- Search experiences are becoming more human.
ONWARD19 started off with a history lesson. In the "stone age of the internet" — as Howard Lerman, CEO and Founder of Yext, referred to the early days of online connectivity — scoring a URL was a big deal for a business. A webpage was a 24/7 open house where your customers could drop in whenever they wanted. But they had to know you to find you, so URLs began appearing in TV and print advertising. Then came search and the era of 10 blue links. This made it trickier for brands to stand out as SEO inspired a gold rush to occupy real estate in search results, and bad actors began to creep in and disrupt those results.
Thanks to natural language processing, machine learning, and the vast amounts of data that are helping AI grow more intelligent, search experiences have evolved to better meet consumer intent. "When you combine cloud computing, natural language understanding, and machine learning, search becomes cognitive search," said Kamran Khan, Managing Director, Search & Content Analytics Lead at Accenture.
In a panel discussion on the future of search and discovery, Whitney Eden, East Coast Search Lead at Heat + Deloitte Digital, pointed out that people now expect a "unified consumer experience" — one in which all our devices are synchronized with our search history, so we can instantly refer to answers and results for searches we've made previously.
David Isbitski, Chief Evangelist for Alexa at Amazon, put it simply: "This is about being able to understand human beings again, and how we connect with each other."
- Intent marketing is essential to compete in these new search experiences.
"Just understanding a keyword is not as important as understanding how someone uses the keyword in a question," said Del Humenik, Chief Revenue Officer, SEMrush. Echoing this idea, Todd Stanley, Managing Director at Deloitte, explained that when marketers meet consumer intent, they are "fulfilling the customer need, versus interrupting."
Zack Einhorn, Director of User Acquisition at DuckDuckGo, offered an example that helped illustrate Stanely's point. "Intent is really at the crux here," he said. "If [a consumer] searches for Taylor Swift, it's reasonable to surface an ad from Ticketmaster for a Taylor Swift show. It's not reasonable to surface an ad for a salad spinner that [the consumer] saw on YouTube five days ago."
And when it comes to first-party digital properties, Eden said, "it's not what companies want on websites, it's about understanding how customers are using your websites." Marissa Thalberg, CMO of Yum! Brands, noted that this era of intent is an exciting time for marketers: "Our jobs are at this amazing, unique intersection of culture, business, and psychology."
How can companies focus their digital marketing on consumer intent?
Marc Ferrentino, Chief Strategy Officer at Yext, outlined the characteristics of an intent-first website, or an "intent-site":
Prominent search bar to answer customer questions quickly, and capture insights about your visitors
Intent-based navigation that aligns with visitor interest and behavior
"Intent pages," or landing pages designed to capture intent in the broader search ecosystem
Offsite intent management, or in other words, search and listings analytics that uncover how customers find and engage with your brand
- Customers are taking control of their own journeys.
"Everyday the experience on the internet gets richer and richer from a digital perspective," Seth Godin reminded attendees. Customers have more access to more information than ever before, thanks to AI-powered search and discovery services, social media, reviews sites, and other rich digital experiences. "People know what they want, but they are going to search with colloquial terms, and with little to no context," explained Einhorn. "They want their answer to be surfaced and they want it to be above the fold." According to Godin, the good news about all this is that "Everyone on earth can be your customer. The bad news is that anyone can be your competitor."
Brands need to meet customers at every step of their path to purchase. According to Adam Edmunds, President at Podium, "Customer experience will overtake price and product as a key brand differentiation by year 2020." And Gerard Murphy, Senior Product Director for TripAdvisor, pointed out: "Search doesn't end when you get to the store or restaurant. People read reviews for products while they're in Bed, Bath and Beyond. People are searching for menu items while at the dinner table."
Understanding consumer intent and the fragmenting customer journey is vital for brands competing in this new era of search. "We employ a balanced mix of media," explained Al Saltiel, SVP of Marketing for Autozone. "In the past five years, search has been a growing part of that. You see a lot of people watching Hulu but then toggling to Google and using search and putting those modes together."
- Customers seek authenticity and connection.
In an early morning keynote with Late Night host Seth Meyers, the comedian said, "I think that one thing that audiences are really good at right now is sensing inauthenticity." For brands, that means they need to approach their customers with honesty, transparency, and opportunities to engage. Rather than trying to reach everybody, Godin told marketers to commit to their smallest viable audience: "Your opportunity is to connect people who want to be connected."
In a conversation on the power of audio to ready consumers in the age of smart speakers, iHeartMedia president Brian Kaminsky reported that, "86% of people who listen to podcasts or broadcast radio feel a deep or meaningful connection with the host" — offering advertisers a uniquely engaged audience.
Miles Skorpen, Head of Consumer and Marketplace Product at OpenTable, shared an anecdote about reputation management that underscored Meyers' observation about authenticity: "We did a test where we hired photographers to go out and take staged photos. It dropped conversion actually. We were flabbergasted. We learned that it doesn't matter that the photos are low-quality, dark, or blurry. People want to see that this is the authentic restaurant."
Aaron Boggs, President of RevLocal, defined the Four I's of Brand Influence for connecting with consumers.
Inspire: Be Inspirational at every stage of the journey
Interest: Generate brand interest through storytelling
Instruct: Help solve the problem
Involve: Immerse your customers in your brand experience
- Connections combined with experiences build trust — which drives business.
Earvin "Magic" Johnson brought energy and brand-building wisdom to the keynote stage.
"How do you understand your customer?" he asked the audience. "How do you over-deliver to your customer? If you over-deliver to your customer, they become your brand ambassador."
And Godin echoed that sentiment as he closed out the conference. "Turn a funnel into a megaphone and hand it to your best customers," he said. "If they talk about you, the word spreads."
Edmunds' presentation kicked off with a key stat for the future of search: 88% of consumers consult online resources before making a buying decision. But Lerman noted that only 43% of consumers trust social media, and just 65% trust search results.
Brands can leverage that trust delta by delivering accurate, consistent, brand verified answers — both in search results, and on their own websites.