people Pin product-rich pins every day. The platform even offers the ability to include prices and other data on pins, which helps drive further engagement. Furthermore, it has the highest average order value of any major social platform at $50, and caters heavily to users on mobile (orders from mobile devices increased from 67% to 80% between 2013-2015).

But while Pinterest may have led the way in terms of visual search, it isn’t alone. Google and Bing have both jumped on the trend with Lens-equivalent products in the last year. Both Google Lens and Bing Visual Search (really, Microsoft? That’s the best you have?) function in an almost identical way to Pinterest Lens. Examples from Bing’s blog post on the product even show it being applied in the same contexts – picking out elements of a domestic scene and displaying shopping results.

One interesting question for ecommerce brands to answer will be how to optimize product images for these kinds of results.

What does visual search mean for ecommerce in 2017?

What does visual search mean for ecommerce in 2017?

Google Lens, announced at Google’s I/O conference in May to much furore, pitches itself as a tool to help users understand the world. By accessing Google’s vast knowledge base, the app can do things like identify objects, and connect to your WiFi automatically by snapping the code on the box.

What does visual search mean for ecommerce in 2017?

Of course, this has a commercial application as well. One of the use cases highlighted by Google CEO Sundar Pichai was photographing a business storefront and having the Google Local result pop up, replete with reviews, menus and contact details.

The key feature here is the ability to connecting a picture taken with an action. It doesn’t take too much to imagine how brands might be able to use this functionality in interesting and engaging ways – for example, booking event tickets directly from an advert, as demonstrated at I/O:

What does visual search mean for ecommerce in 2017?

The future

Many marketers think we’re on the brink of a revolution when it comes to search. The growing popularity of voice search is arguably an indicator that consumers are moving away from keyword-based search and towards more intuitive methods.

It’s too soon to write off the medium entirely, of course – keywords are still by the far the easiest way to access most information. But visual search, along with voice, are certainly still useful additions to the roster of tools we might use to access information on the internet.

Ecommerce brands would be wise to keep close tabs on the progress of visual search tools; those that are prepared will have a significant competitive advance over those that aren’t.

This post was originally published on our sister site, ClickZ, and has been reproduced here for the enjoyment of our audience on Search Engine Watch.

What does voice search mean for your local SEO strategy?

The ubiquity of virtual assistants like Siri, Cortana and Alexa, together with improvements in technology, has led to an uptick in voice search queries.

For businesses that rely on local search traffic, this has important ramifications for their strategy.

So how can businesses ensure they aren’t left behind when it comes to local search?

Produced in collaboration with Brandify.

OK, Google…what’s going on with voice search?

Voice search is a growing trend that has been pinging the radars of savvy search marketers for the last few years.

In 2016, conversational AI company MindMeld surveyed smartphone users in the US, finding that 60% of users who used voice search had started using it in the last past year – indicating rising adoption rates. This is backed up by Mary Meeker’s 2016 Internet Trends Report, which found that Google voice search queries in 2016 are up 35x over 2008, now making up 20% of searches made with the Google Android app.

It’s not hard to see why. Voice searches are fast (humans can speak at 150 words per minute, versus typing at 40 wpm), convenient (instant, hands-free) and increasingly reliable.

Rising word accuracy rates are a big factor. Usage in the US grew from 30-65% between 2013-2015, with 35% citing improvements in technology as the primary reason for adopting it.

In its early stages, voice recognition had an accuracy of below 80%, rendering the service buggy and difficult to use. Today, Google’s word accuracy rate is over 90%.

But the real driver of widespread adoption has been the omnipresence of virtual assistants like Siri, Cortana, Google Assistant – all of whom will automatically perform a web search if they are unable to answer a question natively.

SEO company HigherVisibility surveyed 2,000 mobile phone users and found that 27% of respondents use voice search assistants daily, while another 27% use them at least once a week.

What does this mean for search traffic?

More searches using natural language

Whereas regular searches usually just include keywords (‘IHOP opening times’), voice searches tend to be structured using full, grammatically correct sentences (‘what time does IHOP open on a Sunday?’).

In fact, Google is currently working to better accommodate these so-called ‘natural language’ queries. At the Google I/O developer conference last year, Google CEO Sundar Pichai revealed Google Assistant’s ability to handle follow-up questions without the need to re-state the context.

This allows you to search something like “Who directed The Revenant?” followed immediately by “Show me his awards”.

More searches on mobile

The convenience afforded by voice search comes into its own when users are on mobile. Although available on desktop web for Google and via Siri for Mac (as of OSX Sierra), voice searches don’t make as much sense in a desktop environment.

Higher Visibility found that over half (53%) of those that used voice search used it when driving, and another 21% used it when doing another activity.

More searches with local intent

According to Meeker’s Internet Trends Report 2016, mobile voice-related searches are 3X more likely to be local-based than text-based queries. This makes local SEO critical for businesses seeking to appear in these results.

What does it mean for your marketing strategy?

Look to target long-tail and natural language keywords in content

For the question-answering content on your site, consider how someone might phrase their search query as a full sentence. If you’re stuck for inspiration, your website analytics should reveal at least one or two search terms that tick this box.

Creating an FAQs page is an easy way to optimize for this, as it both asks and answers the most relevant queries for customers – and puts full questions in prominent header tags.

Optimize your site for mobile

In October 2016, global mobile / tablet web browsing finally exceeded desktop, with the former accounting for 51.3%, and the latter 48.7% according to StatCounter.

Mobile-friendliness has been a ranking signal since 2015, but it’s particularly important for businesses who receive traffic from local search from mobile users – such as searches appended with ‘near me’.

Improve your local SEO to target searches with local intent

Google’s Venice update in 2012 improved the triggering of Local Universal results (aka the ‘three-pack’, shown below). This box pops up when faced with queries that have relevant local results, like my Neanderthal request for “food near me”:

Basic SEO advice aside, here are a few simple steps to improve your ranking in these results:

  • Verify your Google My Business listing including a long, unique and correctly-formatted description that includes links to your business. You should also upload high-resolution photos, opening times, a phone number and a business address that matches your website.
  • Use a consistent name, address and phone number (NAP) across your online profiles. That includes your Google My Business listing and your website. This information needs to be exact.
  • Acquire and maintain positive reviews as these have been shown to affect your ranking in local search results. For more on how to manage your reputation online, check out our handy guide: ‘How to handle negative reviews and manage your brand’s reputation‘ over on our sister site, ClickZ.

This article was produced in collaboration with Brandify. Click here to read our collaborative content guidelines.

This article originally ran on our sister site, ClickZ, and has been republished here for the enjoyment of our readers on Search Engine Watch.

How to optimize Google My Business listings for multi-location businesses

Being listed on Google My Business (GMB) is an essential part of any local SEO strategy.

But how can businesses with multiple locations make sure they aren’t penalized in search rankings?

Produced in association with SweetIQ.

Google My Business

Google My Business was rolled out in 2014 to make it easier for local businesses to be found via search. It had an added benefit of allowing businesses to stay on top of reviews, and to perform analytics on interactions like clicks, views, calls and requests for directions.

In other words, it became the first step in any local search marketing strategy.

Today, a well-maintained GMB listing remains a vital source of traffic and, ultimately, revenue – especially for businesses competing for location-specific keywords.

Google’s ‘three pack’ of local search results, which is triggered by search terms with local intent like “restaurants Venice Beach”, is given significantly more prominence than organic results in both desktop and mobile SERPs. In fact, organic results are not even visible above the fold for mobile users.

Google’s mobile SERP for ‘restaurants Venice beach’ (left) vs ‘Venice beach’ (right). Screenshots courtesy of Andy Favell

Essential for SEO

Since Google reduced the number of local results from 7 to 3 in 2015, it has become more important than ever for businesses to feature as high as possible in these results. And with 1 in 3 Google searches now having local intent (according to digital marketing expert Jordan Kasteler) there is more traffic up for grabs than ever.

On the flip-side, competition for this traffic is fierce, meaning mistakes can cost you dearly. The Local Search Association estimates that over $10bn worth of potential annual sales are lost because of missing or conflicting information in Google My Business listings.

For businesses with multiple locations, this is a real problem; each business location has a unique address and contact details. How can big businesses ensure they aren’t penalized for conflicting information on their Google My Business profile?

First steps

Luckily, Google is well aware of this problem, and allows business owners to claim multi-location business listings. However, in order to be verified by Google as such, a few conditions must first be met. A business must:

  • Have at least 10 locations
  • Not be a service business
  • Not be an agency managing several clients

The local 3-pack for ‘pizza delivery New York’ returns Domino’s Pizza – a chain with many hundred locations

Optimize your multi-location business

After claiming your multi-location business on GMB, the next step is to optimize your listing. But before you can do this, you must first understand what factors influence your chance of appearing in the local ‘three pack’.

The most important of these is accuracy across all platforms. This means making sure every piece of information about your business is consistent across all the websites it appears on, including Yellow Pages, Yelp, Facebook, Foursquare, Apple Maps, Hotfrog and, of course, your own website.

Google bots crawl all of these pages and, when encountering information about your business, will compare it to your GMB listing to establish its validity. Any inconsistencies will raise a red flag about the accuracy of your information and will likely lead to your GMB listing being penalized in the rankings.

How do you ensure accuracy between your listings?

1. Claim and verify all your locations using a single, unique GMB account.

Make sure you delete any duplicate listings or accounts that may have been created by other staff members in other locations.

2. Ensure your business name, address and phone number (‘NAP’) are an exact match wherever they appear.

The easiest way to achieve this is to simply copy and paste from your GMB listing.

3. Optimize your store locator on your central website so it’s crawlable by Google.

Google considers your website the most ‘official’ source of information regarding your company, so ensuring Google can access it is essential.

4. Use a microsite for each of your store locations.

This gives each location a unique reference and separate About page – each with an accurate NAP that Google can crawl.

5. Use a Local Marketing Platform to manage all of this information.

It allows you to see what Google sees, and check and edit data for all your store location from a single interface – ensuring complete accuracy across all platform. Most can also provide advice on optimizing store locators for your website, along with detailed analytics on user interactions, traffic sources and more.

 

To learn more about optimizing GMB listings for multi-location businesses, and to understand how to turn GMB data into actionable insights, download the SweetIQ Guide to Google My Business.

Content produced in association with SweetIQClick here to read our collaborative content guidelines.

5 most interesting search marketing news stories of the week

Welcome to our weekly round-up of all the latest news and research from the world of search marketing and beyond.

Google has been busy this week, performing several interesting tests including two fairly major ones concerning hotel reviews and job listings.

Meanwhile, Bing makes its homepage a little more interactive, and Google has announced that Similar Audiences will be available for Search and Shopping in AdWords. Finally, one Googler put a persistent SEO myth about 404 pages to bed once and for all.

Google is testing a new UI for hotel reviews

Toronto SEO specialist Sergey Alakov discovered the test last week, exploring its implications in a post on his personal blog. The test shows a new review carousel that amalgamates reviews from third-party sources like Expedia and booking.com.

There are a few changes to the review system too, with Google now displaying average scores for Room, Locations, and Services & Facilities. Clicking through to the reviews section also shows an average score for different types of traveler – like Couples, Families, and Solo.

Image courtesy of Sergey Alakov

…alongside a new Job Portal to help users find job listings

SEO and Moz-affiliate Dan Shure broke the test via Twitter last Friday with a screenshot of a Knowledge Panel-esque feature for active job listings. Clicking through results in an expanded results page which allows segmentation by industry, title, type, location, company type and employer.

Speculators were quick to spell doom for the recruitment industry, with one contributor linking to a Google Hire page.

Image courtesy of @dan_shure

Bing is sharing the story behind its homepage photos

Bing’s homepage has sought to differentiate itself from the stoic simplicity of Google with high-res, eye-catching background images.

An article from Search Engine Land noted that Bing homepage now displays the source of these images, and offers the option to download and share it via social media.

Google announces a new audience solution for Search and Shopping

In a Google+ post, the Google AdWords account revealed that their Similar Audiences feature would now be available for Search and Shopping. Here’s the full text of the post:

Remarketing lists for search ads (RLSA) (https://goo.gl/J6csaJ) help you reconnect with people who’ve been to your site, but engaging both new and loyal customers is just as important to your business. Starting today, we’re rolling out similar audiences for Search and Shopping along with Customer Match for Shopping to help you use your own data to reach the right customer with the right message: https://goo.gl/sa2VMK

Google confirmed you won’t be demoted for linking to a 404 page

There has been some speculation over the impact of linking to 404 pages, which provide a potentially negative experience for users. SEOs have asked: does Google care?

Well, in response to a tweet from SEMPost writer Jennifer Slegg, Gary Illyes (@methode) confirmed that Google doesn’t take it into account:

Not much room for ambiguity there.

Brand TLDs vs .com (part two): How can brands benefit from a .brand domain?

In part one a few weeks ago, we discussed what brand TLDs (top level domains) are, which brands have applied for them, and why they might be important.

Today, we’ll take an in-depth look at the potential benefits for brands, and explore the challenges brand TLDs could help solve.

Content produced in association with Neustar.

Recap: what brands are doing

Tech powerhouse Google has brought together content from more than 19 existing blogs under one roof at www.blog.google, and this site is now Google’s corporate blog. It has also rolled out www.environment.google, which hosts information about the company’s environmental and sustainability work, as well as its future goals.

Financial services brands have followed suit, with the homepage of UK bank Barclays, for example, now found at www.home.barclays instead of the historically used barclays.com URL. Statistically, more than half of all brand TLDs fall into either financial or technology verticals.

Other recognizable brands including Canon have also made the transition. Perhaps seeking to further separate its global and regional brand propositions, Canon has shifted its global homepage canon.com/global to global.canon.

Brand TLDs are generally popular among large multinational companies – more than 40% of brand TLDs have been applied for by Fortune 500 companies, including BMW, which now displays its vision for the next 100 years at www.next100.bmw. Other companies using TLDs include Dell, Deloitte, Nike, NFL, Chanel, Microsoft, Audi and many more.

.brand: the benefits

When generic TLDs (gTLDs) like .guru, and .ninja were authorised by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Name and Numbers (ICANN), there was much debate over the potential SEO benefits. One notable and much-publicized example was www.coffee.club, which ranked on page one of US SERPs for ‘Coffee Club’ just a week after launching.

However, Google was quick to quash speculation of gTLD favouritism in its rankings. In July 2015, webmaster trends analyst John Mueller published a post to Google’s Webmaster Central Blog entitled ‘Google’s handling of new top level domains’, to clear up misconceptions surrounding gTLDs. He did so in two short sentences: “Our systems treat new gTLDs like other gTLDs (like .com & .org). Keywords in a TLD do not give any advantage or disadvantage in search.”

In other words, second-guessing Google’s search algorithms has become a fool’s errand. So why have so many major brands got on board? Well, a .brand TLD has several other benefits that make it an attractive prospect.

1. Web usability

Shorter, simpler URLs are more memorable and easier to understand. Removing the .com means the new URL contains more salient information in a smaller space, and front loads the URL with the most important information first.

This makes the link’s destination clearer, requiring the reader to expend less effort to understand it. For example, when navigating to the Microsoft website, a user is likely to already know which brand or product they’re after.

So the most important piece information is the part of the website you’re on. The new URL www.surface.microsoft delivers this information more efficiently and more intuitively than, say, www.microsoft.com/surface.

This may seem trivial, but when it comes to web usability, these tiny differences are crucial. Google itself has weighed in with its number one piece of advice for URL structure: keep it as simple as possible.

Semantically meaningful URLs are just as important as simple ones – both make URLs more user-friendly. Having a short, meaningful URL can improve click-through rates from link sharing. By comparison, complicated, meaningless URLs are off-putting to users as they don’t clearly indicate their destination.

Another benefit of .brand URLs is simply reducing the length of the URL. Greater creativity ‘before the dot’ means less detail is required with multiple slashes and long paths following the Top-Level Domain. Shorter URLs often go hand in hand with higher rankings, although there are other factors at play. Rand Fishkin, head of SEO website Moz, explains URL structure best practice in this Quora answer:

“We’ve done a bunch of analysis on this and shorter URLs are certainly more correlated with higher rankings. In our rank modeling, it appears to be a small input, but things like dynamic strings (the use of the ‘?’ character) appear to be surprisingly negative. My advice would be to worry less about length and more about making them static, using keywords intelligently (but not in a spammy fashion) and ensuring that they’re also usable and sharable.”

2. Brand differentiation

Brands are always looking for ways to stand out from their competitors. Generic TLDs like .info and .cafe achieve this to some extent, but a .brand TLD allows a company to really own its web presence, and helps to create a unique experience for customers using their brand each and every time.

What’s more, the limited availability of .brand TLDs will temporarily help brands differentiate themselves from those that failed to acquire them. With only around 600 brands signed up and a second application round not expected for another few years, owning a .brand TLD has become something of a badge of honour and a potential competitive advantage.

3. Microsites

Finally, .brand TLDs are perfect for creating microsites for individual products, services or events. Compartmentalizing in this way gives brands greater scope to optimize and personalize the experience of users landing on the site.

A speculative example would be the next iPhone launch, which will likely have its own dedicated microsite. This resource allows Apple to tightly control how they roll out their product online, and gives them a unique, information-heavy, and shareable URL – which could be something like www.iphone8.apple. Those taking care of Apple’s intellectual property and domain names will be relieved not having to worry about the availability of domains in the future or keeping product names silent for fear of losing out or expensive buy backs.

4. Safety and security

For large brands, copycat websites are a serious concern. A negative experience on a fake version of a brand’s website can damage the original’s reputation, despite the brand having no hand in creating it.

A .brand URL safeguards that brand’s supply chain by offering a guarantee to customers that they’re on an authentic website. As the brand manages all second-level domains, only the brand itself can use their TLD. This is good news for brands that rely heavily on consumer trust, such as those in the financial services and technology industries. It’s no surprise, then, that more than half of all brand TLDs fall into these verticals – .sony, .google and .dell are just a few examples.

Going forward…

The road is long for .brand TLDs, but there certainly seems to be significant benefits for brands and consumers.

To learn more, join our webinar hosted by ClickZ Intelligence, Neustar and featuring other industry experts from Major League Baseball and VaynerMedia on February 28 at 2pm EST / 11am PT. We’ll cover everything you need to know about branded TLDs, exploring their history, benefits, limitations, implications and everything in between. Click here to register your interest.

 

This content has been produced in association with Neustar. Click here to read our collaborative content guidelines. Views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of ClickZ.

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Data-driven attribution: the cure for discount code abuse?

Produced in association with Fospha.

When measuring the effectiveness of discount codes, retailers often get it wrong. In this article, we’ll look at how data-driven attribution can help businesses better understand where discount codes produce the best ROI.

Retailers often don’t consider discount codes in the same way they do traditional marketing spend. On the one hand this seems appropriate; the cost is a percentage of top-line revenue at the point of conversion rather than upfront speculative spend. But viewing them as nothing but a conversion lever can lead to a dangerous disconnect in understanding the true cost of customer acquisition and retention.

In a multi-channel, multi-device world, it’s increasingly hard to acquire and keep customers cost-effectively. Discount codes are an easy and powerful short-term lever for growth that can be activated and ramped up quickly (through deeper discounting and broader availability etc.). But with the temptation their flexibility and impact affords, many retailers now run expansive discount code programmes without understanding their real cost.

The difficulty in tracking the long-term effectiveness of discount codes is compounded by the following factors:

  • A reluctance to adopt a cautious approach (A/B testing etc.), as retailers seek to maximise the returns from push far and wide through multiple marketing channels (with testing particularly challenging with affiliate and offline channels).
  • For businesses that rely heavily on repeat business, the effect on customer lifetime value is unknown, as retailers try to maximise revenue without conditioning their customers to buy only when discount codes are available.
  • Retailers running frequent or overlapping campaigns where it isn’t possible to fully measure the post-discount drop in sales, and it becomes difficult to measure what ‘normal’ performance looks like. This is illustrated in the chart below:

Feast and Famine: A chart showing the effect running discount codes can have on business performance.

The good news for retailers is that there’s an alternative to scaling back their discount code activity and running testing that limits top line impact. Data driven attribution modelling – focused on the end-to-end economics of the customer journey – can identify their true value and cost, stitching together all customer interactions through every marketing channel and platform visit over time and across devices. This helps build a complete understanding of the role each channel and lever plays in conversion (and at what point in the customer journey they play that role), so a business can identify where a discount code genuinely contributes to a conversion and where they are cannibalising (either totally or partly) a full-price sale.

By considering discount codes only one contributor in a complex user journey, retailers get better visibility on their value relative to other marketing channels and can distribute spend more appropriately. They can also use the insights into where and when in the journey discount codes should be used to optimise spend on customer acquisition and retention, leading to a more customer-centric approach to discounting that will yield long-term brand health benefits.

Fospha helps businesses use data insights to optimise their customer journeys. Click here to find out more.

This content has been produced in association with Fospha. Click here to read our collaborative content guidelines. Views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of ClickZ’s.

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Has the marketing cloud lived up to the hype?

Since cloud computing first gained mainstream attention around 2009, its popularity has exploded.

Promising increased efficiency, flexibility and cost-effectiveness, it was hailed as the ultimate business solution. This year, IDC predicted that CMOs will drive $32.3bn in marketing technology spending by 2018.

According to Sean Grimes, Director of IT services for Agilisys, “there is no denying that Cloud Technology is creating as much disruption as the dotcom boom”. But are users seeing the benefits?

What is a ‘marketing cloud’?

The marketing cloud is made up of a suite of cloud-based marketing tools covering analytics, targeting, social media management, audience management, customer experience and more. It can be used to track and measure customer data, keep tabs on individual users and automate time-consuming tasks.

It seems marketers are now beginning to recognise it as a viable alternative to traditional software. ‘What the hell is a marketing cloud, anyway?’, a new report by ClickZ Intelligence, surveyed nearly 200 marketing professionals to discover their thoughts on the marketing cloud. Over half (52%) of respondents claimed to be using marketing cloud technology, with another 27% saying they were considering using it.

Another 12% claimed not to know what the term ‘marketing cloud’ meant. Although the majority were already using the technology, this suggests there may be some confusion amongst marketers around the term ‘marketing cloud’ – backed up by interviews with senior client-side executives. Many were sceptical that the technology they used could be classed under the term ‘marketing cloud’. However, further investigation revealed that all were using vendors and products that fitted the survey’s definition – ‘an integrated suite of marketing tools which are available to marketers as web-based services offered by a software vendor’.

Does it work?

The question is: does this technology have a tangible effect on productivity and profitability? An overwhelming majority (82%) of respondents in the same survey said the marketing cloud had a positive impact on their organisation’s marketing, and 88% agreed that an integrated suite of marketing tools has a positive effect on business performance. Pete Markey, Director of Brand Communications & Marketing for Aviva, explained:

‘The right use of cloud technologies can transform capabilities in the marketing team. These tools help you get activity out faster and it changes the nature of people’s jobs. You spend a lot less time on grunt work so you can get on and make the most of your skill set.’

In this case, ‘grunt work’ can be massively reduced by marketing automation. Reducing the time spent on tasks which don’t directly contribute towards profitability – like administration and database management – means teams work efficiently and productively. It’s no surprise then, that 76% of marketing professionals in the survey that said marketing automation was either a ‘critical’ or ‘important’ element for a marketing suite.

Integrated or non-integrated?

Clearly, marketers value the marketing cloud, but getting it up and running isn’t always a smooth process. Before investing, businesses must first decide whether to use one vendor for an ‘integrated’ suite of marketing tools, or to rely on several different ones. Both have their pros and cons: integrated services offer more functionality and convenience, but tend to come with a higher cost. On the other hand, a ‘modular’ approach – where a business uses only the services they need, but provided by a variety of vendors – is often complex and difficult to manage.

How do marketing professionals see it? According to the report findings, ‘reducing complexity’ was the most important benefit of an integrated approach, with 44% of respondents citing it as an advantage. Integrated services provide a unified user interface, making data easier to access and interpret. They also enable staff in different departments to create campaigns, share information and collaborate more easily.

Ease of use was also ranked highly, with 24% valuing a single vendor point of contact.

Understandably, juggling multiple systems has the potential to become complex – especially when things go wrong. With an integrated marketing suite, the number of possible causes of any given problem are massively reduced. Nonetheless, a ‘modular’ approach, although more difficult to manage, can be appropriate to smaller companies that don’t require the broad functionality that an integrated service might offer.

The future?

It remains to be seen what the future holds for the marketing cloud. The market is still young, and it’s not clear what innovations are on the horizon. Only time will tell which vendors and services will win out. But the marketing cloud is certainly a growing force – one which marketers everywhere are beginning to consider.

 

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