Search Beyond: What role can digital play growing UK exports?

October 2017

In our ‘Search Beyond’ sessions, a handful of the UK’s most innovative independent digital agencies meet regularly to share their thoughts, insights and experience around key issues in digital marketing. The latest instalment of ‘Search Beyond’ saw our expert panel discuss what role digital can play in growing UK exports.


Digital as the thin end of the wedge

For many agencies, a client’s international expansion initiatives coexist naturally alongside the marketing services they’re already providing in the domestic market. “From my perspective, once the decision is made to expand, where digital comes in is to make that transition easier”, explains Maria Yiangou from All Response Media. “You can launch a search or display campaign from your office in London, and because digital is keyword and audience based, it gives you the opportunity to tap into new markets easily.”

While everyone agreed that straightforward scalability is one benefit of a digital-first expansion approach, volume is another. “The situation quite a lot is that the decision has been made to spread out, and the client is testing the waters”, observes iCrossing’s James Marshall. “Digital often comes in when they say, ‘Can you help us test this so we can go back to our business case with some more robust data?’”

Start with search for quick wins and insights

In part due to that ready availability of metrics, when it comes to deciding on a starting point within digital, search emerges as the clear winner. “What I’ve personally found is that it’s easier to go in with search”, explains Greenlight Digital’s Angela Knibb. “By all means, spread that quite thinly, but get the data, analyse it alongside Google Trends and Google Global Market Finder, and see how it all correlates. Then you can understand not only the general search interest, but also the brand interest.”

Croud’s Duncan Nichols agrees. “Clients can be inherently quite cautious, and search is a great medium with which to kick things off. If you were to go into a country and launch a big push media or video campaign, it could go horribly wrong with the client getting their fingers burnt and never wanting to do it again. Whereas with search you’re able to leverage some assumptions you have from other markets, tailor that over time and build up a bed of data. In that sense, it’s a really good first medium to launch.” 

“Get the data, analyse it alongside Google Trends and Google Global Market Finder, and see how it all correlates. Then you can understand not only the general search interest, but also the brand interest”

– Angela Knibb, Head of Paid Search, Greenlight Digital

It’s not a matter of one-size-fits-all

Some clients – by the very nature of their business – are better equipped to start making moves beyond the UK. “The businesses that are the most agile are pure-play, they’re the guys who can expand quicker”, observes Forward 3D’s Louis Wedgbury. “Anyone who is bricks-and-mortar always struggles in terms of international expansion, just because of how their business is set up. So for us, it’s about identifying and facilitating how to get around the points of friction.” For example, a pure-play retailer may already be set up to run cross-border payments and fulfilment because of the platform they’re using, but a traditional business may see these kinds of issues as real sticking points. Because marketing agencies understand the digital ecosystem, they’re in a prime position to bring solutions to the table that can help clients overcome these obstacles.

In terms of geographical areas, the panel affirmed that internationalisation requires an approach that’s intrinsically more akin to bespoke tailoring than off-the-peg dressing. For example in Asian markets where Google lacks volume, it pays to develop a deep understanding of Baidu, Weebo and Wechat. Meanwhile M-Pesa – a mobile phone-based money transfer, financing and microfinancing service – now plays such a huge role in the economy in Kenya that the government even uses it to pay employees. And for anyone trying to crack into Saudi Arabia, it’s worth understanding YouTube viewership there. “Everyone in Saudi watches YouTube – basically that’s what they spend their entire lives doing!” says Vim Badani from Merkle|Periscopix. “So you’ve got to take that into account if you want to start going into that region."

Providing consultancy, adding value

More often than not, clients initiate conversations about expansion, but we heard that there is scope for agencies to provide some leadership in that regard. “We sit on a lot of data that can serve to guide our clients on where to direct their business”, Duncan says. “Personally, I’ve seen huge impact from just showing clients Google Trends charts which they didn’t know existed. I think there’s a lot to be said for the data we have to work with, the insights we have to help guide a business beyond just marketing.”

For Vim, this scenario is one that’s played out recently in his own experience. “In a session we had with the Global Expansion Team, the clients went away absolutely shocked at the fact that they could get all this insight from Google. They could look at what payments would work, what the reach might be and so on before going on to implement.”

The trick for many agencies is finding a way to elevate the dialogue from standard marketing services to more ambitious consultancy offerings. According to George Kafentzis of Jellyfish, it’s about cultivating the relationship, choosing the moment wisely and providing concrete value. “Some of our clients will have ideas and there is trust in our relationship, so if we think there is an opportunity and we have data from Google, we can go to them and say, ‘We can do this – let’s start the conversation.’ But it’s really important to have the tools to provide the data to the client.”

What’s on the horizon

With the UK position in the EU uncertain, exchanges about where clients can find global growth could be on the increase. “It’s a good time to be close to your client’s business because there will be some clients that will be really affected by Brexit”, Duncan says. “Being digital, we can be very agile, but knowing your client’s core position, what they’re thinking about, how they might be affected, understanding the impact and being able to react – it does mean it’s time to be having some conversations with them.”

In any event, the current climate is a prime opportunity to tool up for internationalisation. “In the UK we’re hitting a pretty saturated point now, so a lot of companies are looking at what they can do to grow their businesses”, Vim says. “Being able to give them insight about what might work, payments, market size, population – all that good stuff that Google provides is really useful.”

The Search Beyond contributors include:

Vim Badiani, Head of Paid Search, Merkle|Periscopix; Angela Knibb, Head of Paid Search, Greenlight Digital; James Marshall, Paid Media Director, iCrossing UK; George Kafentzis, PPC Manager, Jellyfish; Louis Wedgbury Strategist, ‎Forward3D; Duncan Nichols, Client Strategy Director, Croud; Maria Yiangou, Associate Director, All Response Media.

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