Marketing to machines: how to survive the search revolution

If you’re old enough to have used encyclopedias and microfiche, you likely remember how online search engines like Lycos and Yahoo revolutionized the way we find information. And the way we do marketing.

Before the advent of online search, marketing was heavily reliant on TV, radio and print ads combined with a bit of luck. But online search changed all that. Suddenly brands could reach the right audience for a fraction of the cost. And as search engines and paid search evolved, marketing has gotten increasingly targeted and cost-effective.

Today, a new search revolution is underway, as detailed in “The next revolution of search”, a joint study by Econsultancy and my colleagues at Microsoft. As we move into the age of machine learning and intelligent assistants, brands must embrace innovation and create new experiences to stand out.

Below, I’ve outlined key trends as well as opportunities for brands to change how they engage customers.

Opportunity: machine marketing

It wasn’t too long ago that digital assistants on our mobile devices were little more than a novelty. But these days, digital assistants are becoming smarter and more capable. And as machine learning and artificial intelligences (AI) evolves, digital assistants are going to become better at anticipating our needs, discerning intent, and in some circumstances, taking action (we’ll get to that shortly).

In fact, data indicates that consumers expect and want this kind of intimacy with their digital assistants. In a survey of 2,511 respondents, nearly 60% felt that future interactions with their digital assistant will one day resemble a real relationship, where the assistant can take part in a conversation about their needs or even act on their behalf based on what they know.

This also means that digital assistants will increasingly serve as the gate keepers to consumers. While this has many implications, I call out a couple key ones below.

digital assistants will increasingly serve as the gate keepers to consumers

First, brands must use machine learning, AI and automation for marketing. The massive amount of data already available is going to multiply as intelligent digital assistants provide new insights into consumers’ preferences and context. Without machine learning, brands will be unable to organize and prioritize these inputs. And thus, unable to compete effectively.

Second, as marketers we must perfect our ability to create and share content that is hyper-relevant and useful to consumers from the perspective of the digital assistants. And while we continue to invest in collecting and making sense of data, brands will need to also share out data that directly aligns to consumer needs.

Opportunity: automatic and assisted buying

If you examine your personal monthly budget, you’ll find that certain expenses come up monthly such as housing, transportation, utilities, and household goods. In total, these expenses add up to more than 80% of the average household’s annual spending. And with the proliferation of online banking and subscription services, many consumers are already accustomed to automatic purchases.

And this trend is going to gain even greater momentum in the future. 75% of survey respondents indicated that automatic buying would be useful, especially if the price was about what they pay now. Because what consumers always want is convenience.

Brands that position themselves for subscription-based or automatic buying gain a huge advantage by securing consumer loyalty through convenience. Brands that don’t take advantage of this will see huge portions of their target audience disappear from the marketplace and will find themselves hard-pressed to compete.

Opportunity: progressive search

Imagine the insights you could gain if you could be there throughout a customer’s entire decision journey. Brands that develop intelligent assistants that monitor search-related tasks over time are poised to gain a more complete view into their customer’s long-term goals and changing situations.

Already brands are dabbling in this area, especially the healthcare industry, with innovations around data collection, monitoring, and service delivery. An example of this is the UK NHS Babylon Health Bot which helps to automate triage to prevent unnecessary doctor visits. It also helps patients order medications.

While these types of tools may start out as membership or mobile shopping tools, they have the potential to solve problems for consumers. Regardless, the data will provide brands with insights they’ve never had.

Opportunity: product discovery

As screens shrink (or disappear) and traditional advertising fades, so will opportunities for brands to get their new products in front of consumers via traditional push channels. Consumers want—and will continue to gain—greater control over interactions with products and advertising. Consumer preferences will define and limit the types of messaging they receive. Consumer-led product discovery will be key and move away from being a bottom-of-the-funnel activity.

we’ll be searching from wearables, smart speakers, the AI in your car or home

In The next revolution of search, Christi Olson from Bing Ads comments on the changing face of product search: “We’ll be searching from wearables, smart speakers, the AI in your car or home or the AI at a parts store that guides you to aisle 7. Then add to that how assistants will have a memory…that we’re thinking about buying a car or that we like the fish at a local restaurant…and search really starts at the top of the funnel because it’s pervasive in your life.”

There are a number of implications from these changes on how brands engage consumers. One implication is real estate. Screens are smaller and in some cases, non-existent. Which means pages of product links and sponsored ads will become a relic of the past.

Another implication is relevant content. As search agents get smarter and more personalized, consumers will expect high value results, which depending on the search and consumer could be ease of use, price, or detailed information. Brands that try to counteract these expectations by forcing commercial results into unrelated searches and the like, will fail.

Search is changing rapidly and to keep up, brands must be aggressive with innovation. And the time to get started is now. For a more complete view of how search will evolve, I would highly recommend reading the next revolution of search whitepaper.

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