Search beyond: What are the implications of increasingly assistive technology for marketers?

As a quarterly gathering of senior practitioners from some of the most innovative independent digital agencies in the UK, Search Beyond explores key topics facing the digital marketing industry through discussion and debate. The ideas, experiences and insights are shared here on Think with Google.

In the emerging age of assistance, consumers are becoming used to not only having their needs met, but anticipated in advance. To kick off the Search Beyond series in 2018, we asked independent agencies to share their thoughts on the impact of increasingly assistive technology on user behaviour, and the implications for marketers.

"The next generation is going to interact with assistance in a way that we’re not used to right now – for them it will be completely normal and natural.”

– Wajid Ali, Head of Paid Search, Forward3D

To start things off, the group quickly reached a consensus that although the potential for consumers and businesses is huge, it remains largely unrealised. “With any new technology, the penetration’s going to take a while”, said Wajid Ali, Head of Paid Search at Forward3D. “But overall it’s just a matter of time. The next generation is going to interact with assistance in a way that we’re not used to right now – for them it will be completely normal and natural.”

For now though, a question mark remains over how users will choose to engage with assistive technologies in terms of device, with people possessing varying levels of comfort in talking to their tablets, phones, interactive home speakers and cars. “I hate making phone calls – no one makes phone calls anymore!” laughed Jocelyn Le Conte, Head of Paid Search at Merkle / Periscopix. “So it’s interesting to change that habit and go back again to talking to the phone. I have a Google Home and I talk to that all the time, but I don’t talk to my phone at all!”

Beyond learning to converse with an inanimate object, the group foresaw an additional hurdle: commercialisation. “Machine learning – even outside of advertising – is the biggest opportunity in technology”, said NMPi Director of Business Strategy Damien Bennett. “But it’s all reliant on data. So then the trade-off is that in order for all of the user benefits to be paid for, they have to be commercialised. Whilst I see huge benefits to myself as a user in having something like a health app that could predict when I might be ill, am I comfortable in putting all the information in that’s required? Where I walk, how often I exercise, what I eat, recent illnesses I’ve had – am I comfortable putting that in, knowing that it could also be used to target me in terms of advertising?”

According to Wajid, clarity around the value proposition is absolutely key. “As a consumer, the value has to outweigh the cost of having your data given out”, he said. “And as with social media, I don’t think people will be willing to pay for it. I think it will always be commercialised in some way. In the age of the internet and the freemium model I think consumers accept that is the case.”

While participants largely agreed on this point, they also agreed that mapping out a model and use cases seems a long way off yet. According to Josh White, Jellyfish PPC Director, “It starts from a position of helping people out, then moving into how it can be commoditised. Now we’re moving into that question of how can an advertiser use it?”

Ben Knight, Croud’s COO, has already seen clients grappling with this question. “At the moment we know we can process data really quickly and get great insight from it, but brands are still struggling to know exactly how they should use it.  All that we can do is incredible, but brands are still at the point where they’re asking, ‘What can I use it for?’” – and as a result we’re having to run the testing for them.

From here, the conversation shifted to striking the fine balance between providing help to the user and pushing the content that a brand wants to promote. “Clients are really interested in this whole concept, but there aren’t many ways to monetise it from a business point of view; the opportunity for brands is still conceptual at this stage”, Wajid said. “So it’s about figuring out how to be genuinely assistive, helping people be productive, while also putting content before or after a message. But how will people take to a virtual assistant if they know there’s content being pushed?”

In an advertiser-led market it’s crucial to prioritise messaging relevance – because the last thing a business wants is for their attempt at assistance to give way to annoyance. “At the moment we have Rich Snippets, which help deliver a response in an assistant-based search”, Ben observed. “But how does the media end decide what is the relevant experience for that user? Until we get to the layer of intent and personalisation in the form of relevance for that user, and then use that on a much higher level than we are now, it’s really hard.”

“A lot of the time because we’re marketing agencies, we talk to the marketing teams. Their job function is to find sales and revenue, so the conversation about how we can assist users isn’t necessarily their conversation to have. You have to talk to other people in the business.”

– Angela Knibb, Head of Paid Search, Greenlight

The panel went on to talk at length about the difficulty in coming at the age of assistance from a performance perspective when helping clients to prepare. “Machine learning does allow us to give a personalised customer experience, but then ultimately no one cares unless that means the money goes up at the end”, Jocelyn noted. It was the same story for Josh, who said, “From our point of view, the question clients ask is, ‘How is this going to improve the amount of sales we get?’ rather than, ‘How is this going to improve the experience for the user?’ It’s a different mindset.”

Angela Knibb, Greenlight’s Head of Paid Search, contended that embracing the age of assistance is an organisation-wide initiative that goes beyond marketing. “A lot of the time because we’re marketing agencies, we talk to the marketing teams”, she explained. “Their job function is to find sales and revenue, so the conversation about how we can assist users isn’t necessarily their conversation to have. You have to talk to other people in the business, and ultimately it depends on what the business goal is. A lot of the time they’re interested in assistive technologies as long as helping people helps them.”

While there are plenty of parts that still seem up in the air – user behaviour with regard to device, the commercialisation model, use cases for brands – the Search Beyond panel was sure on one thing: assistance isn’t an area brands can ignore. For Damien, urging clients to invest as soon as possible is a key responsibility. “There’s an incredible risk to businesses that don’t embrace this, because they will fall behind. Our job is to help businesses really tackle this by bringing to life the benefits very effectively”, he argued.

“Everyone’s thinking about machine learning and making things easier, more relevant, more personalised and more beneficial to the user”, Ben maintained. “That means removing friction points that the customer has with the brand and using the data that we can now process quickly in real time to help them on their journey. For every business, if you’re not looking to do this, you’re going to be behind your peers. Being slicker, easier, more relevant is the key to winning the battle.”

The Search Beyond contributors included:

Angela Knibb, Head of Search, Greenlight; Wajid Ali, Head of Paid Search, Forward3D; Jocelyn Le Conte, Head of Paid Search, Merkle / Periscopix; Damien Bennett, Director of Business Strategy, NMPi; Josh White, PPC Director, Jellyfish; Ben Knight, COO, Croud

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