Campaign Magazine

Joining the Club

Joining the Club

I originally wrote this article for the March 28th 2021 issue of Campaign Middle East magazine

The audio-based social networking app, Clubhouse has exploded onto the social media scene over the last few months on a wave of hype originating from a host of technology enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and investors from Silicon Valley. The app is a kind of cross between radio and podcasts, combining the live nature of broadcast radio, with the topical discoverability and subscription of podcasts.

Users can create “rooms” to host a talk themselves or have a chat with others, and their followers, or anyone that is interested, can listen and even join in with the discussion if the moderator allows, not unlike the virtual Zoom panels that we’ve all become so accustomed to over the last year, but with a social layer on top. Users are notified when someone they follow starts a room and they are presented with a feed of talks that are taking place right then in topics that they find interesting. It has the feel of walking around at a conference being able to duck into and out of a bunch of interesting talks. Moderators can also create “clubs”, which are akin to Facebook Groups where regular meetups can be scheduled and accepted in advance.

Rooms tend to have a very open, conversational feel and, while there is an opportunity to join in with many discussions (not unlike a radio phone-in show), many users admit to listening passively in the background while doing something else. Chats are not recorded and can’t be listened to after they finish, which gives them a sense of urgency and FOMO – join in now or forever miss out on what was said. To create a sense of exclusivity (and presumably to avoid the Fail Whale crashes that plagued Twitter in its early days), new members can only sign-up to Clubhouse if invited by a current user. Each user has two invites to share. An ephemeral nature has helped create an engaged user base and the invite-only sign-up process has only added to the curiosity.

As most of this recent buzz has been fueled by a burst of activity in Silicon Valley, the content on the platform at the moment tends to lean heavily on the US tech and investment scene – users went wild when Elon Musk hosted an impromptu interview with Vlad Tenev, CEO of trading app Robinhood, during the recent Gamestop stock saga. Despite this, as the user base continues to grow and diversify, it’s not hard to imagine how the content on the platform might evolve with more space dedicated to topics such as sports, cooking, health, art, culture, politics – you name it. Users have grown from just 2,000 last June, to over 10 million by March this year, although the app is still only available on iPhone for the time being.

Advertising on Clubhouse

Clubhouse currently does not host any advertising on the platform, but that doesn’t mean that savvy brands can’t get involved. Burger King parent company, Restaurant Brands International (RBI) hosted an hour-long “Open Kitchen” chat with customers the day after reporting its 2020 earnings results in February. CEO José Cil, CMO Fernando Machado and some other executives spoke about the company’s sustainability work and Burger King’s new loyalty program, and they have plans to continue the chats every two weeks.

But there are other ways for advertisers to join in the buzz too. Similar to the way that sponsoring podcasts and webinars currently works, brands can sponsor rooms and get the host to read out a short sponsored message or shout-out during a call, maybe along with some kind of special offer for listeners. Alternatively, brands can sponsor a room or club and have their brand name included in the title of the event so it stands out as users browse through their feed. Some topic-specific clubs are starting to gain a significant following and there could be opportunities for paid guest spots where brand representatives would get a chance to speak to their followers.

While it may feel like there are already enough social media platforms out there, if history has taught us anything, it’s that there always seems to be room for one more. The recent explosive popularity of Clubhouse suggests that this concept has legs. Twitter has recently announced a copycat product called Spaces, and Facebook is also reportedly working on something similar. First-mover advantage can be a real asset when it comes to new channels so brands in the region should start thinking about how they might use a platform like this to get in front of their customers.

Posted by Rob in Campaign Magazine, Social Media

Google says that user experience will soon affect your search ranking

I originally wrote this article for Campaign Middle East magazine

Cast your mind back to 2015. It might seem like a lifetime ago for a lot of reasons, but it was also an inflection point of sorts for digital media – social media had finally revealed itself as a pay-to-play platform for advertisers, Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) brands had really started to take off, and mobile internet traffic had started to overtake desktop traffic. By 2015, pretty much everyone had finally gotten themselves a smartphone. But not every brand had updated their website to be responsive. We all remember having to wait forever for pages to load and pinch our screens to zoom-in in order to read tiny text because some websites hadn’t bothered updating to a mobile-friendly design. This was not a good experience. For a platform like Google that made a living by sending people to the right websites this was a problem. If you keep sending users to sites that frustrate them, eventually people will stop using your service. That’s why, with an April 2015 algorithm update, Google finally started punishing websites that still refused to provide a good mobile experience by giving priority to websites that displayed well on smartphones when users made a search on their mobile devices. Websites with large text, easy-to-click links, and displays that resized to fit the user’s screen were given a search ranking boost. And this makes sense. Google wants users to have the best experience they possibly can. For both Google and the end-user this was a win-win. On the flip side, this move effectively deprioritised millions of sites around the world that had yet to optimise for mobile meaning that, finally, brands had to sit up and take mobile seriously. Mobile had ‘arrived’. Something similar is now happening with user experience.

Taking user experience seriously

Last month, Google announced that it will be expanding the set of user experience metrics that are taken into account as factors for ranking search results, so the better your user experience, the better chance you have of Google sending traffic to your site. Google already takes page speed and mobile responsiveness into account when it comes to ranking pages, but these new criteria focus on how users perceive the experience of interacting with a web page – how quickly the main page elements load, how they perform when the user first tries to interact with them, and the stability of content as it loads (so you don’t accidentally tap that button when it shifts under your finger!). Like trying to move brands away from having unresponsive websites on mobile, Google is now trying to weed out the little things that make the user experience that bit more annoying. These are real and tangible things that your users notice when they come into contact with your site that ruin the experience, like trying to shop at a supermarket with sticky floors, a confusing store layout and long queues at the checkout counter. You’re shooting yourself in the foot by not giving these areas the attention that they deserve.

Having a great user experience should be table stakes for any ambitious brand in 2020. Customers these days have high expectations, and plenty of companies have perfected the art of giving them what they want fast, sometimes anticipating what they want before they even ask for it. This is the standard that you have to meet in today’s consumer landscape. User experience has well and truly ‘arrived’.

Food for thought

Google stressed that these criteria will not affect rankings until next year, but once they do, they will become a significant factor in where you show up in search. Back when the mobile-first algorithm update came into place, content marketing company BrightEdge tracked over 20,000 URLs and saw a 21% decrease in non mobile-friendly sites on the first three pages of search results. If something similar happens with this user experience update, you do not want to be in the 21% of sites that fall off the edge.

Having a fast-loading, easy-to-use website that shows your visitors relevant content and generally gives them a more personalised experience will improve your key site metrics – time spent, pages views and even conversion. And soon it will directly affect your search ranking too. At Horizontal, we believe in the mantra of CX4CA (Customer Experience for Competitive Advantage), and the conviction that brands can build loyalty and increase conversion by removing friction and improving the user experience. Google echoes this belief, and the message from them is loud and clear – if you want to rank highly in search results you better make sure that you have an easy-to-use and intuitive website. If you don’t, your competitor will. Is your site ready?

Posted by Rob in Campaign Magazine, Google, Mobile, SEO
The power of first-party data in a cookie-less world

The power of first-party data in a cookie-less world

I originally wrote this article for the May 31st 2020 issue of Campaign Middle East magazine

The humble web browser cookie doesn’t get much love these days. Despite being part of the fabric of the internet since web browsers took off in the mid-nineties, cookies still get a bad rap. While they may have been integral to the way digital advertising and e-commerce has worked for over twenty years, things are about to change with Google revealing plans to block third-party cookies on its Chrome browser from 2022 onwards. Not all cookies are the same however and it’s important to know the difference. First-party cookies can be helpful, enabling websites that you visit to remember who you are when you go back to them, keeping users logged into their accounts and remembering website preferences or shopping carts etc. Third-party cookies on the other hand can track user activity as you move from site to site across the web, letting advertisers record information about your web browsing history and behavior over an extended period of time. This type of cookie provides the foundation for programmatic advertising, ad targeting and retargeting – an essential element in the effort to serve relevant ads to each user. The digital ad ecosystem we see today would not exist in its current form without them. But change is coming. With third-party cookies being blocked, it will be harder to get people to your site in the first place, and also harder to get them to come back once they have already visited. Basically, it’s about to get a whole lot harder to create effective digital ad campaigns, which means that it’s even more important for brands to capitalize on every visitor that comes to their site in the first place.

Making the most of each visit to your website

While third-party cookies are about to go the way of the dodo, first-party cookies will remain alive and well. Indeed their value will increase, giving any brand that collects and truly utilizes their first-party data a big advantage in this new environment. Knowing who your website visitors are, where they are from and whether they have interacted with any of your campaigns or website elements before can be incredibly valuable, but it’s what you actually do with that information that is key. Too many brands today rely on retargeting as a safety net for not making a sale or conversion at the first time of asking rather than putting a system in place to take what they know about their users and using it to make the experience better and increase conversions. The onus is on you to make the most of the data that you have. And there is a whole lot that you can do with that data.

Offer a Personalised experience

  • Offering a more personalised experience to your website visitors will reduce the chance that they will bounce, letting you make the most of their initial visit and removing the need to retarget them with a message to revisit your site at a later time. To personalise your website, you can adapt elements like images, copy and calls-to-action based on what you know about your user, e.g. who they are, where they live and whether they reached your site from a campaign-specific source.

Nudge visitors along the Customer Journey

  • As visitors engage with your site, you can adapt the content based on their behaviour. For example, on the first page a user sees on your website you could use a designated element to showcase a brand video. If the visitor watches the video, the same module can update to feature a newsletter sign-up form, then a call-to-action to download an ebook or white paper and, after that, communicate a product offer. Showing sequential content lets you warm up a prospect with educational material before trying to close the sale.

Build a user profile based on behaviour over time

  • Offering a more personalised experience and nudging visitors through the Customer Journey will increase the chances of making a sale there-and-then. But it will also make it more likely that your visitors will return to your site of their own accord once they leave. And when they do, you can use the data you collect to build an ever-evolving user profile to help you better cater to them over time. You can track page views and interactions with site elements and calls-to-action etc. and use this to segment your website visitors into Personas and show them more relevant content based on their Persona over time. Having a full 360° view of your customer that includes email marketing and purchase history etc. will give you even more power to show them relevant stuff over time.

Future-proofing your business

In a cookie-less world, brands will be forced to rethink the way they communicate and interact with customers on digital channels. The tides are turning and brands that don’t adapt will be left behind. The good news is that there’s time to adjust. Data is power, but measuring and acting on it can be a challenge. If your CMS is not capable of any of the above it might be time to rethink your web platform. What are you waiting for?

Posted by Rob in Campaign Magazine, Tech
Face Off

Face Off

Originally written for the September 22nd 2019 issue of Campaign Middle East magazine

Our faces say a lot about us. They let other people know whether we’re happy or sad, angry or afraid, surprised or disgusted. They’re a window into our emotional state. And as facial recognition technology evolves, our faces are also becoming an increasingly useful tool to help us navigate the digital world; a key that we don’t need to remember to bring with us when we’re leaving the house in the morning. Today we can use our faces for everything from opening our phone’s lock screen to getting through customs at the airport, and in some countries to pay for goods at a store checkout or access the subway. At the same time, people seem increasingly obsessed with facial augmentation apps like Face App and filters on Snapchat, experimenting to see what they’d look like as an elderly person, as a baby, or even as the opposite sex.

More concerning perhaps is the rise of facial augmentation technology that lets people manipulate the faces in videos. You’ve probably already seen some of these ‘Deep Fake’ videos online; David Beckham seemingly speaking nine different languages fluently in a video for a Malaria charity, or comedian Bill Hader seamlessly warping into Tom Cruise or Arnold Schwarzenegger while doing impressions of them. A new app called Zao that’s gaining popularity in China lets users place themselves into famous movie clips with eerie accuracy simply by uploading a picture of their face. All harmless fun maybe, but as this technology gets better, and becomes more readily accessible to anyone with a smartphone, it raises the question of how it might be misused. We frequently have to suspend our disbelief when we’re looking at the actual news these days, whatever about ‘Fake News’, and while we’ve become increasingly sceptical about what we read online, now it seems that we can’t even rely on the mantra of ‘seeing is believing’.

From a marketing point of view, some make-up brands have achieved success with facial augmentation, launching AR lenses that let consumers virtually ‘try on’ make-up to name but one example. And when it comes to Deep Fake-style technology, maybe there’s potential for some novel marketing concepts too, like letting users place themselves and their friends into a video advertisement. No doubt we’re not that far away from some big brand nailing this concept and hoovering up a bunch of industry awards. But this novelty will quickly wear off, and marketers must be careful about not going too far by slotting users into ads without their permission, especially considering the heightened concerns around privacy and creepy targeting tactics these days. I can’t think of much worse than scrolling through my social feed and seeing my own face looking back at me from every ad.

Posted by Rob in Campaign Magazine, Media, Mobile
A Jungle In The Desert

A Jungle In The Desert

Can Amazon shake up the digital ad industry in the Middle East like it has done in the US?

Originally featured in the March 10th 2019 issue of Campaign Middle East magazine

What comes to mind when you think of Amazon? Maybe the world’s biggest online retail platform – the ‘everything store’. Or perhaps it’s consumer products like the Alexa-enabled smart speaker and Kindle e-Reader, or an army of delivery drones and warehouse robots that are revolutionizing retail logistics. Or maybe even as one of the world’s biggest cloud hosting platforms. Truth is, Amazon is a lot of different things to a lot of different users. While its online marketplace might be what the company is best known for, Amazon makes money in a lot more ways than just taking a cut off products sold on its site.

One such way is its burgeoning digital ad business, a platform that is beginning to mount a serious challenge to the current duopoly of Google and Facebook. Amazon is gaining traction charging companies to promote their products on both the Amazon website and a growing display network across the web. Brands can pay to feature their products prominently in product searches, on individual product pages, and also as regular display ads for products for sale on Amazon itself and even on third-party sites.

In 2018, Amazon made $10 billion from its ad platform, a massive jump from $2.8 billion in 2017, making it the third-biggest player in the space, behind only Google and Facebook. To put it in perspective, Amazon’s $10 billion in ad revenue still considerably trails Facebook ($56 billion in 2018) and Google (a whopping $137 billion in 2018), although the fact that this vertical has grown so quickly over the last couple of years is a hugely impressive.

While these two Goliaths are far bigger currently, the advantage that Amazon has over them is that users actually shop on Amazon rather than just search the web as on Google, or browse social media as on Facebook. As such, their ads are seen in places where the user is in an active buying mindset. And while other platforms know what users are searching for or looking at, Amazon knows what they ultimately end up buying. Such information can be incredibly valuable to brands willing to pay for the right placement. Another trend that’s working in Amazon’s favour is that consumers are increasingly starting online product searches directly on Amazon instead of Google. This increased search traffic is attracting third-party sellers and the ad placements available give them a unique opportunity to usurp rivals at the point of sale, even when a customer searches directly for a competitor.

While Amazon’s ad platform is still less sophisticated than its rivals, it is constantly improving and recent months have seen a slew of new features that make the platform more robust and easier for advertisers to use. The company has been expanding a self-service option for ad agencies and brands to take advantage of its data on shoppers, which includes hundreds of automated audience segments, as well as targeting based on shopping behavior and customer demographics. To make it less confusing to brands, all advertising features have recently been folded under the Amazon Advertising umbrella, echoing a similar move by Google last year. Through its dominance in e-commerce in the US, Amazon has become integral to the advertising industry there. Brands are threatened by its power, but also know that they have to maintain a presence on the site or risk being marginalized, and one of the best ways to get seen now on Amazon is to buy ads.

Since acquiring Souq.com for a rumoured $580 million in 2017, Amazon has been relatively hands-off, at least from a consumer perspective. All that looks set to change, however, as the company gets ready to shutter the Souq.com site and rebrand as Amazon.ae in the UAE, later doing the same in Saudi Arabia. The revamped site would look similar to Amazon’s other international websites, like Amazon UK or Amazon Germany, giving it a more unified appearance and brand in the region. The new platform will also be better-integrated with the same logistics and seller back-end system as the US, which will presumably include integration with the growing ad network too. The Middle East e-commerce sector is growing at a rapid pace with online sales expected to double to $48.8 billion by 2021 according to a report by Fitch Solutions Macro Research. With more people shopping online, and starting the product search directly on these large e-commerce channels too, brands will need to maintain their presence there if they want to be seen. Assuming that these capabilities will soon be available in the Middle East, this presents an opportunity for forward-thinking advertisers in the region who are willing to try something new.

Posted by Rob in Advertising, Amazon, Campaign Magazine, Dubai, e-Commerce